Not too long ago there was a huge outcry when it was discovered that some sex workers were hiring places using Airbnb and setting up short term brothels. People were upset about the sex work in general and also about the thought of people having sex in their homes. On the one hand, it is understandable that people would be concerned about their homes being known as brothels and have worries about people returning to their homes after the sex workers had left, looking for the brothel. On the other hand, people use Airbnb the same way they use hotels and so have lots of sex in the places they rent. This is one of the things you can expect if you are selling space in your home to people who are on holiday.
This set of incidents started me thinking again about why culturally selling sex is seen as such an outrage and all of the objections and prejudice that sex workers face. I have known lots of sex workers over the years (and still know quite a few). There are as wide a variety of people who are sex workers as there are people.
One of the biggest objections to sex work is that so many people who become sex workers are coerced into doing so and/or the victims of trafficking. These women (and some men) live lives full of violence and misery. The argument goes that if there was no pornography and there were no sex workers (e.g. there was no demand for such) then the trafficking would not occur. I am afraid I must disagree with this logic. This is the same argument about the drug trade – that demand is what causes the trade to be full of violence. When drugs are no longer criminalised and they are regulated by the state, the violence decreases. Where sex work is regulated, the workers are there by choice and receive the benefits (like health screening) that other workers receive. There is ethical pornography made with sex workers who are there because they want to be as well.
I believe our attitudes towards sex work need to be examined. For some men and women, they only way that they can experience sexual contact regularly is to patronise sex workers. I remember one client who was so socially phobic that even engaging in regular email exchange with a woman was painfully difficult. He came to see me because he had never had a romantic relationship and didn’t even have friendships. He enjoyed a close relationship with his parents who were getting older and his only sibling lived in Australia. Jacob realised that his parents would not be there forever and he did not want to end up on his own. He decided to come to see me to help him get ready to ‘find a wife’.
Jacob was 44 years old and he had never kissed a woman or had any other sexual experience with another person. He was clear that he was attracted to women but he was petrified to talk to them. For sexual satisfaction, he admitted to masturbating and said that he had watched some pornography that he defined as ‘normal stuff’. Upon questioning, it was clear this was heterosexual pornography and that there was no kink involved.
Jacob wanted to find a wife but he was afraid that if he waited until he met someone and then had a first sexual experience, he would lose the person because of his inexperience. He also wanted to practice talking to a woman about romantic things and sexual desires.
We spent a few months working together just getting Jacob used to talking with me and talking through all the steps he would need to take in order to have a sexual encounter with a woman. Jacob then began to look for a professional to see. He spoke with a number of escort services over the phone until he found one that met his requirements. He wanted the escort to know in advance that he wanted to see her more than once so that he could practice social skills and then hopefully practice sexual skills. He was clear that he wanted the professional to know that he was a virgin and he wanted to learn how to please a woman. I asked Jacob if he didn’t want to wait and have his first experiences with a woman that he had developed a relationship with and he was clear that this was far too anxiety provoking. He also considered a sexual surrogate but was unable to find someone in his local area.
Jacob’s experiences with the sex worker he engaged increased his confidence 1000-fold. He felt ready to approach dating. After a few months, Jacob met someone online and then in person. One year after his experiences with the escort, Jacob became engaged to be married.
Jacob used his interaction with escorts in order to build confidence and build skills. Other people never move on to relationships that are not with professionals. A professional dominatrix I know has a number of long term clients who have never managed relationships with non-professionals. The men she describes have specific fetishes and also have high levels of anxiety as well as specific fears around actual sexual contact. They have regular contact with her weekly and have done so for years. She is the closest thing they have to a romantic partner. They are unwilling to consider therapy or counselling and find this solution allows them to have full satisfied lives. Were there no sex workers willing and able to form relationships with them, they would have no relationships or romantic companionship.
Sex workers come in many types. There are strippers, glamour models, women and men who act in pornographic films, prostitutes/call girls/escorts (male and female), dominatrices, dominant men, professional slaves, phone sex workers, those who work via the internet performing live shows, those who work in theatres doing peep shows, live sex shows.
Statistics, on the other hand, are very hard to quote. As this article in the Washington Post highlights, much of the research has been done without actually interviewing a single sex worker.
‘Imagine a study of the alcohol industry which interviewed not a single brewer, wine expert, liquor store owner or drinker, but instead relied solely on the statements of ATF agents, dry-county politicians and members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Or how about a report on restaurants which treated the opinions of failed hot dog stand operators as the basis for broad statements about every kind of food business from convenience stores to food trucks to McDonald’s to five-star restaurants?
You’d probably surmise that this sort of research would be biased and one-sided to the point of unreliable. And you’d be correct. But change the topic to sex work, and such methods are not only the norm, they’re accepted uncritically by the media and the majority of those who the resulting studies. In fact, many of those who represent themselves as sex work researchers don’t even try to get good data. They simply present their opinions as fact, occasionally bolstered by pseudo-studies designed to produce pre-determined results. Well-known and easily-contacted sex workers are rarely consulted. There’s no peer review. And when sex workers are consulted at all, they’re recruited from jails and substance abuse programs, resulting in a sample skewed heavily toward the desperate, the disadvantaged and the marginalized.’
Most of the discussion around sex work assumes that the customers are men. This is assumed whether or not the sex worker is male or female. In fact, there is evidence that quite a few women seek out the company of male escorts. Middle aged women who choose to use male escorts report doing so to get their own sexual needs met without having to worry about the needs of others, for companionship when they are not in relationships and to avoid ‘the hassle’ of dating when they have otherwise very busy lives.
Sometimes people choose to see a professional in order to explore a kink in a setting where they can call the shots and only have to attend to their own needs. This allows exploration at their own pace so that if they choose to involve a partner, they are clear where their limits are and how to explain what they enjoy. Other times people see a professional when their partner does not wish to participate in certain types of sexual activity. When this is done ethically, it can provide a relief for the partner who doesn’t wish to engage in the activity and relief for the partner who has the desire as it is now being met.
Much of the discussion around sex work comes from the perspectives that either it is morally wrong or that all sex workers are exploited. I have tried to present some other perspectives where sex workers provide a valuable service and are paid well and treated with respect for doing so.
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