On Monday, gender studies lecturer Heather Berg hosted a talk in Taper Hall on sex work, a profession mired in controversy. Berg presented the field through an objectively economic lens — a consensual exchange of goods that is perhaps disproportionately stigmatized by men in positions of lawmaking power and is too often falsely equated with rightfully illegal sex trafficking.
In her lecture, Berg discussed how sex workers’ wages are shrinking and their labor is becoming increasingly demanding and unsafe. Bans on sex work merely amount to bans on safe sex work. Ultimately, only through legal recognition of their work can their human rights be respected.
The profession is far more pervasive than most would believe. Porn quietly dominates the internet; a strip club operates on street corners all over Los Angeles; and, all too relevant, cases like that of the Duke University student who famously paid her tuition through sex work, are not as uncommon as many believe.
I was unsettled by just how fringe Berg’s points sounded. With sex work as prevalent as it is, why was a discussion of sex workers’ economic, labor and human rights taking place in a room in Taper Hall rather than CNN?
Scrolling through my Twitter feed that evening, I found my answer in an article by the U.K. newspaper, The Sun, entitled “Playboy model Simone Holtznagel strips naked for ‘Free The Nipple’ campaign during X-rated girls’ night out,” reporting on Holtznagel’s Instagram post voicing opposition to censorship of the female body. The article focused not on her advocacy, but on racy photos and her apparently outrageous behavior.
Despite sexist simplifications of it, the Free the Nipple movement’s goal is to fight the sexual double standards that objectify and shame women’s bodies, and empower everyday women in a society that seeks to either sexualize or regulate their bodily decisions. Of course a movement meant to desexualize women’s bodies would be hijacked by mainstream media and framed around pornography. And of course, as demonstrated by articles like The Sun’s, advocacy emerging from sex workers and their allies is ignored unless it can somehow be twisted into a means to shame and sexualize women.
A cursory search of coverage of porn stars and sex workers by outlets such as The Sun, Daily Mail and other outlets yields similar results — pieces with nothing to do with sex workers’ demands for labor rights.
We can’t forget that those who make decisions about female sex workers’ rights are often powerful, privileged men. They paternalistically presume to know what’s best for women who either have no other options or simply enjoy their work. These male lawmakers will quip that “women deserve better” while simultaneously being the ones who oppose legislation funding education, job training, welfare and other programs to uplift poor women.
But ultimately, the issue isn’t just that those who make decisions about female sex workers’ rights tend to be privileged men. It’s also that the mainstream media have seized the narrative around sex work from the workers themselves and failed to include their real concerns.
One popular line of reasoning for why we fail to give sex workers a platform comes from those who claim to be feminists and argue that discussions of sex work disempower women. But frankly, who gets to define empowerment to women without your same economic privilege and access to education, whose sole means of survival are a profession you would rather turn a blind eye to?
Another concern is that openly discussing sex workers’ rights will somehow be purported as condoning violence, abuse and exploitation of women, despite 2015 research compiled by Amnesty International that suggests rates of assault and contracted STIs among sex workers are lower in jurisdictions where the profession is legal, where workers are offered labor rights, recognized as human beings and do not have to hide from law enforcement.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s the people who equate consensual sex work with the subjugation of women, who refuse to accept that women are capable of making decisions about their bodies and careers, and not sex workers, who are feeding societal oppression of women. The popular notion that women who sell sex are, in the words of former President Jimmy Carter, objects to be “bought and sold,” serves to bind a woman’s whole identity to the mere act of sex, so that she is not merely selling a service but her entire self.
This narrative is so unsettlingly pervasive that perhaps more than anything else, it explains why sex workers remain removed from the mainstream dialogue around their profession. We don’t offer them a platform to advocate for themselves because we have yet to recognize their humanity. Until we do, they will remain voiceless, their human rights a seemingly fringe topic of college lecture halls.
Kylie Cheung is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You do Uterus,” runs every Thursday.