Socially sustainable sex could save the economy, the environment, and our society
Linda Zacks / www.lindazacks.com
Charlotte gently closes the door and slips into the adjoining room, where her colleagues are having a laugh over a cup of coffee. She flicks on her phone and scans her account. All the tabs are green: earnings high, health risks low, working hours reasonable, carbon footprint tiny, client feedback off the scale. . . . All that’s left for her to do is rate her own well-being. She thinks of the baths, massages, and caresses she’s given that week; the sweet, serene expressions breaking through from behind weary frowns—and gives herself a discreet pat on the back: She’s a do-gooder, and it makes her feel great.
It’s a far cry from the view most people have of sex work. According to the more familiar narrative, it is the industry that dare not speak its name, consigned to dark streets and seedy districts; rarely regulated, often criminalized. Women of low means and lower self-esteem shrink under its stigma. Their clients are aggressive and abusive, and they’re desperate for a way out. Any job would be better, wouldn’t it?
There’s certainly an ugly side to the sex industry. Exploitation and trafficking play a part—but the common assumption that sex work is inherently dangerous or degrading can, with bitter irony, actually make life harder for those involved. In November 2010, The Economist, citing a report by Human Rights Watch, warned that international laws designed to suppress human trafficking and sexual exploitation—leading to the closure of bars and brothels—have “helped the police to beat, rob, and rape sex workers with impunity.” The magazine asserted: “Most migrant sex workers have left home for good reasons of their own—among them a desire to work away from their families, and to earn more money.” Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers agrees. “It’s not only inaccurate to suggest that the majority of sex workers do not choose their profession,” she argues: “it’s patronizing and disempowering.”
According to stereotypes, men who pay for sex are on a power trip. But in the vast majority of cases, says Belinda Brooks-Gordon, author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society, the reality is very different. For many johns, “mutuality is part of the attraction. . . . Sex workers [actually] get bored by constant interrogation [from clients] about their well-being.”
Meanwhile, the public mood toward prostitution appears to be shifting. A recent BBC poll found 71 percent in favor of greater social acceptance; an online CNBC poll found 85 percent in favor of decriminalization.
Individuals selling sex to others is, of course, just a small part of the sex economy. Far from being underground or taboo, many aspects are legal, even glorified (think high-class courtesans or beautifully crafted lingerie). It’s a trillion-dollar cross-sector industry spanning live entertainment, pornography, pharmaceutical products, clothes, and accessories. And, as hackneyed clichés about the “oldest profession” remind us, it’s been here forever.
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