You Say You’re Sex Positive, But You Don’t Listen to Sex Workers

Many people seem very taken with the idea of ‘sex positivity’ these days, which people seem to define in different ways; under a generous definition, I’d say that it translates to being supportive and respectful of the varied manifestations of sexuality, including respect for all consensual sex acts and individual sexual preferences. Essentially, if someone’s sexuality and sexual practices aren’t harming anyone (nonconsensually, anyway), that person deserves to be supported by the community, and to be treated respectfully and as a human being—thus, kinky people shouldn’t be ostracised, any more than queer people or other members of sexual minorities.

Many people define and view sex positivity differently[1. For example, some people seem convinced that it’s about forcing their sexuality on other people, which, not so much.], and it’s a rather elastic term, but that’s the definition we’ll use for the time being. I am a supporter of sex positivity in this incarnation, as I happen to believe that all people deserve sexual autonomy, freedom, and the ability to make decisions in their own lives about their sexuality.

That said, I’m curious about why it is that so many people who claim to be sex positive don’t listen to sex workers. To be blunt, sex is kind of their job, and they’re extremely knowledgeable about their work and its complexities, while people who are not sex workers don’t understand what sex work is like, no matter how many memoirs they read, blogs they absorb, or sex workers they know personally. Oddly, some members of the ‘sex positive’ community seem to think that ignoring or even actively suppressing sex workers is a suitable and appropriate activity.

Sex work is a very old and very large industry. It is also an extremely diverse and complex one, and the ultimate authorities on it are the people who are working in it, or those who have a history of sex work who are still active with sex workers, such as people working at groups like the Sex Worker Outreach Programme. They know what the work is like directly, and they also know the industry, the people who work in it, and the climate and environment of sex work; much as I would ask a doctor for information on what the practice of medicine is like, I would ask a sex worker for information on what sex work is like.

And I would trust a sex worker as an authority when it comes to sex work reform, needs of sex workers, and the industry more than I would trust other people, because that person would have first-hand experiences that would be valuable and important to listen to.

Yet, sex workers are often treated as secondary, and worse than that, they’re actively marginalised and discarded, ignored by the people who claim to be advocating for them. I expect this from conservatives who want to eliminate sex work, as obviously they’re not interested in introducing the voices of sex workers who might have comments of their own to add to the discussion; the words of people actually involved in the industry aren’t required because their voices might cause people to rethink things.

What I don’t expect, and what actively angers and disappoints me, is that many progressives do the same thing. There are those, of course, who demonise sex work and actively want to shut it down, something which doesn’t occur as much in the sex positive community as it does in the larger progressive community. But even within supposedly sex positive spaces, I see sex workers being ignored in conversations about how to make sex work safer and more just.

If you want to help sex workers, you need to be respecting them and listening to them. They know what they need, and critically, many of them have been working on their needs for years or even decades; they need assistance with furthering the initiatives they’re already working on, not more ‘help’ from outsiders convinced that they have the solution to abuses of the sex industry and the unfair social and legal treatment of sex workers.

Sex worker activists work hard to disabuse people of ridiculous notions about the industry, why people go into sex work, and how it actually functions. Unfortunately, they’re perennially forced to educate people in order to accomplish the larger goal of actually creating social and political change. All of us could save a lot of time by trusting sex workers as authorities on their own experience and industry in the first place and paying attention when they speak instead of assuming we know everything there is to know and inherently understand the needs of sex workers and other members of the industry.

We trust many other professionals as authorities on their industries, turning to them for information about what they do, how they do it, why they do it, and what kinds of industry reforms would help them. Why don’t we do this for sex workers? Obviously, there’s an embedded disdain for those in the industry that even some ‘sex positive’ people can’t seem to shake, but there’s also an intense misogyny at work here, given the large number of women employed in sex work. Why, after all, should we trust women to know about something, let alone to know what they want and need? Soon we’ll be proposing something ludicrous like listening to women in other areas of life, as though they’re actual human beings worthy of attention.

Non-sex worker members of the ‘sex positive’ community who still think they know better than sex workers need to be rethinking their assumptions, and actually interacting with sex workers. What they learn might surprise them, if they can stop talking long enough to hear.