How can defining a new framework around sex work help sex workers themselves but also drive forward the contemporary sexual dialogue for all?
What is sex work and who are sex workers? Sex work is as much about sex as it is a form of work. But how it is actually considered by society and culture? The realm of sex work is largely inhabited by female bodies, but it is above all composed of individual identities and perspectives.
Sex work exists in a world where sex and money are often linked, each with their own power dynamics.* Back when Christian morals ruled the world and today still, everything that pertains to the sexual sphere, including pornography and prostitution, has always been a source of controversy, and a central topic in feminist and wider contemporary debates. As things evolved, so did the use of language.
What is sex work? More than a word, a manifesto.
Sex work is an umbrella term that refers to any activity that offers sexual, erotic and/or romantic services in exchange of money and/or gifts. Sex workers might be escorts, sugar babies, strippers… They work on the street, online, on the phone, on the screen… They might create audio and/or video content sold online…
The word sex worker came about in the late 70s/early 80s, and eventually started being used in Italy back in 1994 thanks to feminist sex workers. The need for new vocabulary is deeply political and an essential tool against social and moral stigma. Works like whore and the way they are used as a generic insult beyond the realm of sex work shows just how ingrained our whorephobia is.
Sex work implies consent and an explicit commercial agreement. Any form of coercion or abuse is criminal and punished by law. However, thinking that any sexual act performed for economic purposes is necessarily violent is limiting and short-sighted. And it stands in the way of defining a legal framework to support and protect sex workers’ fight for their rights, access to healthcare and self-determination.
Sex work from a legal standpoint.
Sex workers have always fought for their professional sphere to be decriminalised and be considered just like any other line of work. And only worry about human right violations when a crime is actually committed, be it through abuse, trafficking or any form of violence.
This is the most common line of thinking in today’s transfeminist movement as inspired by the New Zealand movement. Where sex work is recognised as legal and legitimate by institutions.
In Italy however, the law has remained unchanged for the past 60 years with the Merlin law, one that prohibits any form of sex work and further strengthens the moral stigma around prostitution. Considering sex work as the sole product of coercion and sex workers are mere victims.
Morals, dignity and freedom
Taking the moral high ground shifts the focus away from social injustice and discrimination (based on race, gender, identity or social class) that makes people more vulnerable to exploitation. Defining sexual trafficking and slavery in a clear and comprehensive manner is essential to fighting and eliminating exploitation.
An important reminder: exploitation, abuse and coercion exist in any line of work. Much beyond the realm of sex work.
*Sex and money have intertwined power dynamics, as evidenced by Feminist Sex Wars. However, it isn’t money that turns us into goods, it is the sexist culture we live in that reduces women’s bodies to simple objects through systemic oversexualisation.
This in turn creates a rape culture where the female body is seen as necessarily accessible by all. And whereby a woman that is in charge of her sexuality and sexualisation is nothing but a whore following the infamous madonna-whore dichotomy. It is the ultimate signal that we still need deep and durable social and cultural change no matter how far we think we have come.
Arianna Pasqualini, «Feminist sex wars», Diacronie [Online], N° 32, 4 | 2017
Sex work is work, Giulia Zollino, Eris Edizioni, 2021
Sex Work. Il farsi lavoro della Sessualità, Giulia Selmi, 2016
Searching Eva, Pia Hellenthal, 2019
Ombre Rosse, collettivo transfemminista di Sex Workers
Georgina Beyer | Full Address and Q&A | Oxford Union
Elliot Douglas, Sex workers speak out against German prostitution law, dw.com
Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry | Asa Akira, Priscilla Alexander, Frédérique Delacoste
GENDER, SEX WORK, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE | Sociologists for Women in Society, Fact Sheet
“Our struggle will not succeed unless we rebuild society”, An interview with Silvia Federici, By Alana Moraes and Maria A.C. Brant