Why should sex work be considered work?
Most of us would have heard of the general terms that people would refer to folks who are working in the sex industry. First and foremost, the term “sex work”, is an umbrella term for all forms of labor in which sexual gratification of the client is the main objective. According to the documentation by the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “sex work” was first coined in the 1970s by activist, Carol Leigh, and is used as a reference to workers in the sex industry with the political implication of a labor perspective. Prostitution, phone sex providers, porn actors/actresses, pro-dominatrices and the like are considered as sex workers.
The reason why sex workers would view sex work as a form of service is because it’s not just about the sex. It is not just about the sex, because sex workers are providing a form of service that goes beyond sex itself. Sex workers also provide a listening ear for their clients’ problems much like a therapist, and some also provide quality massages as an add-on service. But more importantly, there are many other aspects of the work that many people overlook. Sex workers are not different from employees or self-employed persons: for sex workers who work in a brothel, they are required to manage their contract with their bosses, maintain relationships with colleagues, and pay their boss’ commission for each client that they see. For independent sex workers who handle their businesses on their own terms, they need to manage their rental, advertising and branding costs, not unlike the responsibilities that other business owners have. All of these other aspects of a sex worker’s work and are often overlooked because of the prejudiced view by society that sex work is “quick and easy money with minimal effort”.
Secondly, other than the necessary costs that facilitates the sex worker’s ability to provide the service, the attitude of the sex worker is crucial for his or her business too. Based on personal observations of clients during my sex work stint, clients not only expect to walk away with good services. They harbor the expectation of receiving a quality experience with the sex worker of their choice, thus the attitude of the sex worker plays a big part in providing that experience. If the sex worker is rude or obnoxious, no matter how attractive he or she is, business would not be good once word-of-mouth of their attitude issues gets out. There have been instances whereby there are gorgeous sugar babies advertising themselves online, but their popularity dwindled after a handful of clients complained about how lacking their services are or how unsavory their attitudes are. This is not unlike the expectations of service providers from other industries. Just look at the recent debacle involving The Western Co..
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, most sex workers view themselves as a form of service provider. We speak of having to prepare for work, to go to work, to deal with bad clients, and having to balance work and life. We speak of the physical, mental, and emotional labour spent during our work. Sex workers are one of the most marginalized communities in Singapore’s society, and one of the reasons for that is that sex workers are often silenced. The media and general public writ large don’t seem to want to hear sex workers speak and go to lengths to ensure that their voices are not heard by painting one dimensional caricatures of us. Judgmental comments such as “sex work is easy money”, or “sex workers are materialistic”, or that sex workers are “selling our bodies” erases our labour and thus erases our access to rights that every other human being is entitled to. The last one is particularly egregious because it implies that our clients own us just because they make payment, which is far from the truth. It is important for us to realise that sex workers just like everyone else deserve to have their thoughts and opinions respected. One way to do that is to respect that sex workers see their labour as work.
The implications of not recognizing sex work as work is far reaching. Sex workers are at risk of many human rights abuses that go largely unreported and undetected due to laws that criminalize sex workers and third parties (e.g. agents, pimps, etc.). Through my personal experience and my work with Project X, I have documented cases of physical assault, sexual assault, non-payment of service, verbal assaults etc. None of these cases were reported to the police because sex workers fear that the police will charge them for doing sex work even if they were a victim of a crime. This is also the reason why Amnesty International has decided to recommend the decriminalization of sex work after conducting worldwide consultations over the course of two years, because decriminalizing our work enables us to work in a safer environment.
If more people were to open their minds to understanding and viewing sex work as a form of labour and harbour same or more risk as your typical service industry job, a less negative or positive perspective can be conceived. It is time to recognize sex workers know what best for ourselves and that we don’t need others to save us or to rescue us. What we need is increased access to justice and a (quiet) recognition of our contributions to society.
Scarlet Bunnie is a Singaporean escort and a part-time staff of Project X. She loves to sleep, make money, and explore different aspects of the sex industry. She shares her thoughts and ramblings on Twitter, and you can follow her @scarletbunnie.