Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Sex Work Policy: Is Empathy the Missing Ingredient? Can Fiction Help?


“Practice Empathy” Image copyright by Quinn Dombrowski. Photographed from my computer screen.

As a feminist, one of my central concerns is the well-being of women. I support policies that are designed to ensure women’s health and safety, and this includes sex work policies.

However, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a writer and educator. For the past six years, I’ve been writing fiction about sex work. Since 2009, I’ve been attempting to get an agent and sell my sex worker heist novel. In that time, I have heard one comment consistently from industry gatekeepers: “I didn’t really find the character likable and I couldn’t connect with her emotionally.” A string of literary agents rejected the book with some variation of that comment. They liked the premise, the idea of a former sex worker who robbed corrupt CEOs to fund her health clinic for women, but they didn’t actually like her. Finally this year, I found an agent who loves the book and is now representing me as we take the next steps toward publication. However, I am coming to believe that the book has been impacted by what I will call a crisis of empathy with women in the sex industries. Women outside the sex industries, women who have never been poor, never faced a survival decision about selling sex, are taught to look down on women who have made that choice. Some gatekeepers have had a lot of trouble seeing a sex worker character as a hero.

An important note here is that all sex workers are not female, but sex work is largely about men using financial domination to gain sexual access to women. We need to include male and trans sex workers in policies, but without losing sight of how sex work sits in a tradition of male domination.

There is no shortage of sympathy for women in the sex industries. The sex work activist community has criticized recent rescue campaigns for trafficked women, because they often capitalize on the distanced pity of western privileged women for women in the global South. The privileged western women are manipulated by campaigns of distorted information into giving money to causes that—at best—don’t produce the results they promise, or—at worst—funds don’t even go to the women they are supposed to help.  The western-based organizations make a living or a career for their leaders, but there are widespread reports that many anti-trafficking organizations have practices that further disempower the women they “rescue.” The recent scandal that revealed anti-trafficking “hero” Somaly Mam as a charlatan is only one example of many.

Sympathy causes privileged women to give money and in return they are eager for a narrative, complete with photos and videos, that says “it’s helping! Look at the great things your money has done!” But sympathy keeps the “rescued” brown women at arm’s length. The sympathizing western women don’t get close enough to see the cracks in the rescue façade. This dynamic is articulated perfectly in a post by South Asian sex worker/activist Molli Desi on Maggie McNeil’s blog. Desi writes, of South Asian rescue organizations that ostensibly fight sex trafficking; “many donors [to these organizations] from the West deliberately ignore [the] risks to detained women and girls so as to pursue their self-serving agendas.”

The big outrage here is that trafficked women do need help. They do need resources and services and people to care about their abuse and exploitation, but the leftover structures of colonization and racism lead to westerners consistently extracting more from the global South than they give. That is to say, western women donate money and in return, they feel good about the pretense of having done good. Under historical colonization, the resource extracted was land, or labor, or natural resources. Now the extracted resource is feeling superior and heroic. Sympathy—pity really—is everywhere, but empathy is much harder to come by.

Another area where there’s an empathy shortage is between the following two groups:


  1. current and former sex workers who favor decriminalization


  1. women formerly trafficked, coerced, and manipulated into sex work.


From my perspective, they represent two categories of people, mostly women, who deserve support and protection. The challenge is that while one group needs to be left alone by the legal system, the other needs increased and intensified effectiveness from the legal system. These are very difficult needs to balance. Canada’s proposed sex work reform, C-36, is a perfect example of the breakdown and fighting between these two groups. C-36 has been proposed and promoted by Canada’s Conservative Party. For example, one of the policies in debate is about whether or not sexual services can be advertised in print and internet media. For sex workers who favor decriminalization, this is critical because it gives workers avenues to reach clients that keep them safer and off the street. However, for formerly trafficked women, their abusers have, at times, used some of the same outlets to advertise the services of women and girls they were exploiting.

Certainly there are solutions that could respond to the needs of both parties, and I am certain they have been proposed. But part of the challenge, as I see it, is that the legal reformers don’t have a feminist commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of all women (and men and trans people) involved. Therefore, the debate becomes more about which group of women’s needs will be prioritized. Instead of working together to create solutions that both groups can live with, the two groups are pitted against each other to win the favor of the parliamentary decisionmakers, many of whom are male and none of whom have personal experience in the sex industries. Further, because violence against both groups is so real, both groups feel a real life-or-death urgency to make their case, and the battle escalates.

As a fiction writer, I step into this battlefield to write about sex work. In my novel, I have made the clear decision to present a range of experiences in the sex industries. None of my characters could be described as “the happy hooker,” who enjoys it so much that she’d do it for free. Part of a heist novel is that characters are motivated by the lure of wealth that could lead to financial independence. None of them plans to do sex work after the big score. In the meantime, however, some of my characters are perfectly happy with their choice to do sex work, now that they’re high-priced escorts who are well-paid and well-protected by a crew of women who work together.

There is also a character who has been trafficked and manipulated. She’s not a tragic character, but she’s having difficulty getting out of a bad situation with her pimp. In her, we see how the vulnerability of young people is used by predatory men to exploit and abuse them. Her pimp also uses the immigrant status of young women for leverage, as well.

Finally, the protagonist is the most complicated. She became a sex worker at seventeen when she and her sister were orphaned. She made the choice, in order to keep her sister out of foster care. No young person should ever have to make this choice. Her sexual experiences with clients are all legally statutory rapes. However, for her as a sexual trauma survivor, the agency she felt in being able to use her body to keep her family together was a powerful choice, one that she stands by even years later, after she is no longer a sex worker. I think both sides of the sex work debate would agree that she needed and deserved better options. But part of the missing empathy is that we need to understand women’s choices to do sex work—even underage women’s—as happening in a context where, sometimes, sex work is the best option. As in real life, she was a teen who had been failed by so many institutions: the family, the school system, the healthcare system, the social work system, the colonization of her home country that led her family to come to the US, and on and on. Her decision to do sex work was about protecting her sister from becoming a ward of the state. As I said in my article in The Feminist Wire “Young people are abused and exploited inside of the child welfare system…We want to turn our lens out onto the street, but we need to turn it into the home as well — both the foster home and the nuclear home.” In this context, I think it’s vitally important to have policies on sex work that build toward the world we want—where no teen would ever have to make this choice—but also address the realities of the world we have. It’s not fair to compare young people’s brutal realities to our fantasies of how the world should be.

And not only is that the world that young sex workers live in, it’s the world that we all live in. One of the effects of looking down on sex workers is that the rest of us get to think that our lives are so much better. And there are many privileges that we may have. But we haven’t escaped sexism. We haven’t escaped male domination. Without the contrast of women who are terribly victimized, we see that we haven’t truly found all the power and freedom that we might want in our lives. One of the ways I look to building empathy for sex workers is to locate sex work on a continuum of transactional sexual activity. As I wrote in my article advocating sex work decriminalization in xojane:

There are important criticisms that can be leveled at sex work: any institution where women are rewarded to act out men’s sexual fantasies is part of male domination. I believe that. But these criticisms can be leveled at many different institutions of our society. This happens across the board in media, and in heterosexual dating, relationships, and marriage.

Every woman who’s ever faked an orgasm, or rallied to have sex to put her male partner in “a good mood” before they discuss an important issue in the relationship, is a colluding participant. Few heterosexual women can say that every moment of every sexual experience they’ve ever had was bursting with sexual fulfillment. If there were no male domination, a woman would never feel any obligation to please a man or have any fear of reprisal.

And I want to live to see that world—one without male domination. Ending sexism, and economic exploitation would change everything. It’ll take a lot to get there. And we need to work to keep all women safe in the meantime.


This post was developed out of a twitter conversation I had earlier this week with Alexandra Kimball, Natasha Falle & Seani Fool.

One comment on “Sex Work Policy: Is Empathy the Missing Ingredient? Can Fiction Help?

  1. pknownoire
    September 5, 2014

    Sadly, I understand that this may be a real issue. For about two weeks I have tried to read my way through Walter Mosley’s “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” and I can’t do it. The novel’s protagonist is a sex worker/porn star named Debbie Dare. I love Mosley’s work. Yet I can’t work up enough interest here. After reading your post, I think I may know why.

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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Aya wins first place Independent Publisher Awards for UPTOWN THIEF, THE BOSS, THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS

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