Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

The Social Construction of Race and Objections to Sex Work

IMG_8003For years, scientists had been trying to find a genetic or scientific basis for race, and they weren’t able to find one. Because their isn’t one. There is no genetic or biological marker that is present in one group of people considered a “race” that isn’t present in another group of people considered a “race.” In fact, there is more genetic difference within groups considered a “race” than between “races.” Thus, any reputable scientist has come to the conclusion that race is socially constructed. This social construct does, however, operate in the world in real ways that get people shot by police and turned away at borders and paid less, and mistreated by institutions in general, with lower life expectancy. Racism is real. It’s an irrational prejudice that has been institutionalized. But a scientific basis of racism? Some inherent biological difference between people? Not so much.

The same can be said of sex work. People have many objections to sex work. And many of them are very valid. But like a genetic marker for race, no one has been able to identify any marker of harm and oppression in sex work that is unique to sex work, and therefore can justify the criminalization of sex work, while the other forms of oppression are not illegal. This is particularly vicious when criminalization has been documented to do more harm than good.

And yet, many continue to try.  Just yesterday, former President Jimmy Carter had an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in favor of of one of the many models that involves criminalization. According to Carter:

Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.

The problem is that young boys get this message everywhere all the time: from Grand Theft Auto, to the Western history of marriage where the wife was property, to the reality TV show The Bachelor. The idea of women as commodities is in no way exclusive to the sex industries.

Carter advocates what’s called the Nordic Model, where selling sex isn’t criminalized, but buying it is.

Instead of penalizing the victims, however, the approach treats purchasing and profiting from sex acts as serious crimes. Another key component is public education about the inherent harms of prostitution for those whose bodies are sold.
As a young feminist, I used to support this model, because it seemed to bolster the women while punishing the men. Except it doesn’t just punish the buyers. It punishes the workers as well. Because if buyers are afraid of being criminalized, they have an excuse for protecting their anonymity. It is reasonable that they could be afraid of criminal charges for buying sex. But some clients want anonymity because they are perpetrators of violence. The safest model is full decriminalization where sex workers can expect clients to follow safety protocols, and those unwilling to do so will signal a clear red flag.

Also, it seems like a good idea to punish pimps. Unfortunately, most laws are written in ways that they don’t distinguish between people who are abusing and coercing someone into sex work from someone who is simply “profiting from” sex work because that’s how a sex worker has set up his/her life. So if a sex worker has a spouse, kids, a booking manager, or a personal assistant, they can all be criminalized under pimping laws. This could even be true if the sex worker has a friend or colleague who looks out for her safety. How can it be helpful to criminalize that?

According to Carter:

Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.

Jimmy…I can call you Jimmy, can’t I? Have you been on Tinder lately? Are you aware of the age-old sexual double standard? Have you noticed that sex in US culture is generally defined as a set of acts that culminates in male orgasm and a woman might get hers somewhere along the way if the man is particularly generous? Where is this world in which sex is always beautiful and equal between men and women, except where it’s being sullied by payment? The power imbalance isn’t exclusive to men and women in sex for cash transactions, it governs most sexual activity in the world.

And I don’t see you pushing to apply this criminalization to legal aspects of the sex industries: stripping, porn, or softcore media, HBO shows, Victoria’s Secret. Or even Nevada brothels. But those are industries in which men and corporations can legally profit from sexual transactions or images. So you don’t have an agenda to challenge the male-dominated corporate sectors of the sex industries, only the ones in which women workers are the most independent. (Yes, there are men in the industries, but mostly women, and I include trans women). The sex industry is the only industry in which women out earn men, and yet it’s largely illegal and widely scorned.

Carter says:

Sex between people who experience mutual enjoyment is a wonderful part of life. But when one party has power over another to demand sexual access, mutuality is extinguished, and the act becomes an expression of domination.

So, basically, you’re railing against the sex that took place in many marriages before marital rape laws took effect. You’re railing against many campus fraternities. You’re railing against rape culture. I rail against those, as well. But why are you targeting sex work?

Carter also speaks of survivors of trafficking, in particular young girls. Jimmy, there is already a law against sex with a minor. It’s called rape. A minor is not able to legally consent to sex, and any adult man having sex with her is legally a rapist. Any man receiving money for that act is also engaged in criminal behavior. But, again, paid-for sex is not the only instance of sexual abuse of girls. The most common context for sexual exploitation of girls is the patriarchal family. Perhaps followed most closely in the US by co-ed colleges. But nobody’s trying to abolish the family. Nobody’s trying to abolish colleges.

Furthermore, the majority of trafficked labor is not sex work. So most trafficked people are being enslaved for profit in non-sexual labor, but why isn’t there more concern about that? Is it because we here in the US are buying those electronics, eating those agricultural products and wearing that slave-labor fashion? Sex trafficking becomes the scapegoat of all forced labor evil, and we–particularly women in the US–can stand on the moral high ground because it’s the one form of forced labor in which we are not direct beneficiaries.

Yes, I am concerned about all the manifestations of male domination in the sex industries. But I think sex worker advocate Toni Mac said it best in her January East End London TED talk:

As a feminist, I know that the sex industry is a site of deeply entrenched social inequality. It’s a fact that most buyers of sex are men with money and most sellers are women without. You can agree with all of that, I do, and still think prohibition is a a terrible policy. in a better, more equal world, maybe there would be far fewer people selling sex to survive, but you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence…..If we get fixated on the abolition of sex work, we end up worrying more about a particular manifestation of gendered inequality than about the underlying causes.

Yes, women often choose sex work from a lousy set of options and hate the work. But the same can be said of working at Wal-Mart or doing exploited domestic labor or attendant care. Again, these concerns are not exclusive to sex work.

Jimmy Carter, you have failed to show why selling sex should be singled out for criminalization. And–as a black woman–let me tell you, getting the police involved in anything doesn’t make me feel more safe. My people end up getting shot, raped in the back of police vehicles, and disproportionately incarcerated. Your argument is based in willfully ignorant and privileged wishful thinking.

IMG_7998 As I said in a recent tweet, “Some enjoy farmwork. My enslaved ancestors didn’t. The issues isn’t sex-for-money good or bad, rather the context/coercion/choice.” We need to find solutions that stop trafficking of those who have been forced to sell sex. But we need to avoid solutions that harm and endanger those who–perhaps with few options, or perhaps with more–have decided to sell sex.

Jimmy Carter, and all sex work criminalization advocates: the evils you really want to address:  poverty, greed, exploitation, colonization, inequality, and male domination are all manifest within the sex industries, but do not originate in sex work. Like eugenicists and others who tried to concoct a biological basis for race, you’ve failed. There is more diversity of experience within the sex industries than between sex workers and non sex workers. Just ask any heterosexual woman in the US if she’s been 100% thrilled with every consensual sexual experience she’s ever had, and you’ll see that sexual and emotional work of caretaking for men exists on a continuum. Wives, girlfriends, and one night stands on Tinder are all engaged in this intimate labor. If race is a construct, then the other construct is that sex workers are the only ones doing sex work. They’re just the only ones who get paid in cash.

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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