The Stigmatization Behind Sex Work

By Paul Berthe
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

“When there is violence, it is mostly the prostitute’s fault. See, I am going to buy something. If I am satisfied with what I am buying, then why should I be violent? I will be violent when I am cheated, when I am offered a substandard service. … Sometimes violence is because the prostitute wants the client to use condoms. They force it on the client. He will naturally be disgruntled and there will be altercations.” – O’Connell & Davidson 2003, 58

This thought-provoking quote, said by an anonymous john during a 2003 study by O’Connell & Davidson, epitomizes some of the dangers sex workers experience around the world. Only in rare cases are they protected by legal and justice systems, with most sex workers often being at risk of physical and verbal violence, stigmatization, human rights abuse and social and legal discrimination. All of the above leaves them prone to contracting degenerative diseases without having the agency to seek medical assistance, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and social isolation.

These are just some of the reasons sex workers rarely choose to voluntarily engage in selling sex. However, oftentimes constrained by unemployment or financial difficulties, many view sex work as a means to survive. A woman in Zambia stated that five blowjobs would allow her to purchase a bag of cornmeal for her children. Another in India deemed it a more lucrative business than her current employment. One woman in the United Kingdom said the only means to survive was to sell sex. Whereas some deem it an avenue for survival, others voluntarily choose to practice selling sex, illustrated by Alice Little, the highest-paid sex worker in the United States. Hence, the complex perspective of what it means to be a sex worker today.

Societal Perceptions

Stigmatization of sex work permeates all facets of society, being understood as a mark of disgrace, a social discrediting, or a spoiled identity.  Derogatory terms, such as “prostitutes”, “hookers”, and “whores” are often used to describe sex workers in  the media,  politics and even research literature. Newspapers, while creating waves of social support for the rape and assassination of Melbourne citizen Jill Meagher, avoided reporting the homicide of fellow Australian Tracy Connelly, a sex worker murdered in her van a year after Meagher’s death. In research literature, migrant sex workers were excluded from migration statistics until the early 2000s. Many politicians refer to ‘solutions for prostitution’, rather than ‘solutions for sex workers’, positioning sellers of sex as the perpetrators of prostitution and the negative connotation associated with it. The subsequent adoption of laws regarding prostitution further divides sex workers from the rest of society.

The root of this stigmatization may be due to the manner in which sex work is perceived in the eyes of the law. Four global legal systems regarding sex work exist. The first, full criminalization for all constituents participating in the sale of sex, induces stigmatization by deliberately branding sex workers as outlaws. The second – partial criminalization, which does not punish the buying and selling of sex, but all activities around it (e.g. brothels) – promotes a divide between society and sex workers, whom are constrained to work alone. The Nordic model (the third) aims at criminalizing buyers of sex. While in theory, this model aims at eliminating sex work, it only constrains sex workers into more secretive activities, further deepening the growing wedge of understanding with the rest of society. This overwhelmingly present stigma permeates the legal foundations of the fourth model, legalisation of sex work. States like Nevada segregate marginalized workers through the creation of special restrictions such as registration, strict health checks, and the purchase of a mandatory license.

Systemic Discrimination

‘”Please understand that we are not obligated to provide an explanation for the action taken against your account,” the email said.’

This email was sent by the rental service AirBnB to Arianna Travaglini after the company discovered she was a professional dominatrix, despite her never using the apartment rentals for her practice. This is only part of the finite amount of voiced injustices sex workers experience in their daily lives. PayPal, JPMorgan Chase, and Visa/MasterCard are only some of the companies closing down small business accounts linked to sex work for ‘unethical’ reasons, condemning them without proof. In 2008, an Australian sex worker was prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison for voluntarily performing sexual acts with a client whilst knowing he was HIV positive, despite the evidence proving otherwise. The name, age and location of the sex worker was leaked to the media, leading to public stigmatization.

Sex workers also experience physical violence, amongst other human rights violations. In cities like London, Canberra and Tokyo, street-based sex-workers are harassed, arrested and sometimes beaten for appearing as if selling sex. In many instances, sex workers are discriminated against when wanting to lease apartments, during job hunting, during divorce proceedings implicating custodial care, and when accessing certain services. In legal systems where prostitution is legal, sex workers are constrained to regular checkups for sexually-transmitted diseases, the purchase of a license, inflated taxes on their businesses, and mandatory monitoring.

Social Isolation

‘Whore stigma’ has been conceptualized to shame sex workers – particularly women – who embody unconventional gender norms, such as selling their body for sex, satisfying lust and fantasies, and carrying and transmitting sexually-transmitted diseases. This stigma has engendered a misconception of the sex worker as an uneducated and poor individual, leading to a generally socially-acceptable disrespect and discrimination of these individuals. As such, sex workers come up with strategies to hide their involvement in sex work, as not to experience public shaming by authorities, being banned from home communities or by friends and family, and experiencing abuse of power.

In many instances, this stigmatization prevents sex workers from obtaining adequate health services, who must resort to unconventional methods, such as unsanitized clinics or electing to go without treatment. In certain nations where sex work is criminalized, the emergence of informal tolerance zones around city outskirts and industrial complexes has led to sex workers being physically banished from society, but also easily recognizable and avoidable. Furthermore, children of sex workers are often bullied and isolated during their school years.

What Can We Do About It?

Amnesty International, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization are all advocating for bigger protections of sex workers, lobbying for more inclusive laws and alternative sources of livelihoods. Yet, the factor of social isolation largely remains unaddressed in these global groups. Sex worker unions, advocacy groups and activists are emerging all around the world as global leaders to bring about acceptance and understanding of sex work, resulting in  change through education, storytelling, peer support groups, and public awareness campaigns. These groups use sex work as a vehicle to promote social and economic empowerment, female independence, body acceptance and open-mindedness.

Everyone can be an agent of change. Anyone can join the movements and become an advocate for progress by reading, discussing and spreading awareness of these campaigns. By reading this blog, you have already become part of the movement. It is now your choice to embrace it.