It is fairly uncontroversial to say that prostitution and other forms of sex work are taboo, not to mention illegal. Being taboo, such labour carries a high level of stigma with it. While the criminal status of sex work endangers personal security, encourages police harassment, and engenders abuse and assault. It also means a lack of legal access to workers’ rights and healthcare.
These various forms of oppression make sex workers a highly vulnerable group in society. Now, morally, many people believe sex work is wrong. Often such morality doesn’t look beyond the stigma. Some ignore that sex work itself is hierarchically differentiated. For example, most stereotypes equate all sex workers with working the streets, or those who have been trafficked as sex slaves.
Both are often the result of structural issues in wider society, poverty and/or violence often being contributing factors in such situations. And in the hierarchy of sexual labour those positions are and have always been the most vulnerable. Yet it is naïve to believe that street walking, forced prostitution, and sex trafficking are an accurate representation of the varied nature of sex work. Rather this idea misrepresents sex work.
Massage parlours, classified ads, pornography, sex shops, peep shows, escorts, and “sport entertainment centres” found in various urban centres of Trinidad suggest most sex work is not to be found on the street at all. Sociologists have also asked if mistresses should be—in labouring terms–described as sex workers too. Do sugar daddies “keep” women financially for sexual returns? Is it a relationship of sexual and economic exchange?
The traditional narrative is that these relationships are based on romance and companionship rather than sexual exploitation. Does class group determine what is and isn’t sex work? Recognising hierarchy within the sex industry makes it easier to accept there is a diversity of experiences and reasons for becoming sex workers just as there are a variety of consumers from different classes and interests.
Our own history is heavily implicated in economic transactions for sex too. Frantz Fanon, discussing sex tourism, described the Caribbean as the “brothel of Europe,” while the Yankee dollar arriving during World War II drew Jean and Dinah famously to the trade. A long history of sex work exists here and sex work isn’t going away any time soon.
Evidence the world over shows throwing people in jail for sex work does not stop the business either, while increases in general economic prosperity bring growth to the sex industry, such as increases in brothels. From a social-science perspective, when you clear the morality away, sex work is service-orientated labour.
Now the suggestion is not that we should rid society of morality. Rather, perhaps its time to confront our own taboos. One way is to change our perspective on the problem of sex work and take it from a sex-worker-rights point of view over a religious and moral one. The first problem with this is that “sex work” is not a legal term here.
Existing legislation—specifically the Sexual Offences Act No 27 of 1986—means we are stuck with the term “prostitution” and its simplified representation of sex work, no doubt reinforcing negative stereotypes of sex workers as bad people along the way. The reality is this sort of simplification is not just about morality or wording; it also engenders higher levels of violence, abuse and exploitation against all sex workers.
Anthropologists often talk about structural violence. It describes social structures—economic, political, legal, religious, and cultural— that stop individuals, groups, and societies from being equal. Structural violence is often embedded in longstanding laws and taboos, normalised by stable institutions and regular experience. Because they seem so ordinary in our ways of understanding the world, they appear almost invisible.
In the case of sex workers, the structural reality of social and cultural stigma, alongside legal impediments, means sex workers are denied access to safety, healthcare, and legal standing for the sake of normality. Clearly there are forms of sex work that are purely exploitative. But is it that all sex work falls under such an umbrella? Or that by giving all sex workers rights it becomes easier to know when it does become exploitation?
Because sex sells and always will, whatever the moral, political or cultural climate.