The Labor of Sex Workers, and the Dues They're Owed

It is society's duty to provide for them, as it should to all of its citizens.

To be a sex worker, especially in America, is to sustain constant animosity from every corner of society while inhabiting its margins. The discourse surrounding sex work is supercharged with emotion — it makes sense since it fulfills such a primal need for human beings — but seemingly out of disinterest or lack of trying, passionate posturing always triumphed over tact and measuredness. A vulnerable cohort languishes ever-hopeless in dire straits as the debate on how to rescue them continues to rage fierce, a stern reminder of just how much we’re woefully ill-equipped to handle the situation with the urgency it so desperately requires.

Much hubbub was made in 2018 about the need to restrict sex work platforms out of the fear that they’re imperiling America’s most-potent political pawn — those being children — and close to three years after the signing of FOSTA-SESTA into law, state surveillance has been further bolstered under the pretense of maintaining decency, even as Section 230 continues to take the brunt of it. The fallout from that law proving catastrophic, sex workers are yearning for a re-match, looking preferably for their social standing to undergo serious reevaluation, especially as sex work has become a recourse for those seeking refuge from the pandemic’s economic devastation. That’s by no means an invitation for sex workers to resume their prior livelihoods when things go back to shape — far from it, and it would be a misdiagnosis of the issue to declare it so — but if more are using the services of platforms such as OnlyFans, the legal neglect/stasis they’ve been caught under for so long is in urgent need of change.

Of course, no industry is free of its warts, and much like other avenues of online content creation, they reward fanfare more than they do investment. It’s reasonable to call out that a slim cohort reaps the bulk of the spoils as a lagging majority struggles, but the issues plaguing the field are systemic, even if their outward symptoms can appear at times highly-individual. Labor naturally invites those disparities, and while an algorithmically-fueled subscription platform is the apotheosis of such phenomena, it hurts little to consider a similar redistributive mechanism akin to that which we’re proposing to curb our current capitalistic woes.

Further from that and on the macro scale of labor concerns, the left has oft-expressed a misguided desire to see the sex work industry wither under the harsh scrutiny of exploitation-critical activism–but like the gadget-producing labor force much of our civilization rests on, sex workers are providing for a need that truly never goes away, so arming them with proper legal recognition and ensuring that the platforms they’re on promote their welfare must take priority over taming any ill-considered moral worries.

Any model that doesn’t seek to empower sex workers in what they do is poised to fail, and that much was perceived in policy experiments across the globe ranging from unwavering deterrence to straight-up lawlessness. What further complicates the search for remedies is the absence of any consensus formed, as divergence of perils call for different measures to cope–those in the field with strong political conviction however have called for the protections of traditional labor to be afforded to them, as they differ little. If it requires skill and earns money, then it is as deserving of attention and care as any other trade–sometimes sex work and “more conventional” gigs only co-exist as a necessity, even when the former could be plenty enough to provide if only for the latter’s more-secure state.

That last issue isn’t foreign to labor discourse, and it’s coincidentally why many advocate for a universal basic income, which would be a great complement to eventual proper recognition. As the economy constantly shifts shape, labor force doesn’t perfectly match that pace of change–for sex workers, it could be a way to stay content with poorly-performing finances, which seems so far an easier administrative burden to alleviate than going to bat with every malevolent porn production house out there for all the wrong reasons. Is it a bit of a band-aid solution? Absolutely it is–but it could be the difference between utter material deprivation, or having just enough to get by.

Perhaps no one has put it more masterfully than Rachel Kim on the pages of Jacobin, speaking of her prior experience as an in-person sex worker, later reprising her trade online. “People are driven to work for a wage not out of want or desire but from need. The will to survive, to eat, to provide for our loved ones compels us to work,” she says. “Capitalism backs up this economic compulsion with an ideological story: if we can’t afford to get by, the fault lies with us; if we can’t afford life’s necessities, we didn’t try hard enough; if the state won’t assist us, it’s because we aren’t good enough. Like any member of the working class, sex workers are trying to get by, trying to attain a modicum of financial stability.”

What underlies all of these theories and proposals is a strong belief in the state’s duty to provide for all of its citizens, in that if their endeavors pose peril to no one, their life should be as honored and dignified as any other. All parties need to acknowledge in full that their perspectives may be tainted by moral qualms; after all, we haven’t all grown up in the sexually-liberated recesses of the Bay Area–however, that shouldn’t supplant the need for deep moral introspection on what should take precedence; the welfare of sex workers, or some Church-old long-held grudge about the sanctity of intimate rapport being sullied.

The compulsion to work — to the extent that there’s any — is innate to much of labor under capitalism. If you ask former masons whether they did it by desire, their addiction to painkillers would say otherwise–working is not fun, and it is up to each whether they enjoy doing it at all despite the present risks. For sex work, much like any other work, the current calculus compels us to remove as many of those risks as possible, so that the playing field is at least fair–starting from a position of societal exile certainly does not project the presence of much equity, nor the absence of risks for that matter.