In the Blog
7 Logical Fallacies You Will Encounter as a Sex Worker
Illustration by Erin McPhee
I’m a Canadian sex worker. I don’t know much about sex work in other countries, but the woman who runs the escort agency I work for does what I consider to be a very Canadian thing – she calls and texts me incessantly to ask politely if I’m available to see clients. The glory of the process of “booking on” is that I will, in fact, call her when I am available for work, but this is a fact of which I never remind her. I just switch my phone to silent and go on listening to whichever class I happen to be in (the raison d’être for my job is that I’m in school, another tidbit I don’t mention when she wants to know if I’m available at 11:15 on a Monday morning).
There is a stack of exactly 47 unanswered texts in my phone’s inbox from my agent, a slew of tweets from accounts I blocked instead of engaging with, a generous handful of men floating in my city’s ether wondering why they haven’t heard from me in over a month.
What you can glean from this is that I am not someone who seeks out or enjoys conflict. When any sort of tension arises I ghost almost literally, as though I can’t get up the physical integrity to stick around and duke it out. Yet to be a sex worker is to be constantly embroiled in conflict, even if, like me, your move is to try to staunch the digital flow like sticking your fingers in your ears and humming loudly. It still comes through. The following is a small sampling of the bones people have tried to pick with me since I became a sex worker, to which I have something to say other than la-la-la I can’t hear you.
But what about trafficking victims? See: Red Herring
It seems to me that if any sex worker wants to write about her work in the present climate, she must first offer the caveat that her experience is not universal. For my part, I’m aware of the relative luxury of my position. I work for a well-established, ethically-concerned agency that sees to my transportation and security. All of my jobs take place indoors and though I have been frightened by clients, I have never feared for my life while on the job.
There are people in my profession who are exposed more frequently to injury of various kinds, whether from their employers or from their colleagues or from clients or even just as a side effect of having to work in a certain location. I see these people; I acknowledge these people; their experiences are just as crucial as mine and their voices ought to be heard in the discussion on how to keep everyone safe in this industry.
I do not, however, acknowledge that there are any people in my industry who have been forced or coerced into it, for the simple reason that my work hinges on consent, and as soon as consent is removed, what is occurring is not sex work. It seems outrageous that I should have to say this, but I do: Sex work and human trafficking / sexual slavery are not the same thing. They are not even points on the same continuum, any more than rape is the binary opposite of good sex. No matter how bad sex gets, it doesn’t become rape by virtue of its badness; it becomes rape when consent is not given.
But actually, sex workers are a lot like trafficking victims. See: Weak Analogy
The conflation of sex workers and trafficking victims is what my second-year logic professor would have gleefully called a weak analogy – that is, the two share a handful of characteristics from which a handful of very loud morons wildly extrapolate further similarities and we end up with a false equivocation. It goes a little something like this: Sex work and sexual slavery both involve a person paying money for the purposes of having sex with a person. Sexually enslaved persons did not choose to participate in this exchange, nor do they benefit from it. This must also be the case for sex workers!
Trying to find the logic in this leap is like playing Privilege Mad Libs; take your pick of No Other Choice, Low Self Esteem, Troubled Background and Internalized Oppressive Structures.
For one to come to the conclusion that sex workers and sex trafficking victims are the same, one must negate agency. Agency is the capacity to act of one’s own free will. Our agency remains valid even when an impetus is introduced; to wit, my choice to engage in sex work is no less my choice because I do it for the money. I am not a victim of force by virtue of the fact that I would not continue doing this work if I won the lottery tomorrow. Neither is anyone’s choice invalidated by a drug addiction, or children who must be supported, or a history of trauma, or one’s existence in a capitalist patriarchy. Only the agent can determine agency. Only the individual can give or deny consent.
But true choice is restricted to really privileged prostitutes. See: Straw Man Argument
This line of thinking creates the straw man that is the Privileged Prostitute. While it is true that many sex workers benefit from myriad forms of privilege – white privilege, for example, or cis privilege – there is no such thing as Prostitute Privilege. All sex workers are subject to stigma and the threat of violence, physical or otherwise. All that varies is individual sex workers’ degree of insulation from these things. To claim that sex work is something that can afford one unearned benefits is to say that there is a power structure in place that favours sex workers. There is no such structure. Even the wealthiest and most visible sex workers are exposed to violence of all kinds because of the stigma attached to the work they do.
Sex work is “an ever-present thrum of misery day and night, night and day.” See: Appeal to Pity
I’ve been working this job for three years and I’ve had only one violent client; I hold him as separate from my countless unpleasant work experiences because he was the only client who has ever violated my consent. (Of course, by the metrics of many members of the anti-sex-work lobby, I am incapable of giving consent in the first place.) I don’t love my job, but it’s not an ever-present thrum of misery either.
The appeal to pity works for a number of reasons – first because most people can’t imagine doing what I do and second because sex work is hyper visible, though the workers themselves are by and large erased from view. My grandfather once described to me an average day at the telecommunications company where he worked and it sounded like a living nightmare to me. Someone has to test anal thermometers before they are sold. No one is calling for the abolition of these jobs or trying to save the people who are working them because having an emotional response to something does not make that thing wrong. Unless, inexplicably, that thing is sex work, in which case “I would never do that” and “friend, your job sucks” are suddenly grounds for the criminalization of an industry.
I know, I know, sex is intimate and intertwined with oppressive power structures – and there are absolutely no other industries that monetize things like that… except for therapy, modelling, teaching, dancing, and the list goes on.
But if sex work becomes acceptable, it will devalue all sexual relationships. See: Slippery Slope
When they’re not preoccupied with pitying me, people seem to like pitying my partners, who must never get laid because I must hate sex now that I have it for a living. This is due to a pervasive cultural myth that as soon as you start getting paid for something, you start to hate doing it. This myth was turned out by the same machine that gave us Steve Jobs’ Do What You Love and Love What You Do, which doesn’t speak to our culture’s hypocrisy so much as what we value. You should be passionate about your job if you’re providing something people are willing to pay for, but if you’re providing something that people feel entitled to… well, do you really want to? Won’t you love it less if you’re getting paid?
This schism is being demonstrated rather beautifully right now by our new Prime Minister, whose use of already allocated household funds to hire a nanny for his young children has been widely derided by people who seem to think that childcare is not something that has sufficient monetary value to warrant being covered alongside household security. It’s no coincidence that both childcare and sex are still largely considered women’s work. We see this with all manner of feminized duties. And yet no one says to a man who builds computers that he ought to be able to live off of his passion alone, that asking for money is sullying it. No one is confused when a mechanic goes home and tinkers with his vintage car for a few hours. It’s only the work to which people feel entitled – and yes, heterosexual sex is work for women, though that’s a whole other piece – that we insist will be devalued by pay.
But you said yourself that demanding money for sex exposes you to violence. See: Appeal to Force
People say this to me all the time, and I don’t think they realize that it’s a threat. When we think about threats being made against sex workers, we think about men who believe that sex workers are less than human and who use them as objects upon which they can exorcise their violent tendencies, or scary right-wing people who think that they can stop anything they dislike if they wave a gun wildly enough. But I have heard this from people I love and from people who love me, and the threat is not that they will hurt me if I don’t leave my job – it’s that if I get hurt in my job, they will believe it’s my fault. This, I believe, is why so many sex workers are afraid to speak frankly about the unsavoury aspects of their work, or to come forward when they are assaulted. By acknowledging that sex work comes with exposure to violence, we worry that if we are harmed, someone will treat our awareness as clairvoyance and our employment as foolishness. Even the most liberal, progressive feminists can fall into the trap of believing that it is our responsibility to keep from getting hurt, rather than everyone’s responsibility not to hurt others.
I am the most liberal, progressive feminist / I work in a rape crisis centre / I work with sex workers, therefore I am qualified to make pronouncements on the state of sex work today. See: Appeal to Authority
There is no appropriate way to say this but to say it bluntly: Your qualifications will never be worth more than someone’s lived experience. No matter where you went to school or how many degrees you hold or how many years you’ve been working for whatever organization, if you are not a sex worker, your opinions on sex work will always be of secondary importance.
Swinging in on a vine to save someone who does not want to be saved is not an act of liberation; it is a perpetuation of the kinds of power imbalances that feminism is supposed to fight. The criminalization of sex work forces sex workers to turn to unsafe means of working – it means we cannot hire security, we cannot vet our clients, we cannot go to law enforcement when we are scared or hurt. If you want to make the choice to become a sex worker more free, focus your efforts on a living wage, affordable housing, universal healthcare, and accessible education and training. If you believe that sex work is something that is only done when one has no other choice, then abolition means you are removing someone’s last available choice. As we discussed at the beginning of this article, where choice is absent, something much more horrifying remains.
If you’ve ever used one of these arguments, I hope you’ve learned something (namely: don’t do that, ever again). Or if, like me, you made the grave error of starting a degree in rhetoric, I hope you’ve learned that it can indeed be useful for the crucial modern process of telling people they’re wrong on the internet.
You can reach Marlena Evans on Twitter @evenmarlena