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Sex and Sex Work: Same-Same But Different

In bright orange light, a toy train races around a track that surrounds a toy sized building
This article was collated from a discussion between sex workers of different ages, work contexts and backgrounds at the Empower Foundation centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand. March 11th, 2016.

We all need cash to live. However, we are supposed to take our rewards for the work we do in the home from the satisfaction of being good women, mothers and carers. Even though money is survival we are not supposed to look for cash as a reward for our work, but be happy with just a warm glow. We are not paid to wash the family dishes; we only get money for washing dishes in someone else’s kitchen. Women are not paid in the home for cooking meals, sweeping floors, washing clothes, caring for our aged, sewing shorts, teaching our children, growing vegetables, having sex or producing babies. In order to be paid we must do this work outside the home.

Life cannot be grown by hand any longer. We must step outside the home and work for wages. Most people decide sex work is not an option for them. Their religious beliefs, social conditioning, ideology or moral codes mean they feel they can only have sex for strictly controlled reasons. Many conform to whatever sexual expression their community and society prescribes to. For the majority of women, society gives us instructions that sex must be reserved for the sole purpose of bearing children, as a duty to the husband, only as an expression of love, only if legally sanctioned by the State or religion, but never for money. Even in private life very few people can follow their own sexuality, be it same-sex partners, many partners, no partners, asexuality, BDSM, different sexual positions, and so on.

Sex workers’ own sexuality has as many variations and combinations as any other random group of humans. We are also influenced in various ways by our religion, background, community and society’s views on sex. What we have in common is that we have decided that selling and buying sex is not a crime. It’s okay to be paid and it’s okay to pay!

Sex workers, like all people, do not work because we love it; we work because we and those we love would starve if we did not.[1]Cooks do not work for their own dining pleasure. If being a cook also provides this, it is a bonus, not a requirement. Sex workers rarely do sex work as an expression of their personal sexuality or for their own sexual pleasure. If being a sex worker also provides this, it is a bonus, not a requirement.

Even though most of us manage to find some satisfaction in whatever work we do, very few people in the world do work that is an extension of their individual expression of themselves. We are all able to separate what we do for wages from our individual preferences and life. This is true for those of us who do intimate and emotional labour such as child care, sex work, nursing and surrogacy. Our work is not an expression of our feelings about our own children, sexuality or health. It is a job.

Let’s say we have been watching a man paint a fence. The fence is painted dark blue with lighter blue insets. We cannot tell anything personal about the painter by looking at his work. The house-owner has chosen the colour, and the painter may like it, hate it or not care one way or the other. He has been paid to paint it according to the customer’s preferences. The cook next door to us has a menu. We can only choose between the dishes she will and will not cook. We order a chicken curry and it tastes great but it tells us nothing about what the cook likes to cook or eat. Sex workers also have a menu or a range of services they will and will not provide. Similarly, sex work it is not about the sexuality of the worker, it is about the sexuality of the customer.

According to sex workers at Empower, sexuality is defined as,

“An idea to categorize and label people by who they like have sex work with; so far have only 6 categories LGBQHO (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Heterosexual, Other) but there are another 20 letters of the alphabet. People confuse sex work issues with sexuality issues… we don’t know why… maybe because they both have the word sex?”

Bad Girls Dictionary, Empower University Press, First Edition (2007)

The pressing concern for sex workers here is to be able to work safely and fairly in the work we have chosen to do. We are in urgent need of legal reform to decriminalise sex work, for the protection of our rights as workers, and an end to stigma so we can be respected and have equal access to justice in society. Until then work is more important than sex in our job title of sex work.

[1] Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011 by Selma James, Nina Lopez

                                                                       Photo Credit: (CC BY 2.0)