Opinion | Is It ‘Prostitution’ or ‘Sex Work’?

To the Editor:

Re “It’s Not ‘Sex Work.’ It’s Prostitution,” by Pamela Paul (column, Aug. 18), about how the term “sex work” legitimizes the exploitative sex trade:

Ms. Paul’s article is courageous, as evenhanded and thoughtful as it is provocative.

As a former Title VI-funded doctoral fellow whose thesis explored the effects of the professionalization of traditional female occupations, I was steeped in radical feminist theory, and I know the theoretical basis for the notion that sex “work” involves choice and agency.

But as a lawyer who has represented numerous young and grown women charged with prostitution pro bono, I have yet to meet a single one who wouldn’t rather be doing something else — and whose views of men and their own sexuality hadn’t been distorted by their “work.”

Ultimately, the notion that sex “work” can be empowering strikes me like Gov. Ron DeSantis’s remark that slaves gained useful skills while being treated like chattel property.

Joel M. Young
Placitas, N.M.

To the Editor:

Pamela Paul’s opposition to the term “sex work” is akin to opposing the term “domestic workers” for maids because exploitation and trafficking are common in domestic service. Rather than denying workers their rightful status in industries rife with abuse, we should fight for enhanced labor protections.

The term “sex work” does not glorify exploitation. On the contrary, it recognizes the dignity of people who sell sex and provides a framework to mobilize for better working conditions.

I’ve interviewed over a hundred sex workers in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Argentina, including those in sex worker organizations that formed in the 1980s and ’90s to fight exploitative conditions and demand recognition as workers. They tell me the term “sex worker” enabled them to shed internalized shame and see themselves as deserving of rights.

Ms. Paul’s claim that an elite minority are dictating this term to the least privileged sex workers could not be farther from the truth. The leaders of sex worker rights movements in developing countries often come from extremely poor backgrounds. I suspect they would ask Ms. Paul not to dictate terms to them.

Jessica Van Meir
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer conducts research on sex work and domestic work as a doctoral student in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

To the Editor:

I am not a “former sex worker.” I’m a survivor of a major system of oppression. As the national campaign manager for World Without Exploitation, and someone who survived the sex trade, I couldn’t agree more with Pamela Paul.

The term “sex work” suggests that prostitution is a job like any other. This couldn’t be further from reality. No job on this planet exposes workers to such extreme violence. According to research, 68 percent of people in the sex trade in nine countries, including the U.S., report having PTSD, while 63 percent report being raped, and 71 percent report being subjected to physical assault. A 2018 study of 65 prostituted women — trans women included — found 61 percent suffered traumatic brain injury.

Prostitution is something you survive, not a job. It’s an oppressive system predicated on power imbalance — mostly men with good jobs and disposable income purchasing society’s most vulnerable.

There are a lot of terms for it: exploitation, violence, predatory behavior and others. But it is not “sex” or “work.” Please don’t call it that.

Alisa Bernard
Alexandria, Va.

To the Editor:

I am a gay man who engaged in sex work when other pursuits were not bringing in sufficient income. I have been, among other things, a composer, an actor, a writer, a performer in gay adult films and — of course — a waiter. Of those, sex work was the most honest. I never once felt uncomfortable or coerced.

Indeed, I had many experiences where I felt more like a social worker than a prostitute. Once, after a job, I took my client on an architectural walking tour of Midtown while he talked about his wife and kids. Just the two of us walking empty streets in the small hours. It was magical.

Incidentally, working in adult films and being a sex worker were the only jobs where I was never sexually harassed. Conversely, I never felt more like a prostitute than when I walked into a Broadway audition.

I know nothing about being a female in the heterosexual world of sex work, but I wish those talking about this subject would not paint with such a broad brush, as theirs is not the entire story.

Tom Judson
Catskill, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Pamela Paul makes a compelling argument against the term “sex work” as a cynical effort to legitimize an industry that is rooted in sexual exploitation. The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, a bill currently pending in the New York State Legislature, would translate this understanding into law.

Sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, the bill would decriminalize the victims of prostitution — those who are bought and sold in the trade — while holding the johns and pimps who buy and sell them accountable under the law. It recognizes the obvious — that prostitution perpetuates sexism and racism.

Maine just became the first state in the country to adopt this progressive approach, known as the “equality model.” It was successfully pioneered long ago by Sweden and more recently adopted by France, Ireland, Israel and a growing number of other countries around the world. As a global hub for sex trafficking, which is fueled by the demand for prostitution, New York should follow suit.

Jessica Neuwirth
New York
The writer is the director of the Human Rights Program at Roosevelt House, Hunter College, and a founder of the Frontline Women’s Fund.

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