Nowadays, sex work is the most dangerous profession in the world. The mortality rate for female prostitutes is estimated to be 204 per 100,000, which doubles the mortality rate for the “legal” profession considered more dangerous (fishermen, 120 per 100,000). According to a study conducted on one hundred and thirty people working as prostitutes in San Francisco, as adults in prostitution, 82% had been physically assaulted, 83% had been threatened with a weapon and 68% had been raped while working as prostitute. Also, the average prostitute gets physically (but non-lethally) attacked approximately once a month.
At least in the US, prostitutes are arrested way more often than johns. The breakdown of arrests: 70 percent female prostitutes and madams, 20 percent male prostitutes and pimps, 10 percent johns. That’s nine prostitutes being arrested for every one customer. Two weeks ago, in Texas, a jury acquited a man who shot and killed a stripper he wanted to rape, arguing that, as she had not had sex with him, she had commited theft and he could legitimately use deadly force against her.
These are the problems sex workers, and in particular street prostitutes, face in their daily life. And I have not even gotten started with human trafficking.
In order to advance the debate, I would ask to please not ignore the gendered and racialised aspect of the violence. Please do not ignore that the targets of the violence are overwhelmingly poor, (cis and trans) women, of color. Yes, there are male sex workers. Yes, there are rich white girls that feel “empowered” by camming or by doing nude model sessions. But please do not ignore the statistics. And don’t forget that virtually all the agressors are male.
Sex work is, more often than not, the last resource of marginalised people. For some people, it is the only way they can bring income into their homes. For some people, it is not the only option, but the only one that gives them flexibility to take some days off for self-care, or to get money quickly if they are in a tight spot, or to pay for their studies.
In short: sex work is real work. It is a harsh, strenuous, and dangerous one, and sex workers should be able to work in their profession without fear of being killed and with full legal protection.
People in sex work should be able to work in their professions without facing stigma, with the opportunity to have medical care, with the opportunity to call the cops if they are in a dangerous situation without fear that they would be thrown in jail if they do. They should be able to walk away from the job if it is bringing them down. They should be able to stand up to the clients if they are being abusive.
Empowering sex workers, allowing them to have enough impact in society, allowing them to become visible would be, in my opinion, a way of reducing risk and mortality within the profession..
However, there is something that should not be forgotten: these deaths do not happen in a vacuum. These deaths are not unfortunate work accidents: they are not dying of poisoning, slips, radiation exposure. They are dying at the hands of their customers and their pimps. They are being raped, beaten, and murdered, at the hands of men who know they will get away with it more easily than with other women.
Every fucking time there is a conversation on this topic with a man present, he will start with the old tired “but let’s not demonise the johns”, “they are lonely men who need human contact”, “they have the right to look for sexual satisfaction if they cannot get it elsewhere”.
To them I say the following: the reason why the industry is so fucked up is because the majority of the johns don’t care if they are purchasing the services of a trafficked human being or if they are hurting or causing discomfort to the other person. The majority of the johns will pressure the sex workers not to use condoms or to engage in risky practices. Many times I hear the counter-argument that yes, most johns sleep with trafficked human beings, but only because they don’t have another option. And to them I answer: if for you getting your dick wet is more important than raping another person, you are the scum of the Earth.
There is another important point: historically, johns have made zero advances for the situation of sex workers. Many times, they resist it actively. In fora and communities dedicated to clients, they normally complain about the situation on the Netherlands, where the prostitutes are too “pushy” and enforce boundaries. There is a very creepy fetishisation of Eastern European and Asian sex workers, for being more “submissive”, “cheap”, and, above all “young”. There are reports that, in Amsterdam, many clients despise the legal and licensed brothels, and they go looking for minors or sex slaves. In sum: these people are not looking for sex, they are looking for rape.
To try to solve this problem, there are several options: one of them is following the Swedish model, where sex work is legal, but the purchase is criminalised. De facto, this legislation allows the workers to seek for police protection if a client becomes dangerous. Maybe the Dutch model could be useful, with some changes. Maybe the lawmakers could look for a compromise between the two models. In any case, any kind of regulation and legalisation should only be made and enforced after listening what sex workers have to say.
This could be a complex but fruitful debate, and I have the hope that sex workers lives can be improved and saved through legal measures. However, I would like to stress one thing: if, when talking about sex work, someone derails the topic saying that criticising johns is “demonising male sexuality”, this person is part of the problem. Johns are the problem. And don’t insult men saying that they all are inherently like that.
by Esther Nelke