NPR’s A1 did a show on sex workers and how their apparent exclusion from the #MeToo movement. While the show covered a variety of issues, one key topic was the attitude commonly expressed towards sex-workers, namely that they do not really matter in terms of their rights. Since this is clearly a moral issue, it is well worth considering.
One obvious problem with addressing any philosophical issue related to sex is that people tend to approach this topic irrationally. There is also, to put it mildly, considerable mental derangement in the United States on this subject. Despite these challenges, I will endeavor to address the issues in this essay in a rational and reasonable manner. To avoid people being drawn into the red herring of legal issues, I will focus on legal sex work, such as that done by porn actors.
As noted above, sex workers tend to face the attitude that because they work in the sex industry, they are thus excluded from having certain basic rights. This, as would be imagined, is primarily grounded in the view that sex workers are an inferior sort of person and thus not entitled to the same rights and treatment as the “better sort of people.” As put by Cardi B, “So what? You’re a ho. It don’t matter.” Misogyny is also obviously a factor that can come into play here as well.
The easy and obvious reply to the view that sex-workers do not matter is that the burden of proof rests on those who claim that they do not matter. After all, they are still people and are thus entitled to the same basic moral rights that people get simply by being people. To show that this is not the case, it would need to be shown that by being engaged in sex-work, they thus give up these basic rights. While there are clear biases against sex-workers, there do not seem to be any compelling logical reasons that their choice of profession strips them of their basic moral rights.
One area where sex-workers are seen as not having the same rights as others is the view that because they are sex workers, they do not have the right to complain about being sexually harassed or being expected to provide sex when they do not wish to do so. While it might seem odd for a sex-worker to have the right to complain about being sexually harassed or having to engage in unwanted sex, there are at least two reasons this is just as legitimate for them as any other worker. The first is that profession does not matter when it comes to the person’s rights. Just because a person is a sex-worker, it does not follow that they cannot be sexually harassed. To use an analogy, just because a person is a football player who engages in a violent sport for a living it does not follow that they cannot be assaulted. Likewise, for sex-workers.
The second is that the sex-worker’s work is sex, so their being sexually harassed or being pushed to engage in sex when they do not wish is compelled labor. If the director of a hospital pushed their doctors into giving her free medical services during their off hours, then that would be rightly regarded as unacceptable. Or if the manager of a fast food restaurant pressed their workers into cooking meals for them for free, then that would also be rightly regarded as wrong. The same also applies to sex workers: they have the same right as any other worker to refuse to engage in compelled labor.
Another area of concern for sex-workers is their working conditions, broadly construed. This includes the acts they are expected to engage in, how they are treated, what language is used, and so on. While some might think that a sex-worker should expect to simply work with whatever conditions they are subjected to, this same attitude is not applied to other workers—at least by people with basic moral decency. As such, sex-workers should have the right to reject the conditions they wish to reject, without fear of retaliation. Obviously, this can have legitimate career consequences, but that
The easy and obvious objection to this view is to argue that sex-workers’ work is, by definition, sex. As such, they must expect to engage in sex. To use an analogy, if a person is working as an engineer, then they must expect to engage in engineering when they are at work. If they do not want to engineer things, then they need to find another line of work. Likewise, for sex-workers. While this reply does have some intuitive appeal, it fails.
While a sex-worker must expect that their work in sex involves sex, that does not entail that they must accept any conditions in their field. To use an analogy, a professional boxer must expect that they will be punched. As such, if a boxer does not want to get punched, then they need to find another line of work. However, if they agree to a normal match and when they arrive their opponent is carrying a knife and the ring has been replaced with a pool of pudding, then they have every right to refuse the fight. Also, if they enter into an agreement to fight a normal match, and then things are changed on them during the fight, they would have every right to refuse to continue. So, just as agreeing to box does not entail that a boxer must accept whatever violence might be done to them, agreeing to sex-work does not entail that the sex-worker agrees to everything that might be done to them.
Some might think that worrying about how sex-workers are treated is foolish or a waste of time, but that view is exactly the problem. To think that sex-workers somehow have their moral status as people degraded or taken away is to engage in a moral error—they are just as entitled to basic moral rights as anyone else who works for a living, even if some people find their line of work morally wrong.