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.
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.
To use a reality, quite often persons working as engineers are asked to engage in many things that have little to do with engineering when they are at work. Cry me a river.
David G Mandrus says
Mike, this is totally vague. Who is arguing that sex workers don’t deserve basic human rights?
Michael LaBossiere says
Listen to the 1A show.
There’s a difference between the rights guaranteed by the law and the attitude of an organization like #MeToo. I can easily see how a movement like #MeToo might want to be selective about its membership and who it defends – not so much based on who has “rights” or who is “just a ho”, but more about who might dilute or diminish their message.
The false or unreasonable expectations of others are created not by individuals, but by the group as a whole. Sex workers put out a message that they will engage in sexual activities of various degrees in exchange for money, and what is happening here is that those with whom they deal on a professional level are seeing just how far they are willing to go.
Is it “right”? Of course not – but it happens all the time, and not just in the area of sex.
Here’s an example –
Years ago, as I’ve mentioned before, I used to do contracting work in NYC. When we worked in high-end buildings, we’d have to use the service entrance, which had an elevator with an operator. Any time we’d start a job, or have to accept a delivery of lumber, we’d have to get the operator to cart us up and down. A tip, usually a generous one, was customary.
There were some, however, who used their power (power to contribute to or hinder the efficiency of our job) to extort more money from contractors like me. I routinely carried $50 and $100 bills around with me just to get the job done.
How could they get away with this? They were taking advantage of me because they knew I wanted something that they could provide, that they should provide as part of their job description, and for which it was improper and illegal to demand that little “something extra” just because they could.
They got away with it because the vast majority of contractors in the city complied – it was the easiest way to get the job done, in the bigger picture.
So if you apply this example to sex workers, it’s probably not so different. There is most likely a perception in the industry that these people (men included) will use their sexuality and their uninhibited attitudes towards this kind of behavior to achieve certain ends.
I had money from my clients that I was willing to spread around a little to grease the wheels, and the elevator operators knew this and pushed the limits.
Are there some sex workers who will do the same, only with physical favors instead of money? Are those the ones who have created the reputation, and made a difficult situation for those who just want to come to work, do their job, and be left alone?
From the point of view of an organization like #MeToo, it’s probably easier to maintain distance with all of them, rather than to try to sort them all out and try to listen to only the ones who don’t engage in that kind of behavior. The public, who sees only black and white, would never stand for that.
Michael LaBossiere says
I certainly agree that the wheels of human interaction are oiled by the grease of corruption and misdeeds. But, as you note, this is not right. I would think you’d have been happy if everyone did their job honestly and you did not have to bribe people. Or, failing that, that the authorities kept that corruption in check.
I suspect you’ll bring up how the authorities are also corrupt. 🙂
Well, since you brought it up –
I guess it depends on who you are calling the “authorities”. In my elevator example, the authority would be the building super, who was very much on board with this arrangement. In fact, he often would see the lumber delivery truck coming and “coincidentally” have another, very important thing for the elevator operator to do that morning …
Beyond that, the higher authorities would have been the building board of directors who may not be corrupt, but really don’t care. In fact, they were probably happy that their employees could make a little extra cash on the side as an incentive to keeping their jobs.
My point isn’t so much corruption and misdeeds, though. My point is about setting expectations and pushing limits. In the case of the elevator operator, the expectation is that he will get a tip, and he pushes the limit to see how much of a tip he can get, or to what extent he can extort more from a guy who wants and needs to get the job done. In the case of a sex worker, the expectation is that he or she is willing to use their sexuality in order to get and keep their job; their employers will push to see just how far they are willing to go. The only difference is that while “extortion” and “harassment” are both misdeeds and abuse of power, the latter now has our attention and can be turned against the wielder of that power and have far reaching consequences.
I think that in the case of the sex workers and the #MeToo movement, the issue is the perception that the sex workers brought the harassment on themselves, just as my acquiescence in bribing the elevator guy and the super contributed to the broader acceptance of the practice.
The majority of the #MeToo movement, I suspect, is made up of innocent women for whom sex and sexuality never entered the professional relationship; by supporting the cause of sex workers, while ideally similar to their own, risks the perception and pushback of, “See – you women flaunt it, you ask for it, you use it to your advantage but when you get what you want, you turn on men and deny that you put forth the signals in the first place”.
Right and wrong don’t have a lot to do with it – it’s a matter of perception and keeping the message untainted.