PART 1: IS ‘SEX WORK’ WORK?

Part 1: Is 'Sex work' work?

We have all heard it before: ‘prostitution’ or ‘sex work’ as it is now more commonly termed, is ‘the oldest profession’.  

So, what is a profession? The Oxford Dictionary defines profession as: a type of job that needs special training or skill, especially one that needs a high level of education. The Collins Dictionary defines profession as: a type of job that requires advanced education or training.   

If ‘sex work’ is a profession, a legitimate service, career, form of work, then what are the implications of this? 

Sex work and its employees should be regulated by labour law  

By coining sexual exploitation as ‘sex work’, the understanding of sex work moves to that of a labour framework. United Kingdom labour law regulates the relations between workers, employers and trade unions. People at work in the UK can rely upon a minimum set of employment rights, which are found in Acts of Parliament, Regulations, common law and equity. This includes the right to a minimum wage of £9.50 for people over the age of 23 from April 2022 under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. The Working Time Regulations 1998 give the right to 28 days paid holidays, breaks from work, and attempt to limit long working hours. The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right to leave for childcare, and the right to request flexible working patterns. The Pensions Act 2008 gives the right to be automatically enrolled in a basic occupational pension, whose funds must be protected according to the Pensions Act 1995.  

Encompass has encountered 0 ‘sex workers’ who receive these benefits as part of their ‘job’ in the ‘sex industry’.  

Consumer transaction – buying a human for your personal use 

A consumer transaction is a type of agreement or exchange where one party purchases goods or services for personal, family, or household use. Examples: Buying groceries at the supermarket for your family. Purchasing a new phone for personal use. If sex work is a form of service work, then sex buyers become service users (consumers), who have rights that they are legally entitled to. In her book Pimp State, Kat Bayard writes about her conversation with two London based barristers about the legal consequences if ‘sex work’ was actually enshrined as work in UK law: ‘they told me that as it would constitute the provision of a service, the relevant law it would be governed by requires that the service be supplied with reasonable care and skill. In the event of a breach, the payer may be relieved of the obligation to pay and may also sue for damages including loss of enjoyment, going beyond the price of the service itself. It is hard to see on what basis a court would refuse to entertain litigation on the topic. The case might be that the customer did not obtain relief or the prostitute did not perform satisfactorily’ (pg 63).  

Sound reasonable? 

Commodifying consent  

A key implication of the words ‘sex work’ and its legitimacy as a profession, is that consent is a thing that can be bought and sold.  The ‘sex industry’ communicates that if some stranger simply pays you (or your pimp), then that stranger touching you whilst you feel afraid, degraded, sore, traumatised and abused after experiencing the same things seven other times earlier that day, is A-OK, perfectly above-board and part of the job. Almost as if that little bit of money magically eradicates the lived experience of sexual abuse and rape.  

Despite all that we do to teach everyone from a young age about consent, ‘sex work’ creates an exemption from the healthy boundaries and meaningful consent that we teach people, especially young people. 

Summary  

So here are a handful of the long list of implications if we were to consider ‘sex work’ or ‘prostitution’, or as we call it at Azalea, sex trafficking, as a legitimate form of work. It is clear that currently sex trafficking is not subject to labour law and survivors of sex trafficking do not reap the benefits of it.  

If this were to change, would we decide that sex work is ok, now that women who are being sexually exploited are receiving annual leave and sick pay? This of course would be assuming that they would be employed by a company who puts greed and money (the 2 key drivers of the ‘sex industry’) aside in order to comply with the law in the first place. 

And despite women already being commodified, purchased as if they were an item on a supermarket shelf, this does not at the moment constitute a legal consumer transaction accompanied by the relevant laws of refunds.  

How would you feel if sex buyers could demand refunds if they deemed themselves insufficiently satisfied by their experience?  

And finally, what do you believe about consent, especially concerning sexual relations? If consent can be purchased, can it really be considered meaningful consent? 

Stay tuned for part 2 next week, talking about why sex work perhaps should not be considered a profession…  

References: 

  • Kat Banyard (2016) Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality  

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