Commercial sexual exploitation. Or prostitution?
When we hear the word “prostitution”, we all have a mental image of what that means. For some- high heels and too much lipstick, revealing clothing and a “come-on” look in the eyes. For others, mug shots, disease risk, drug feeding desperation, or the high-class escort in tasteful attire who provides comfort and company. And for others still, the understanding that this is not one size fits all.
Until recently, perhaps for most readers, at no time did the question of choice even enter the picture. It has been taken for granted for so long that “prostitutes” are part of the fabric of society- every society. Their presence in it, although perhaps troublesome, was barely recognized as part of a larger question... How did they get there? And why do they stay?
The answers are complicated. Too complicated for one short blog post to address. But we can start the conversation. To break down “complicated, it might help to see this more as a continuum, instead of an “either or’ scenario. At one end, there are individuals who enter into sex work of their own volition- or “by choice”. At the other end, are those who are truly trafficked- through clear force, fraud, and/or coercion, to provide “services” against their will. The latter is easier to understand. There are the “bad guys” who take advantage of and exploit the vulnerable. These are the victim-survivors that we understand. The “perfect victims” who are taken advantage of. These stories can be easily understood by a majority. These stories make our hearts hurt, and motivate us into action without too much challenge. Yet, this is just one side of the continuum.
Slide that continuum bar a little to the left. And we may find an individual who may be experiencing exploitation, but we may also find some culpability in their actions that predisposed them to vulnerability. What kinds of actions? Perhaps drug addiction, and the physical need to feed the insatiable beast. Perhaps it was the homeless individual who traded sex for survival. Both perhaps made a “choice”, but we might be able to extend our hearts to them as well. Certainly, they are not deserving of exploitation.
A little more of a slide…a sexually curious teen or a woman with many sexual partners. Hmmm. Possibly harder to understand or empathize with exploitation when active choices that contributed to it possibly conflict with our own lifestyle choices. But still…does anyone deserve the horrors of exploitation?
Let’s just slide it all the way over. There are indeed individuals who choose to identify as “sex-workers”. No pimp. No trafficker. No exploitation. A choice some describe as “liberating”, or “reclaiming power over one’s body.”
What is important to understand is that choice is not made in a vacuum. A choice that leads someone to participate in actions that we can neither relate to nor “approve” of is not made in isolation, but is the culmination of many things. Environment, relationships, social and economic status and agency, culture, family, presence (or absence of) past history of abuse and neglect. What seems from a distance to be a choice to engage in “sex work” is ultimately built on these and other factors. It is not simple.
Why is this conversation about choice so important? In fact, it is really a conversation about making judgements. When we make assumptions about the outside without perceiving the inside. Judgement. When we draw conclusions about the present without understanding the past. Judgement. When we glamorize the “perfect” or identify a preferred victim- the purely innocent who are victims that are easy for us to be sympathetic toward, while we continue to marginalize and judge those who may act in ways that we cannot wrap our heads around. Judgement.
A question has been asked- “Have you ever heard a young child say that they want to be a prostitute when they grow up?” The answer of course is no. Yet what do we think of someone who engages in sex work? A rhetorical question, and meant to be food for thought.
The question I want to ask is this- how do we see those who have chosen, slidden into, or been actively manipulated into sex work? Will we continue to see them as a label or stereotype? Or will we be courageous enough to want to understand the complexities of the backstory that got them there? Will we judge when they don’t make a choice to leave, or will we encourage and support if they do?
And if you are reading this, and have a lived experience on this continuum, know that we want to hear from you. We hope you can bear with us as we learn, and that you will feel invited to teach us what we need to know and how we can best respond. We too have a backstory. We will not place judgement nor compare your lived experience. We simply want to elevate your voice and serve your identified needs.