Sex Worker Open University – When Women’s Work Isn’t Work

One of the arguments against sex work being seen as work is that it is dismissed as perpetuating negative gendered stereotypes. You don’t hear people criticising men who choose to do work that can be seen as traditionally men’s work (engineers, builders, pilots), for being a cliché, predictable, or for propping up patriarchy and gendered stereotypes. This is because the two main genders are not seen as equal, and doing something deemed to be feminine or women’s work, is regarded as trivial and unimportant, or worthy of criticism.

This was, and still is in many aspects, how childcare and child bearing is treated, alongside domestic and household work. The same can be said for emotional labour in the home, in workplaces, public spheres and in activist/social justice organising. Who welcomes people, takes responsibility for the food and cups of tea, who tidies and cleans and who isn’t expected to?

What types of work are women praised and recognised for, called strong and powerful for performing, and which jobs aren’t? And yet, if someone were to criticise women doing childcare, nursing, teaching or being a secretary, for upholding gendered and sexist stereotypes, fiery debate would ensue. There would at least be some discussions of women’s agency.

Sex work’s claim to being acknowledged as labour doesn’t reside in any moral high ground, unlike other work traditionally seen as women’s work (child rearing, nursing). Instead, sex workers can only be considered within the limiting and deceptive binary of Happy Hooker vs Traumatised Victim.

Like any job, there exists a range of workers with varied experiences. Some see it as a calling and love their jobs and ‘can’t believe they get paid to do what they love.’ And others hate their jobs and do them because they have to. The difference between those jobs and sex work is that, however much people love or hate their jobs in these other areas, it doesn’t impact on their rights in the workplace.

I worked in a fish factory for a number of months. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It smelt, it was cold, the work was tedious and boring, and I was being paid the minimum wage. Luckily I didn’t have to sing from the rooftops that I loved my job for my actions to be validated, and for there to be health and safety standards in the factory. I also didn’t have to bemoan how much I hated it for my employment rights to be protected, and workplace to be safe. This is because working in a fish factory is seen as work. I didn’t have to defend its morals (though overfishing is in fact a major environmental problem). I didn’t have to love it or hate it to make sure that my rights as a worker were acknowledged and protected.

Most of anti – sex work activism is animated by two main panics. One is the fear that sex work (when women do it) is essentially and inherently sexist and violent and so reinforces patriarchal ideas that harm All Women Everywhere. The second is the trope of the poor oppressed voiceless disempowered victim who needs to be rescued. Both these panics conveniently neglect to grapple with the material realities that sex workers face.

Violence against sex workers come from not only clients, but very significantly, from State agencies like the Police, Border Agents and officials at detention centres. Coercion and exploitation also comes from rescue agencies and the mandatory ‘rehab’ or ‘skill building’ centres sex workers who are ‘rescued’ are placed in and prevented from leaving, facing jail time or deportation if they do.

These panics also, by centring the alleged violence that sex work commits against All Women, hide the actual violence and murder of sex working women. This argument (sex work is violence against women) characterises an abstract idea of representative violence, as somehow more important and more ‘real’ than the actual violence faced by sex workers. The lives and well-being of sex workers who face violence and murder, who are often migrant women, women of colour, and particularly trans women of colour, are deemed to be less of a priority than the abstract harm suffered by All Women when some women do sex work.

Deciding to view sex work done by women from the perspective of these panics is an act of privilege in a number of intersecting areas. It’s also an ignorant action that doesn’t also take into account how those same intersecting powers shape the arenas of not only gender, but racial prejudice, class discrimination, gentrification, border control and economic injustices.

Prejudice, discrimination, austerity policy, gentrification, zero hour contracts and casualisation, xenophobia and racism, sexism, trans/homophobia, economic inequity and plain old poverty, are some of the issues faced by sex workers. It is marginalised groups who are affected most by structural oppression, benefit cuts, anti-immigration bills and other forms of administrative violence.

For the most part, people do sex work for money. The main reason anyone gets a job is for money. Most of us need money to pay the rent and bills, buy food etc. And we all know there are barriers to housing, documentation, jobs and healthcare that are not simply random.

Many sex workers are poor, and sex work is a viable job compared to the many zero hours contracts and minimum wage jobs available (or not available).

Many sex workers are undocumented or have restrictions on visas that impact on being able to work and find housing. Sex work is a job that doesn’t require filling out paperwork.

Many sex workers are women and know first-hand the effects of sexism, patriarchy and trans misogyny. They battle those structures daily.

Many sex workers are mothers and carers who work to provide for their loved ones. Many have caring responsibilities that make it difficult to work all day at an office, factory or retail job (if any are even available)

Many sex workers are beneficiaries and do sex work to make ends meet where welfare payments don’t

Many sex workers are queer and/or trans, and face discrimination when looking for work.

Many sex workers are people of colour, and face discrimination when looking for work.

Many sex workers are migrants who face discrimination when looking for work, and do sex work to support families back home.

Many sex workers have disabilities and/or addictions where most work available won’t suit their circumstances.

Sex workers have circumstances where struggles surrounding welfare, austerity, unionising, anti-police brutality, housing, immigration, are part of our lives.

And on the other side of the coin, current laws that make sex work in the UK dangerous and legally dubious for sex workers to navigate safely, also ripple out to have consequences in other areas.

Police and border agency profiling already targets people of colour, particularly trans women of colour. This means that sex workers who are people of colour, trans women or both, are more at risk of Police and Border Agency harassment and scrutiny.

Shoddily thought-out and applied anti-trafficking laws mean that migrant sex workers are also targeted and heavily scrutinised. “Trafficked women and children” are sure-sell headline shouters, but there is no agreed-upon definition of what makes someone “trafficked”. Some of the broad markers such as a woman being ‘vulnerable’, a migrant, or poor, are characteristics that someone can be designated trafficked, even if they themselves say they aren’t. After the Soho raids a couple of years ago, migrant sex workers, after being dragged out by riot police in front of camera crews and press, were questioned continually about being trafficked, after many times insisting that they weren’t.

In areas designated for luxury flat development, like Soho, the police have applied pressure to Landlords, telling them they could be prosecuted for brothel keeping if they don’t evict the sex workers.

Sex workers are often on the sharp end of the oppression stick. They’re often some of the first and most frequent to experience prejudice, discrimination and violence regarding housing, lack of workplace rights and safety, police harassment and the lean side of welfare cuts.

Sex workers are organised and are organising despite media, law makers and some strains of feminists ignoring these efforts, it often being criminal, or at least legally dubious to do so.

The following are just some examples of sex worker organising (

On the 2nd of June 1975, over one hundred sex workers occupied St Niziers church in Lyon, France. A banner stating ‘Our Children Don’t Want Their Mothers in Prison’ was displayed. The sex workers were demanding an end to Police fines and harassment.

On 17 November 1982, 50 women from the ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) occupied the Holy Church in King’s Cross, London, for 12 days, to protest against police violence, constant arrests, and racism. Some lost custody of their children. A woman saw her boyfriend arrested after being falsely accused of being her pimp due to the police racially profiling him.

In 1997, dancers at The Lusty Lady peepshow in San Francisco unionised, and in 2003 unionised workers bought the peepshow, making it the world’s only unionised peepshow co-op until it shut in 2013.

In 2012, a change in US law, which began allowing people living with HIV to enter the country. The International AIDS conference was held in the US, but sex workers were still banned and were therefore excluded from attending. So instead, sex workers and allies from around the world held a Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata, India, 21-26 July, to protest the exclusion of the voices of key populations and to ensure that their voices were heard. Those who were able to travel to Washington, USA, protested the travel ban and the anti-prostitution pledge by, first, disrupting the opening session with chants of “No sex workers? No drug users? No IAC (International AIDS Conference!” Then, on July 25, they disrupted a special session on the United States Congress and the global AIDS epidemic.

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the largest sex workers collective in India, represents more than 65000 sex workers.

Empower Foundation, a sex worker-led organisation in Thailand makes wonderfully scathing and comedic films about the ‘rescue’ industry and the patronising and dangerous alliance of Police, Social Workers and NGO superheroes.

There are regular conferences in many countries about HIV prevention, sexual health and wellbeing of sex workers, led by sex workers. As well as labour rights work, grass roots organising, protesting and campaigning against State violence and laws that endanger sex workers.

There is a long history of sex workers organising, unionising, protesting, and campaigning. The global Network of Sex Work Projects has over 150 groups and organisations from 60 different countries.

Sex workers rights are inextricably linked to all other campaigns for social justice. And your campaigns and movements should be linked with ours.

Brock Lee – SWOU member

Sex Worker Open University is a project run by sex workers for workers, organising skill sharing workshops, performance nights, public education workshops and much more. To find out more, please follow this link


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