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'Sex Work' vs All Types of Work

Why 'Sex Work' Is Not a Job Like Any Other Job

By Gugsa ChallaPublished 6 years ago 6 min read

When people argue in favor of legalizing prostitution, a common claim is that it is a form of work like any other. This is not the case. In fact, some argue that the legalization of prostitution will improve health and safety in prostitution. This is a flawed argument and it ignores the ramifications of legalization with respect to sexual harassment and civil rights in prostitution. Throughout this article, I will argue that because of the tremendous amount of exceptions needed to be made to work safety laws, sexual harassment laws, and civil rights laws, “sex work” cannot be considered work.

According to some supporters of legalizing prostitution, the health and safety of prostitution would vastly increase with its legalization. Whether this is true or not isn’t important because it would still not meet US worker health and safety standards. Since it cannot meet these standards like all other jobs, it cannot be deemed a job like any other. A person may argue that these regulations were not created with “sex work” in mind, which is a fair point. However, if “sex work” is really to be considered work like any other, it should comply with a country’s health and safety standards just like all other jobs. Martha Nussbaum, a scholar in favor of legalizing "sex work" argues that testing for STI’s and the use of condoms would improve health and safety and would likely argue that these are valid health and safety standards for prostitution. However, in all of the places in which prostitution is legal, it is the sellers, not the buyers that are mandated for testing. So, how likely is it that other countries will successfully have buyers submit to STI testing? Furthermore, condoms may reduce risk in some cases… however, they do not “minimize” risk nor do they protect against all (STIs). So, condoms would not be a good enough tool to ensure worker safety. Therefore, if we are unable to protect “sex workers” equally to how we protect other workers through health and safety standards, we cannot consider “sex work” work like any other.

It is very important that we address sexual harassment in prostitution. Lori Watson, a scholar against the legalization of sex work poses valid questions in this regard. “Because sex is the job, how can we possibly enforce sexual harassment law?" (p.5). A common misconception would likely be that sexual harassment cannot take place in prostitution. However, even if a prostitute does not submit to unwelcome sexual acts, being pressured and persuaded to perform sexual acts they are not comfortable with is sexual harassment by law. For example, if during a colonoscopy (referencing Nussbaum’s comparison of working as a "sex worker" to a colonoscopy artist) the person on the receiving end made comments such as “I’d really enjoy it if your fingers were also inside me right now.” This could be considered sexual harassment according to the Canada Labor Code. Many other developed countries have similar sexual harassment laws. When we apply this scenario to the commercial exchange of sex, this may not seem like sexual harassment, but in reality, in all other jobs, this type of statement would be considered sexual harassment. If prostitution is a job like any other, then prostitution openly entails sexual harassment. A supporter of prostitution may argue that we exempt certain cases of sexual harassment for prostitution, but if we exempt sexual harassment laws (which are laws to protect workers) we would be decreasing protections for these types of workers. If we do not protect workers specific to one job (prostitutes) equally to workers in all other jobs, how can we consider that form of work (prostitution) to be work like any other? Since the protections against sexual harassment in prostitution would be nowhere near the standard of other jobs, it cannot be deemed a form of work.

There are also issues with civil rights and how they will be enforced with respect to clients that must be addressed. In Canada, businesses may not refuse service to a person under a protected class (such as race, age, gender etc). So in countries who have civil rights laws like these in place, will they apply to prostitution? You could exempt “sex workers” from having to abide by this law but then how could prostitution be considered work like any other work if it is not required to follow a fundamental civil rights law that all other workplaces/businesses do. The other option would be to have prostitutes abide by these laws but then that would leave no room for sexual autonomy. It is everyone’s right to refuse sex with anyone for any reason such as age or gender, but in commercial exchanges, this is discrimination according to civil rights laws. So, in cases like these, we would be forced to either sacrifice the civil rights of the client or the prostitute. One may argue that we can have distinct brothels specifically employing prostitutes willing to have sex with all types of people who fall into the protected class. However, what would be the likelihood of a prostitute being open to having sex with all of these classes of people. For example, a prostitute may be okay with having sex with people of any sex/gender but not a person of any age. The only other alternative would be brothels employing prostitutes open to specific classes of people, such as brothels for people over the age of 65 or brothels for transgender people. If the above alternative is used, would this not be considered segregation? Sure, everybody has the right to go to brothels and receive service, but only to those that accept their specific class of people. This sounds awfully similar to laws from the 1950s (when racial segregation was prominent) that gave black people the right to go to school, but only schools made for black people. With this in mind, it does not make sense to call prostitution “work like any other form of work” if we cannot respect both the civil rights of employees and clients at the same time.

These arguments make it clear that “sex work” cannot be considered work like any other form of work. Since sex work cannot meet basic health and safety guidelines, it cannot legally be practiced. Also, sexual harassment in the workplace is still a problem in today’s society. If we struggle to prevent sexual harassment in jobs that do not entail physical/sexual contact how can we expect to prevent it in prostitution when sex is the “job.” If we cannot protect workers, we legally and in good conscience cannot allow them to work. Furthermore, the civil rights of employees and clients cannot be fulfilled in all exchanges of commercial sex like it can in any other job. Putting everything together, there can be a specific trend seen with the point of view that "sex work" is work like any other. The common arguments seem to revolve around making exceptions. If we constantly need to make exceptions in every aspect of the job requirements (health and safety, sexual harassment, and civil rights), how can we really consider “sex work” as work?

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