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Sex work today: myths, morals and health

By James M Heather, on 10 December 2012

World AIDS Day fell on 1 December, providing a fitting backdrop for the latest Lunch Hour Lecture, on the sex industry. Or perhaps it’s not that fitting, as UCL sociologist Professor Graham Scambler set out to dispel some common misconceptions about sex workers.

Professor Scambler has spent a number of years studying the health issues, sociological factors and stigmas attached to the world’s oldest profession, and in this talk presented data gathered largely in, or relating to, London.

Society holds a great many conceptions about sex workers, a large number of which are both offensive and – more importantly – incorrect, and this lecture started by debunking some of the most pervasive.

Starting with sexually transmitted infections (STIs), he revealed that sex workers are not always at higher risk, as research undertaken in London in 1993 revealed.

It turned out that the London sex industry was conscious of the danger of STIs (and particularly HIV) from an early point; condom use with clients was reported as the norm. In fact, these women were actually more at risk of contracting HIV from their non-paying sexual male partners, as condom use in these circumstances was significantly lower.

Another consideration that is perhaps often under-appreciated in sex industry news coverage is just how heterogeneous a population sex workers and their clients are. They come from a variety of backgrounds, enter the trade for many different reasons and report widely mixed experiences of their time.

So diverse is the range of people who might be selling sex that part of Professor Scambler’s research required development of a ‘topology of sex workers’, or a list of different types, by which sociologists can categorise sex workers in order to study them further.

A major theme of the talk was concerned with choice. Society typically applies value notions of shame to the sex industry; by which logic surely all who work within it must be victims of circumstance, forced into it against their wishes?

For some this is the case – and no-one would deny that it is a terrible thing that must be stopped. However, the evidence seems to show that the number of practising sex workers who were coerced, tricked or trafficked into the industry make up but a tiny proportion of the whole.

There are many routes of entry to the industry, including students and debtors who just need some quick cash, ‘opportunists’ who might plan to sell sex for a given period (often travelling to a richer country to do so) and some people who have no financial need to sell sex, but do so to experiment.

There are two main problems reported with treating the entire sex industry as if its all or constituents have not chosen to be there.

The first is sociological, in that treating all sex workers as if they had no choice in the matter (while many in fact do) denies them their agency. This denies them their rights to make their own decisions about their own lives.

The second problem is concerned with the regulation of the sex industry and how people can seek to alter that regulation based on their own ideologies.

People who enter a public discourse with a pre-existing belief that the sex industry is morally wrong (and should be stopped) can often be more likely to exaggerate the extent and pervasiveness of trafficking and coercion, in order to bring about increased control on the entire industry.

For example, we were told about a large recent police operation (Pentamer Two), involving dozens of police forces arresting hundreds of suspects, which ended up not catching any actual traffickers; the few that were arrested were already known.

Sex trafficking and coercing (in this country) appears to be a very rare event. Treating it like it’s common, or even normal, practice for the industry can have severely negative consequences for the majority of sex workers who weren’t forced into it.

If we allow ideological reporters and politicians to use rare tragic events to increase criminalisation and legislative control of sex workers, we run the risk of driving those people away from systems that can be used to help them, such as public health programmes and police protection.

Throughout, Professor Scambler made an impassioned plea for evidence-based-policy, rather than policy-based-evidence – a view I share.

If we want what’s best for our population (and the sex workers it contains), we need to assess pragmatically how things are and how they can be helped.

Imposing any group or individual’s morals on the industry based on distorted (or no) evidence doesn’t help anyone, and can even harm those we might wish to protect.

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