Commentary Violence

With Sex Workers Too, Rape Is Still Rape

Kate DAdamo

As we talk about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else's choices.

In the last several months, there have been a number of rape allegations involving sex workers in the news. Most recently, a number of sex workers accused porn star James Deen of rape. Several websites have since dropped Deen, including Kink.com. Also, Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver is facing 34 counts of rape, kidnapping, and attempted murder (among others) against his ex-girlfriend and porn star Christy Mack, which reportedly left her with 18 broken bones and a ruptured liver, and her friend, Corey Thomas.

Every time these stories make headlines, though, they are accompanied by another conversation: Whether because someone engages in sex work, they lose their right to consent and cannot be raped.

The conflation of sex work and rape, and the assumption that all sex work can be framed in a single, narrow description contribute to the denial of consent for those who trade sex, even if the phrasing sounds different.

These arguments are being put forward not just by Twitter trolls or men’s rights activists; they are also being brought in the courts and in the media. Part of the legal defense for War Machine has been that Mack’s porn career displayed her “desire” for “activities that were outside of the norm”—presumably including rape. And just a few months ago Mary Mitchell, who sits on the editorial board of the Chicago-Sun Times, claimed that when a sex worker was raped it should have been prosecuted as “theft of services” (the same charge as jumping a subway turnstile).

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Further, many conversations about sex work held by feminist and anti-trafficking organizations are about denying consent to those in the sex industry. Groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women or the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, base their work in this area on deeply flawed claims that all sex work is violence or criminalization is about protecting women from exchanging sex for money.

To be sure, when it comes to sex trafficking, there is no debate it is inherently violent. But to conflate sex trafficking with sex work creates very real harms for those who do report rape.

For sex workers, trading sex is a constellation of experiences that move through the range of choice, circumstance, and coercion. The complexity and nuance of sex work can span a variety of experiences that can change from year to year, month to month, and session to session. Some people trading sex do experience violence, and that experience often informs how a person feels about sex work. To have a single blanket assumption that says that every act of trading sex for resources is an act of violence is not just ideology parading as information; it undermines the dignity of anyone trading sex by not allowing them to define their own experience.

Ultimately, views like this are a step backward for everyone who demands the ability to declare their own boundaries and physical autonomy. And statements pushing this notion need to stop.

Engaging in the sex trade does not remove the ability for a person to determine what is and is not rape. They do not lose the ability to declare boundaries while engaging in sexual activities or to define their own experience when victimized. Further, this logic undermines the very core of consent, because it is grounded in the understanding that a person’s right to self-determination about their body and experience is less important than an outside person’s view of their circumstances.

For example, if a person is involved in kink or BDSM, consent still has a role to play in that experience, even if the sexual activities may look to someone else like violence. Just the same, when a person is in the sex trade they are allowed to determine their own physical boundaries—and decide what is and is not an experience of violence. Anything that undermines self-determination ultimately harms the hard-fought battle won by feminism, reproductive rights, and gender equality advocates over consent and control over one’s own body.

“Having sex for money doesn’t make me less aware of my boundaries—it makes me hyper-aware of them,” New York-based sex worker Vivienne told Rewire in an interview. “I know better than anyone else what it feels like when my consent is violated. Even when I didn’t want to see a client but I had to because of bills, that doesn’t change. Eviction is not consensual. What [work] I do to prevent that was.”

And yet, some feminists argue that the lack of other employment options invalidates the ability of a person to make the decision to trade sex. While for many, trading sex can be an act of survival, nowhere else in society do we take “lack of other options” as a reason to no longer allow a person’s decision, nor would we make it harder for them to access that option. For those seeking an abortion, for example, advocates would never use that person’s financial circumstance as a reason to decrease their ability to terminate the pregnancy. Rather, advocates fight for reproductive health care to be easy to access, under the safest conditions possible, and without stigma.

This assumption that consent rules don’t apply to sex workers can have far-reaching consequences. In 2007 Pennsylvania Judge Teresa Carr Deni ruled that a woman who was gang-raped at gunpoint by a client was not raped but instead declared it, “theft of services.” In a later interview, Judge Carr claimed that calling the incident rape “minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.”

Regularly sex workers are also dehumanized by law enforcement who do not take seriously their reports of sexual assault when they do overcome the stigma and fear of arrest and report crimes. As one worker who made the decision to report her sexual assault described to Rewire in an email interview, “I reported an assault, rape, and theft by a client in Dallas, Texas in 2008, and was more or less ridiculed by the detective, and forced to pay for my own rape kit and hospital fees. On top of that, I was forced to do PTSD treatment to stay in school, which was unhelpful and expensive. The repetitive nature of the sad confessionals were so intense, I dropped out of college and became more deeply engaged in sex work than ever to pay off the debts incurred. Dallas police definitely didn’t take my assault seriously, and the institutional shaming following the incident was much more painful than the incident itself and lasted many months longer.”

This conflation of sex work and violence is being used to criminalize the sex trade, which often follows increased violence, stigma, and fewer options for those who wish to leave. Often, the assumption that all prostitution is violence or rape also is used as the reasoning for increasing laws, penalties, and policing of the sex trade.

Loitering and prostitution laws (which generally outlaw even the discussion of exchanging sex for money, while loitering laws often criminalize the appearance of someone who might exchange in prostitution) often leave people with long arrest records that make it difficult for them to get different jobs, access housing, or attend school. Laws that criminalize the “promotion of prostitution” (simply by supporting others, be it through helping someone post an ad or offering them safety tips) often criminalize peers and community members, which sex workers rely upon for safety and harm reduction strategies. The criminalization and policing of clients under anti-trafficking legislation often pushes people in the sex trade into more isolation, meaning they are cut off from their peers and outreach workers and driven to more clandestine locations. Street-based policing, be it to arrest sex workers or potential clients, means that people are more likely to need a third party to negotiate with potential clients, making them more dependent on those third parties and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. And none of these things address the underlying issues, like poverty, which make the sex trade one of very few, and sometimes, the only option to meet basic needs. Using “all sex work is violence” as the reason for passing laws that increase violence is not just bad logic, it’s inhumane.

Sometimes others make decisions that leave us feeling uncomfortable, but they are not our decisions to make. The judgments we pass on the complex experiences of individuals only stigmatize and shame those in the sex trade.

Denying sex workers the right to determine the boundaries of their own body is an affront to the same arguments that we as feminists and activists are putting forward every day. The ability for someone to declare what is sexual assault only exists if we allow people to also determine what is not sexual assault. As we talk more about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else’s choices.

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