Sex work is just another form of work

On his show Last Week Tonight John Oliver tackled the topic of sex work, a topic that is surrounded by a whole lot of misconceptions, ignorance, hypocrisy, and just plain old prudishness, and the people who suffer because of these things are the sex workers themselves, who are often at the receiving end of laws and other efforts to ‘save’ them that end up actually hurting them. One of the big problems is the conflating of sex work with sex trafficking, two very different things that require very different responses.

Oliver points out something that I had missed and that is that while performing sex acts for money is illegal almost everywhere in the US (apart from two small counties in Nevada), as soon as you bring in a camera and start filming, it becomes a form of art and thus legal. This is why performers in adult films where they show sex acts are not prosecuted. Another thing I learned from the clip is that a police officer is allowed to have sex with a sex worker if it is part of a sting, something that allows for all manner of abuse and which police seem to think of as a perk of their job that they resist having removed.

Oliver looks at what other countries have to offer as more enlightened models and points to New Zealand as a place that has a good policy, part of which has involved decriminalizing sex work. Most importantly, they listened to sex workers and took their concerns into account when drafting legislation. Imagine that, actually listening to the people most affected by laws before passing them!

Consensual sexual activities between adults should not be punished irrespective of whether money is exchanged or not but this is something that some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around. I recall a dinner party some years ago during the time that Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, was caught up in a sting involving sex work, an event that Oliver refers to. During the discussion, I said that I felt that sex work should be legal, which caused some surprise among the other guests and to which one person strenuously objected. I pointed out that every one of us who was present sold (or at least rented) that part of our bodies that was worth something to others in order to earn a living. In my case it was largely my brain that had value. Why should we not allow others to rent that part of their bodies that has value and that they just happen to use for sex? He had no real answer but dithered around trying to explain, unsuccessfully, why my comparison was not valid.

Of course sex work can be dangerous but a large part of the reason for that is that currently it has been driven underground by being made illegal and thus sex workers do not get (or even expect) protection from police nor do they get the kind of support services they deserve. It leaves the field wide open for abusers. In fact sex workers are often abused by the police and the justice system. If sex work was legal and covered by the same kinds of occupational safety laws that other jobs get, it would be much safer.


  1. flex says

    occupational safety laws

    That may make the job of OSHA Inspector more attractive…

    Sorry, I know there are a lot of serious issues at stake here, but I couldn’t resist the joke.

  2. Matt G says

    I remember a study of the sexual health of prostitutes in Paris (where prostitution is legal, but regulated). They recruited prostitutes, and also professors at the university to serve as controls. The study had to be halted because the prostitutes were in better health than the professors.

  3. says

    Like everything else, the control and criminalization has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with controlling women’s lives and bodies. If non-hetero sex had been legal for centuries and all sex work were like wall street (i.e. only men involved), it would probably be legal.

    I can’t find it to cite it, but there’s an XKCD comic about this:

    Man (to woman): “Let’s have sex!”
    Cop (nearby): “You’re okay.”
    Man: “I’ll pay you!”
    Cop: “Hey….”
    Man: “And I’ll film it and sell it!”
    Cop: “Now you’re okay.”

  4. Jean says

    I don’t know if it is mentioned because I can’t see the video here but it is also legal if you have an exclusive contract like so many rich guys have with beautiful young women. That it is called marriage doesn’t change what it actually is.

  5. anat says

    Jean @4: Interestingly, in a traditional Jewish marriage, it is the man who is required to provide the sex, while the woman is the one who is entitled to demand it (the limit of that being the requirements of the man’s profession -- if that requires him to be absent from the home at some frequency the woman cannot demand that he stay home more; the exact details have been debated for centuries).

  6. lanir says

    We’ll end up with more sensible laws about this sooner or later. Probably later. Maybe when the people who are young now have aged enough to get into Congress. Maybe a generation or two after that. The only real argument anyone has to getting better laws on the books for it is a religious one. But it’s going to take a lot more time for organized religion to kill itself off through scandal and ineptitude. At least it will take a lot of time to reach a point where there aren’t enough religious people speaking out against it, enough non-religious people assuming the religious prejudices are just how the world works, and enough old people in power to slow down progress for decades until there just aren’t enough of them left with bad ideas anymore.

  7. Tired South American says

    WMDKitty @ #6:

    Ah, American prudery at its finest. If someone wants to exchange sex for money, that’s their own damn business.

    It’s not the only way to have a different opinion, though… For example, a large majority of feminists in my country (young and old, cis and trans) seem to be in favor of criminalizing the “buyers” but not the “sellers”, which is the current legal paradigm anyway, if I’m not mistaken. Some tend to identify all prostitution as exploitation, and denounce pro-sex work organizations as allies of sex traffickers (and in some cases, I think they have the evidence, but I must admit that I haven’t done the necessary research). As a man I know that I wouldn’t be well-regarded over here if I expressed support for a -complete- legalization/decriminalization of sex work, even if I added the caveat that I’m not interested in paying for sex myself (which is true).

  8. John Morales says

    Tired South American,

    For example, a large majority of feminists in my country (young and old, cis and trans) seem to be in favor of criminalizing the “buyers” but not the “sellers”, which is the current legal paradigm anyway, if I’m not mistaken.

    For good reason.
    It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the reality; in this world, prostitution is the job of last resort, and it’s disproportionately applicable to women, younger the better. Destitute on the streets or with dependents is best.

    The existence of people who do it by choice notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s just like any other job.

  9. John Morales says


    One of the big problems is the conflating of sex work with sex trafficking

    Sure. Like conflating factory work with sweatshops. Big problem, that.

    (Such a clear dividing line!)

  10. John Morales says

    PS Obs, I haven’t watched “Video unavailable — The uploader has not made this video available in your country” so I can only really comment on the OP and the comments.

    (I mean, I could… but that would require me technically breaching the law. So I need a better reason than just being informed before commenting)

  11. says

    Almost everybody would agree that it’s wrong to force a person into sex work.

    Now, either sex work is just the same as any other form of wage labour; or there is something unique about sex work that makes it wrong to coerce people into it.

    If the former were true, then it would be wrong to force a person into non-sex work.

    But anyone with an interest in coercing people into wage labour wants the latter to be true.

    I grew up around mining towns before 1984. I’ve seen what happened before “health and safety gone mad”. And you’re not telling me any of what happened to any of these people was any less terrible than anything that happened to a sex worker.

    The fact that sex work is seen as a “last resort” just says there is a need for better social welfare programmes. (What do you think men, who might well not even have the option of turning to sex work, do when they run out of money?)

  12. Holms says

    “Sex work is just another form of work”
    I agree with the principle that adults can decide to have sex for any reason, including those times where the exchange of money changes a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’. But “just another form of work”? Come on. Would you want to see prostitution booths at the high school career fair? If you do, I’d like to hear the case for that. If not, then that alone is agreement that it should not be treated as quite the same as other work.

  13. says

    @holms, #15: In my schooldays, “The Pit” was still a thing, and the NCB actively recruited. Please explain to me, in terms comprehensible to someone who grew up just mercifully far enough away from the mining villages, how a coal miner is any less exploited than a sex worker.

  14. Holms says

    I’m not saying they aren’t exploited, I’m saying prostitution is not ‘just work’ like what you would see in a careers fair. Just imagine the booth!

  15. Mano Singham says

    Holms @#17,

    Perhaps the reason you cannot ‘imagine the booth’ is because currently sex work is illegal and dangerous and a society that thinks of sex as something dirty means that people who engage in such work are viewed as being morally reprehensible.

    I can well imagine a time in the future when those factors are no longer operative and that such booths exist. What exactly makes that unimaginable for you?

  16. Jean says

    I agree with Mano. Being an illegal drug dealer is also not a career choice but here pot is now legal and shops are owned by the government so people can choose to have a career as a cannabis counselor. This was obviously not the case not that long ago.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    Almost everybody would agree that it’s wrong to force a person into sex work.

    I’d hope almost everybody would agree it’s wrong to force a person into any kind of work they really don’t want to do, be it coal mining, working in an abattoir, crab fishing, being a priest, nursing, teaching or anything, really.

    @Holms, 15:

    Would you want to see prostitution booths at the high school career fair? If you do, I’d like to hear the case for that.

    There are booths at this mythical high school career fair advertising a career in nursing (a career my wife took up). She and her colleagues end up doing stuff most prostitutes wouldn’t do for any price, stuff that literally makes me feel sick to even think about. But she and her colleagues do these things, because they improve and save the lives of people who have no other recourse. She does things so intimate, so personal, that it barely bears thinking about, and certainly people rarely talk about it. Certainly nobody talks much about it at the real career fairs the job is talked about at.

    There are plenty of jobs that other people might find morally questionable, or disgusting, or stressful. You’re going to have to come up with something specific that sets sex work apart from all those other jobs. “It just is”, is all you’ve presented so far.


    All of this said, I do feel a pang of sympathy for those who consider themselves progressive but nevertheless find themselves wanting to make career choices on behalf of the sex workers they consider to have made the “wrong” choice. It really seems to boil their piss that there are women out there prepared to have sex lonely men, old men, disabled men, even with incels in return for a bit of ready cash, and they come across as desperate to live in a world where that wasn’t true.

  18. Holms says

    Mano, I began my comment by pointing out that I have no opposition to the exchange of money for sex. I also don’t think sex is dirty, or required to only exist in marriage or any of that. I don’t however see that the case has been made that prostitution is just the same as e.g. accounting.

  19. says

    It comes down to consent. Consenting adults want to exchange sex for money (or other goods)? Fine. As long as nobody is forced or coerced, it’s fine. I don’t see why we’re singling out one kind of work to shame people over.

  20. John Morales says


    Perhaps the reason you cannot ‘imagine the booth’ is because currently sex work is illegal and dangerous and a society that thinks of sex as something dirty means that people who engage in such work are viewed as being morally reprehensible.

    That’s tantamount to claiming it’s not just another form of work. Kinda vitiates the post title.

    (It’s certainly a job any untrained 15-yo could do, though. Unlike most jobs)

    BTW, being a religious worker — you know, priest, shaman, pastor, elder, whatever — is seen as being legal and not dangerous in a society that thinks of religion as something good.

    Not so sure people would similarly argue it’s just another form of work, though. 🙂

    (Well, not most people, I certainly do.
    Also, cf.


    I don’t see why we’re singling out one kind of work to shame people over.

    “we”? I’m not shaming anyone, nor has anybody on this thread shamed anyone.

  21. Heidi Nemeth says

    Several years ago the main newspaper in Munich, Germany ran an article about the sex workers at Oktoberfest. Being a legal job in Germany, sex work is also governed by rules. Sex workers, both permanent and temporary, must register with the government. From government statistics, the article stated that close to 40% of registered sex workers during Oktoberfest were male. To me, this was shocking. I always thought sex work was primarily a female occupation; that male sex workers were rare as hen’s teeth.
    Years ago my daughter worked in a 3 story building in Munich. The first floor housed a grocery store, the second floor a brothel, and the third floor (where she worked) housed an engineering firm. She used to joke that the guys could go downstairs during their lunch break for a quickie. She never mentioned that she could, too.

  22. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms, 22:

    I don’t however see that the case has been made that prostitution is just the same as e.g. accounting.

    The burden of proof is with you, to explain why it’s not. So far, your case amounts to “it’s just different because I say so”. Have you nothing more?

    @Heidi Nemeth, 25:

    I always thought [,,,]that male sex workers were rare as hen’s teeth.

    She never mentioned that she could [go downstairs during the[…] lunch break for a quickie].

    This comes across as touchingly naive -- you must have led a sheltered life. Allow me to enlighten you a little:

    40% of registered sex workers during Oktoberfest were male

    I have NO data, but I’d be prepared to bet the price of a reasonably decent car that the customers of those sex workers were over 99% male. Think for two seconds about how getting sex works for most men, vs. how getting sex works for most women. I mean -- the very reason incels exist is the (to them) infuriating fact that if the average woman wants casual sex, she can walk into any bar (or supermarket, come to that) and walk out a quarter hour (or less) later with someone who will have sex with her, for free. You can argue about how wise it is to behave that way, but you can’t argue it’s not a fact. Meanwhile, that converse is not true for men. Hence: men are prepared to pay to make that happen. Why would a woman pay for what she can definitely get for free? (Answers on a postcard please…)

    Equally, there are a LOT of men out there who are pretending to be straight. A friend of mine chortlingly told me most of the guys he hooked up on a well known gay hookup app presented as straight. He related one anecdote of a, quote, “hairy arsed plumber”, who turned up at his house in his work van, only wanted to fellate him with no requirement for anything else, and did so while his girlfriend waited in the van thinking he was changing a tap or something. (I find that activity shameful, not for the detail of the act or the genders of the participants, but the dishonesty towards the oblivious partner.) Using a sex worker (or an app) is a way for a deeply closeted (even homophobic) man to get what he really wants. See also quite a few loudly anti-gay American clergymen.

    Those male sex workers? They’re servicing men. And fair enough.

  23. John Morales says

    Ah, right, sonofrojblake.

    So, in your estimation, was Jeffrey Epstein just providing well-recompensed vocational training and preparing young people for a form of work, just like any other work?

    Mind you, here in Oz one needs accreditation for pretty much any job, including trolley collection at supermarkets. Presumably, sex work also has traineeships, being just another job.

    (Here in Oz, traineeships are available from age 16, for most jobs. Restricted jobs start at 18)

  24. John Morales says

    [I know, I know. The intended intent is to claim it should be just like any other job, not to claim that it currently is (which it evidently is not), the subtext is that it should not be shameful or illegal work.]

  25. sonofrojblake says

    @John Morales, 27: bad analogy, because its no more legal to employ an underage child as e.g. a bartender than it is to “employ” them for sex. Penalties differ, and moral judgements differ, but the principle is already there that only consenting adults should do some (most?) jobs.

  26. lanir says

    @Holms #22:

    Comparing it to accounting is a bit off. It’d be more like a booth advertising a career in professional sports. Both careers have physical qualifications. Both require a particular attitude to succeed. Both involve activities anyone can do but not everyone is great at.

    The booth doesn’t need to be particularly racy, it’s probably best if it isn’t. You don’t expect the booth advertising nurses or surgeons to be bloody, do you? The whole point of the booth would be to attract young people to take up that profession, just like any other booth at this hypothetical career fair. It would have a focus on practical information, not pin-ups or whatever else you’re thinking of. Remember the goal would be to attract new professionals not clients. If that’s your hang-up then it’s a good indicator that your vision is based more on biases than reality.

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