My argument in response to Rachel Moran is simple: Let people make their own decisions. Consenting adults should be able to participate in whatever socioeconomic situations they choose to enter, provided they aren’t substantially harming anyone else, and it’s safe to guess that sex workers’ clients would not describe their experiences as harmful.
Too many arguments arise because people who agree fundamentally are relying on different words to describe things. Here is the language encouraged by advocates of sex workers’ rights: A sex worker is an adult who makes the choice to enter the sex industry of his or her own free will. This encompasses cam performers, strippers, streetwalkers, and even courtesans—anyone who performs erotic labor for money. A victim of sex trafficking is anyone else—a child, someone forced by a pimp, or someone with a reality-distorting mental illness (although the latter condition may not be apparent to clients, which adds moral complexity).
Of course, as a society we must protect those whose agency is stifled. I am not against helping people who want to leave the sex industry and find other employment. But our communities must equally ensure the liberty of those who are equipped to determine their own fates. I contend that assuming all poor people fall into the former category — unable to competently choose for themselves — is classist and condescending.
The argument that no one in poverty can make a truly free choice to engage in sex work goes like this: when you’re desperate for money, you’re willing to perform labor perceived as degrading by those with other options because you need to eat or pay rent. By this rubric, no choice is truly free because choices are not made in a vacuum. There is always pressure to make money, to conform, to perform. It is true that poor people might choose to pursue sex work simply because they need money and find the work onerous, even awful. But you could say that about any job. Does that mean a poor person cannot consent to work at McDonald’s and all their employees are victims of human trafficking? Obviously not.
The crux of human dignity is the freedom to make choices; to steer your own ship through the freezing sea of life. This is a right that we grant each other in a democracy. We strive for laws that limit harm while preserving agency.
I am certain that my argument holds water because I personally experienced prostitution. As a teenager, I yearned for the freedom to direct my own course. When I was 17, I chose to express my passion for personal agency by becoming a sex worker. Not as one of the less-stigmatized camgirls or strippers, but an escort, which is a euphemism for “upscale hooker.” In the parlance of everyone’s subconscious, a whore.
It was easy. I commissioned boudoir portraits to put on myRedBook, the now-defunct erotic review website that San Francisco Bay-area johns frequented. I wrote a hyperbolic ad about how pretty and smart I was, and I started getting emails right away. Servicing clients was a mix of poignant and irritating–many of them were lonely, and it was obvious why. But others were sweet, kind, and delightful to spend time with. I remain friends with one of my former clients to this day. Facebook shows me photos of his puppy all the time.
I was a teenager, but I was not a child. Was I younger than California’s age of consent? Well, yes, but the age of consent is arbitrary. Did I do this for healthy reasons? No, of course not. I was young, inexperienced, and coping with my depression in various misguided ways, but I was still entitled to my choices. I still got to decide what I did, so I turned tricks in addition to dawdling on my math homework.
Was it a good experience? Mostly no, but it was a mixed bag. I made a lot of money, which was great, but atypical for a sex worker, especially globally speaking. (Prostitution is not particularly remunerative unless you’re already societally privileged: white, not transgender, with a middle-class background and no addictions. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the tendency.) I got burned out and quit after roughly five months. That had much more to do with my own personality and where I was in my life than it did with sex work. I wouldn’t have lasted at a regular job, either.
It’s like what Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in her book The Friends of Voltaire as a description of that philosopher’s attitude: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I have equivalent feelings about sex work. For the most part I didn’t enjoy prostitution, but I will tirelessly defend the right to labor legally in the sex industry. Most sex workers do it for the reason that anyone does any job: they need money to live or to support their family. Punishing consenting participants in an exchange of money and pleasure does nothing but limit the economic options of someone who likely had few to begin with.