by Rami Henrich, LCSW, Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and Cassandra Damm, MSW
In a previous article, we introduced the topic of sex work, considered its history and politics, and explored some identifying attributes of the diverse population of individuals sometimes referred to as sex workers. In this article, we would like to offer a few guidelines about the many challenges sex workers may face, why sex workers need your support and what allies can do to offer support.
Many of the issues sex workers contend with today are intrinsically related to the overwhelming stigma surrounding sex work. Not all sex workers grapple with the same level of stigma. Stigma is impacted to some extent by how “out” sex workers are. An individual’s choice to remain “in the closet” about their work depends on many factors including their unique family situation, role in their community, and amount of experience.
While some sex workers have found allies and partners with whom they can be open, many sex workers feel the need to partially or completely hide the facts about their work. Perceiving biased attitudes in their neighborhoods, circles of friends, families and even therapists—as well as overall cultural intolerance of the work—many sex workers operate in secrecy and disclose information about their work life cautiously to select confidants over time, if they choose to disclose it all. It is also important to remember that most sex work is illegal in most states. Criminalization of sex work constitutes a real and potentially devastating risk that prohibits many from being out.
A secretive attitude, frequently adopted as a defense against the very real threats of violence, persecution and prosecution, can have the effect of isolating these individuals from their closest friends, family members, and communities at large. Sex workers may feel the need to lie, withhold important information (for instance, about health problems or finances), and adopt pseudonyms in order to conceal the truth and protect themselves. A sex worker may find themselves compartmentalizing their experience or living a dual life, in conflict with their own values related to honesty and freedom, and further and further alienated from an all-inclusive picture of their identity. (Learn more about the Chicago Sex Worker Support Group.)
The Challenge of Finding Affirming Spaces for Sex Workers
Both outside and within the environments in which they perform their labor, those who identify as sex workers lack reliable opportunities to discuss their experiencesand questions. As a result, sex workers coping with the symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression may have even fewer resources than members of other marginalized populations. Current legislation criminalizing sex work exacerbates isolation, leaving sex workers unsure about where and whom to turn to for support.
At the same time, sex workers may find that people who consider themselves allies lack the general understanding that grows from firsthand sex work experience. Sex workers inhabit a world of unique challenges, demands, advantages, and dangers. Allies—however well-meaning—may exaggerate or downplay the realities of sex work. Sex Workers need a space to process the issues they face with other people who share their experiences and struggles.
Sex workers increasingly seek spaces on the internet for support. While online groups are critical for many sex workers, many feel that the internet cannot provide the same warmth and camaraderie a physical space does. Furthermore, affirming spaces are difficult to find on the internet due to of their vulnerability to trolls and, in some cases, law enforcement.
What Can You Do to Support Sex Workers?
Many general guidelines about ally-ship apply to sex workers as well. We encourage those who are interested in becoming an ally to sex workers to listen, prioritize your own learning about issues facing those in the sex trades, emphasize respect, and be courageous in establishing safe spaces.
Stay open-minded and avoid stereotyping. Language and storytelling present another critical way to support sex workers. A common narrative about sex work charts an unavoidable and alarming path between sex work and trafficking. This narrative minimizes the agency of sex workers—especially women—and overestimates the number of people who are held against their will and forced to engage in sex work. Those who study sex work believe forced sex work is a relatively rare phenomenon. Instead, sex workers are more frequently coerced into the exchange of sexual services due to the economic and environmental pressures that influence all labor in a capitalist system.
Avoid pejorative labels. As we suggested in our previous article, word choices matter. Being an ally means disrupting assumptions by using the term “sex work” more broadly to describe any work that involves an exchange of sexual services or erotic content for money or other valuables. This may include adult cam models, porn actors and actresses, phone sex operators, escorts, strippers, and professional dominatrixes—to name a few.
Educate yourself about the issues facing sex workers by seeking out training opportunities, and reading blogs posted by organizations serving sex workers including:
- Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago(SWOP)
- Urban Justice Center
- Desiree Alliance
- Sex Worker Support Group(Chicago)
Support self-care. Every month, Lifeworks Psychotherapy Center hosts a support group for individuals who identify as sex workers. Co-sponsored by SWOP Chicago (Sex Worker Outreach Project), the group is open to anyone who has previously or is currently working in the sex trade. (For the safety and protection of participants, this group is not open to consumers of sex industry services.)