People who oppose sex work seem to think one of two ways: Whores are moral deviants, or, whores need to be saved from their clients or themselves. Both of these points are ridiculous, but affect how people treat sex workers both politically and in their everyday lives.
Even though the decriminalization of sex work is the most logical way to reduce harm for both sex workers and trafficking victims, legislature to the contrary is making our lives a lot harder. The closure of Backpage and Craigslist personals, the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, and the End Banking Act have introduced new threats to an already stigmatized and vulnerable group of workers.
A renewed sex workers’ rights movement has gained support in response: The DecrimNY coalition has mobilized to support sex workers, and, last year, two senators spoke on plans to introduce a decriminalization bill. But what can you, a regular person, do to make life a tiny bit easier for sex workers in your own personal life?
Here are some simple strategies for educating yourself, changing the conversations you have about sex workers, and generally being less of a jerk about sex work.
1. Ask individual sex workers how they prefer you describe their jobs. “Erotic laborer” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of sex industry jobs and gigs, but many more people use “sex worker.”
2. When I’m talking about my own job, I use the word “prostitute” because it’s less of a mouthful and feels more precise—I have sex for money, so it feels like an easy fit. But! Some people see “prostitute” as a slur. Don’t use it to refer to someone as such unless they give you the go-ahead, and when in doubt, use “sex worker.”
3. “Hoe” (or “heaux”) and “thot” are racialized slang used to describe Black erotic laborers and Black women and girls. If you’re white, don’t co-opt language and coded communication. This goes for Black queer and trans culture, too (like “trade,” which originally refers to Black LGBTQ sex workers).
4. Understand that one sex worker’s perspective isn’t representative of every other’s. We have varied points of view, especially among different races, ethnicities, and nationalities.
6. Don’t tag us in news items related to sex workers’ deaths. We know the stories, and we don’t always wanna see them over and over again.
7. If you see bots impersonating us or people harassing us, report them! It’s jarring to have our accounts suspended or disabled—online harassment can have a real impact on our income.
8. Do not mention anything overtly sexual in your social media messages to a sex worker unless they say it’s OK. Otherwise, you may get our accounts flagged or banned.
9. Trafficking and sex work are not the same! Stop conflating them. Trafficking is when a person is forced or coerced into exploitation, and sometimes transported across borders, to perform labor. Some sex workers are trafficking victims, but not all of them.
11. When you’re tempted to fault sex work for trafficking, think systemically. U.S. trafficking is usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows. And many victims are already at-risk youth: They’re homeless, LGBTQ, poor, or otherwise vulnerable.
12. Be wary of alarmist trafficking stories. Sometimes, anti-trafficking activists sensationalize trauma-filled stories to activate people’s savior complexes and mobilize them in ways that harm sex workers. Read more here.
13. One dilemma sex workers confront: “empowerment versus exploitation.” Sex workers are seen as above-it-all, post-feminist sex deities or straight-up victims—but we’re not, so don’t try to save us or idealize us.
14. If we’re open about what we do, please don’t bombard us with questions. Would you like being treated that way off the clock?
15. I’m not Sex Work 101—don’t ask for free advice on how to get into the business or get nasty with me if I decline to answer.
16. Stop popping into our inboxes for advice on “platonic sugaring” or navigating Seeking Arrangements and OKCupid. That’s usually not even related to our work.
17. Before you start talking about how great and easy sex work sounds, remember that one-off stories posted online gawking at well-paid “sugar babies” are tabloid fodder and don’t represent most sex workers’ realities.
18. Promote quality sex education to create a world in which people are educated about their bodies, which helps demystify sex and sex work.
19. Not all sex workers are sex educators, sex therapists, etc. Don’t approach us for clinical or therapeutic advice unless we offer and are credentialed in it.
20. Tristan Taormino is a former porn performer who is also a sex educator and author. Check out her work!
21. If a sex worker takes time to explain anything to you about their experiences or sex workers’ rights, compensate them.
22. There’s no need for patronizing remarks about our safety. I almost definitely get tested more than you, and there’s nothing new you can tell me about the supposed dangers of sex work. Keep your “be safe” to yourself.
23. If you’re a client, be ready to discuss—and respect—boundaries. Just because you’re paying doesn’t mean you get to entirely dictate what happens. Every sex worker has their own rules.
24. Don’t offer the “well-meaning” white feminist idea that “all wives are whores.” Black wives have always worked, and white wives are given a higher level of social protection. This rhetoric obscures whorephobia and misogynoir (anti-Black misogyny) more than it shows solidarity.
25. Don’t ask nonwhite sex workers to perform their race for the sake of your fetish—like expecting Indigenous sex workers to dress in Native garb or Black or Spanish-speaking workers to speak in exaggerated accents.
26. Don’t ask sex workers if they’ve been assaulted or experienced childhood abuse. Whether someone has been sexually abused isn’t relevant unless they say it is.
27. Sex workers can lose other jobs they hold and/or be targeted by law enforcement if someone publicly outs them (or even outs them socially to others who might). Don’t be an asshole and mind your business.
28. Strip club laws vary by state. Some mandate air dancing, nipple pasties, topless only, no touching, and more. Did you know that nipple pasties are supposedly to protect customers from breast milk? Yeah, really. We think it’s absurd, too, but you’re not the one in trouble if we ignore it. Don’t get mad when people need to do their jobs legally.
29. Pay for a stripper’s time if you want their attention.
30. Tip generously—that’s often the only way strippers make money. Strippers mostly aren’t paid hourly wages (unless they’ve unionized, which is rare). Strippers may pay a house fee and/or “tip out” the bartenders, bouncers, DJs, waitstaff, and other staff. (This is how strippers can end up in debt to clubs.)
31. If you’re still not going to tip? Don’t take up valuable space by sitting at the stage.
32. Stop asking if I have a fish in my platforms or any variation of that joke.
33. Stop bothering me about whether my body is “real.” In the words of Princess Nokia: “It’s mine, I bought it!”
34. Don’t steal a stripper’s panties off the stage. Ask if you can purchase them.
35. We don’t have to suppress our disappointment at your separation of pole-dancing as an “athletic sport” and stripping as “glorified porn.”
36. Eliminate the word “exotic” from your vocabulary—it’s is steeped in racism and classism. Call it “erotic dancing” instead. I can’t tell y’all how many times I’ve been called “classy” and “exotic” as a Black stripper—as in, unlike Black people stereotyped as ghetto because of our features.
37. Some strippers also sell sex, but many don’t. Instead of offending strippers by asking them if they do “extras,” let them offer that information themselves.
38. Yes, I know you loved the video for “Cellophane” by FKA twigs, or Hustlers, or whatever. Now can we talk about sex workers’ rights?
39. Trans women aren’t allowed to dance in many clubs, which limits their access to safer spaces. Many cam/clip platforms also ban trans people or limit their accessibility. If you want to know how to support trans sex workers about this, ask them.
40. Cam models who stream online don’t get paid a wage outside of what you give them, so don’t ask us to perform for free in the chat room.
41. There’s no such thing as free porn. Pornhub and other third-party sites take a percentage of what the performers make and make money from ads. Even if you’re watching “for free,” they’re still making a profit that we aren’t. Pay for porn.
42. Ask how you can safely, privately, and accessibly pay sex workers in the ways they prefer.
43. Being a sex worker doesn’t make a person an inadequate parent, so don’t be “concerned” for our children.
44. Don’t ask what a person is gonna do if their kids “find out” about their job.
45. Many of us pay taxes. Some don’t. It’s none of your business either way. Don’t ask how we deal with the IRS—or threaten to report a sex worker to it.
46. Don’t ask about whether we have/intend to get “real jobs.” A real job = something I do for money. Like sex work.
47. Pricing varies by service, individual rates, and a host of other factors. Don’t expect uniform rates across sex work.
48. Don’t make sex workers ask for their money or withhold payment for leverage, Pay how much you’ve agreed to, at the time you’ve agreed to pay it.
49. If you have an ongoing relationship with a sex worker, make sure they regularly get their money when they’re expecting it.
50. A sex worker isn’t “actually really into you” unless they make it clear, in words, that they want a relationship with you as anything beyond a client. Even though we’re used to you mistaking this, consider… not doing it!
51. Don’t mistake our professionalism for heartlessness.
52. If you are dating a sex worker, have a non-judgmental conversation about boundaries without framing it around “cheating.”
53. Male violence against women and non-binary people isn’t our fault, nor are we contributing to exploitation. Instead of blaming sex workers, point fingers at who’s actually at fault.
54. Rape and/or assault of a sex worker is not “theft of goods,” as many law enforcement officials have described it. Rape is rape; take this rhetoric out to the curb.
55. Police violence is a huge problem for sex workers, especially Black, Indigenous, East Asian, and trans people. Never call the police on someone you suspect is a sex worker, even to “help” them. Ask them how you can help instead.
56. When you speak up against police brutality, it needs to include sex workers.
57. Whenever I read about sexual violence, I see the comment, “If he wanted sex that bad, why didn’t he just hire a hooker?” Don’t wish more violence upon us by seeing us as solutions for situations best handled by mental health professionals. Don’t send these people our way.
58. Set aside the idea that sex workers are exploited by pimps. Most sex workers don’t have them. Pimps are considered arbiters of prostitution, and the current laws target any adult who facilitates prostitution—romantic partners, prostitutes working together for safety reasons, etc. Don’t try to save us from people protecting us.
60. Read writing by sex workers, especially nonwhite ones. Suggestions: A Disgrace Reserved for Prostitutes, Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, heauxthots: On Terminology, and Other [Un]Important Things, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, $pread: The Best of the Magazine that Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution , and Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights.
61. Watch sex work–centric movies and TV shows other than Pretty Woman–ish ones that glamorize or pity white sex workers! Set It Off, Cam, Bare, Jezebel, Tangerine, The Florida Project, POSE, Harlots, and The Players Club center the perspectives of “low-end” sex workers with nuance.
62. With the rise of financial domming—dominating a client for money—has come a proliferation of relationship experts starting “marry rich—men are trash” conversations on social media. They want to join in and get “sugar” without giving up sugar. If you’re cheering people who want men to give them money, are you really anti-whore?
63. Don’t think of us as lazy because you have sex for free. That we don’t work hard couldn’t be further from the truth.
64. Stop with the classist myth that sex workers with GoFundMes, CashApp, or wish list links in their social media bios are entitled. If you’re tempted to say something, imagine how you’d feel if someone tried to control your paycheck despite any familiarity with your work.
65. Full-time work is traditionally 35 or more hours a week. Sex workers work more or less than this, depending on whether they also have a day job, disability, or children, which many do. Don’t try to judge whether we’re working hard enough.
66. Hold politicians accountable for legislation that harms sex workers. Write them letters, participate in protests, and vote locally for people who support our rights.
67. Surveillance software infringes upon sex workers’ privacy under the guise of ending trafficking. Criticize and protest against it.
68. Read the lawyer Adrienne D. Davis’s poignant California Law Review paper “Regulating Sex Work: Erotic Assimilationism, Erotic Exceptionalism, and the Challenge of Intimate Labor .” The short version? We have a lot more work we’re gonna have to do in the future around sex workers’ rights, and we need the support of non–sex workers to achieve it.
69. New Zealand’s model of decriminalization—where brothel-keeping, living off funds from someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are legal—has helped many sex workers, but migrants and people of color have told us that this model does not serve them. Keep up with people on Twitter covering this: @POCSWOP, @GlitsInc, @BtripleP, @TheBlackSWC, @GLPsea, and @byp100.
70. The Nordic model of criminalizing clients does not help prostitutes—instead, it increases danger for sex workers. Please stop suggesting it as a pro-whore solution.
71. Read ethnographer Heather Berg’s work on sex work and labor rights. Sex workers are gonna have to fight for labor rights alongside many other groups, since the U.S. has moved toward a gig economy eroding all laborer’s rights.
72. There is a lot of overlap between the LGBTQ and sex worker communities—if you are a member of any of them, connect with your peeps to help us drum up the support we need to fight against discriminatory legislation for everyone.
73. Brothels are legal in certain places in Nevada, but the legislature still allows discriminatory regulations. Contact your elected officials to fight against bills like this one that harm people working in brothels.
74. I promise you you don’t know better than we do about how to improve conditions in brothers and strip clubs. Support us in our own business ventures—our workplaces should be for us, by us.
75. Trans people, especially trans people of color, who do sex work are often most in need of resources. If you’re a client, pay as much as you can, and if you’re not, ask trans people what would be most helpful when they seek support.
77. In custody/family court cases, or when seeking secure restraining orders, sex workers’ jobs can be used against them, threatening their safety. If you know someone going through something like this, offer financial support.
78. Similar to other beauty industries, performers are discriminated against for their looks, which disadvantages Black people, people of color, and fat people. If you’re paying less to people in these identities, work to dismantle your own biases—and pony up.
79. Nonwhite and poor sex workers may employ tactics that seem “unfeminist” in order to make income, like appealing to customers with traditionally feminine behaviors and clothing. Don’t blame nonwhite and poor sex workers for our own oppression because of how we assimilate in order to get by.
80. Male sex workers have their own unique issues. In gay porn, this extends to colorism and racial stereotypes. Light-skinned men tend to be cast as bottoms, while darker-skinned are likelier to be tops. Follow @angryblkhoemo and @AdamantxYves to expand your perspective.
81. Male sex workers’ issues are connected to homophobia and biphobia. Men may be judged harshly by heterosexual women because of their sexual involvement with men, whether or not they identify as LGBTQ. Always question anyone who says things like, “I could never date a man who was with another man”—what are they really saying there?
82. Question people’s negative use of the word “porn” (bad: masculine) in contrast with what’s “erotic” (good: feminine). Even one of my favorite Black feminists, Audre Lorde, wrote:
…we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.
Even if it’s your favorite feminist doing it, separating sex work and porn out from “the erotic” further stigmatizes them.
83. Check out Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown for a sex worker–friendly education on the ethical pursuit of pleasure and self-education without sacrificing enjoyment.
84. Work to normalize non-sexual nudity. If we were to untangle our misogynist and/or repressive attitudes around nakedness to relinquish our urge to control what other people do with their bodies, the world would be much pleasanter for sex workers. Here‘s a good place to start.
85. Sex workers have lots of interests outside of our work, and many of us are artists, parents, filmmakers, academics, film buffs, community organizers, theoreticians, nurses, friends, partners, and most important, deserving of your respect no matter what or who else we are. Don’t forget that, above all, sex workers are people.
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