Sex work decriminalization is the ‘only tangible measure’ to protect workers: Office of Intercultural Development holds conversation with women in the industry

One misconception about the sex work industry is that the work is inherently feminist and empowering, according to industry member Ariana Amour.

“It is not, and that is okay,” she said.

This past Monday, the Office of Intercultural Development held a virtual discussion entitled “Sex Work is Real Work: A Conversation With Sex Workers.” The talk was led and mediated by Grayson Thompson, Assistant Director of Intercultural Development and Coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Programs, and featured two guest speakers, Amour and a fellow sex-worker who goes by Lauren. The talk was sponsored by the Office of Gender and Sexuality Programs.

Thompson began the conversation by asking the two women how they define sex work in their own terms and what it means in their experience.

“The personal working definition that I have for sex work is that it is an umbrella term used to describe any services exchanged of a sexual nature,” said Amour. “And therefore, there are many different kinds of services that are under the umbrella that is sex work…it’s not a PC term to replace ‘prostitute,’ it’s an umbrella term that describes a very large array of services.”

Lauren agreed and added that there are different obstacles for workers in the industry depending on where they fall in it.

“One of the biggest terms that doesn’t fall under the sex work caveat but is a hot topic these days, with Netflix shows on it, is the term ‘sugar baby,'” she added. “So I would like to throw that into my sex work definition, because that is actually sex work. A lot of self-identified sugar babies also dislike calling themselves sex workers because they themselves apply negative stereotypes and stigma to that term.”

Thompson then asked the speakers what drew each of them into the field.

Amour said that she resisted sex work for a really long time.

“Coming into sex work was a really check-my-privilege kind of moment, because as a trans woman of color who came from a good financial and educational background, I saw it as I didn’t need to do sex work. I had to grapple with that for a really long time until I entered adult entertainment. When I became a burlesque dancer and was surrounded by other adult entertainment figures, the experience was humanized for me,” Amour said.

She added that she has always been intrigued by the social, historical and cultural context that sex work has had over time. Once she was no longer bothered by her internalized stigma against it, she no longer saw herself as “above” the work.

Lauren also addressed how stigma played a part for her. 

“When I joined as a sex worker, instead of more openly speaking about it, I was really worried about the others rather than myself,” she said. “I mainly was just drawn to sex work because I’m a first-generation college student, and as I  started to look at my trajectory as I approached thirty, I had goals. I just reached a point where I had reached my own form of sexual liberation and understood that I’m an open person, and I started learning more about sex work and I just jumped right in. Diversifying my income was huge.”

The speakers were also asked to speak to some myths and misconceptions that people may have about the industry.

“There is this very prevalent idea of how sex work is easy money somehow. Sex work is not easy money. Sex work is very difficult. Sex work is very time consuming, it’s bodily exhausting,” Amour said. “If you’re a content creator, you’re spending so much time and money in what you’re doing. You are literally doing all of the same things other entrepreneurs are doing and have none of the support for it.”

Thompson asked the speakers how they navigate their jobs safely, in terms of health and legality.

Amour explained that the internet allows sex workers a “buffer” to gauge situations from a distance. She added that knowing herself, being careful and understanding her own boundaries are ways that she stays safe.

Due to SESTA/FOSTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) rules, the internet has become more limited for sex workers. Amour explained that these acts, which were passed in 2018, were meant to eliminate avenues for sex trafficking but ended up creating censors on websites with solicitation-type services.

“Not all money is good money,” Lauren said on the subject of safety. “I very quickly set my own set of mental rules and regulations for the way I run my business, and basically if you did not meet that, you are not going to be a client of mine.”

Lauren said that she usually checks in with a family or friend for personal safety and also stressed the importance of anonymity.

At the end of the discussion, one audience member asked what the decriminalization or legalization of sex work would do to the speakers’ work.

Amour answered that decriminalization is the “only tangible measure” that will really improve the safety of workers.

Another audience member asked the speakers how they take care of their mental health with all the stigma they face.

Lauren answered that she has cultivated a group of family and friends whom she can be open with, which makes her feel supported.

I kind of always live in…fear of someone judging me or using me as their next party trick because I live this unconventional life,” she said.

“Sex work, like any other industry, is a reflection of our cultural and societal values. So literally if society continues to go in the way that it is, sex work will reflect those demographic shifts…we are still an industry that is reflective of the vanity ideals of society, and the demographics, and financial trends around sex work reflects that,” Amour said.

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