I write this post with the hope that it will serve as a call to action on the touchy issue of sex work and the stigma against it. Sex work (prostitution and other adult services) has been in the headlines for weeks because of the controversies surrounding Craigslist and BackPage and the recent suspension of Melissa Petro.
As I followed the Craigslist story, I was disappointed that the debate seemed to focus on human trafficking and rarely pointed out that there are many people who choose sex work without any coercion whatsoever. I was disappointed that so many attorneys-general across the country choose to attack sex work as a whole, even though much sex work is perfectly legal. I was disappointed that Craigslist backed down. And my disappointment continues as I see Melissa Petro, a courageous, perhaps even heroic, woman, attacked on the basis of prejudice, not reason.
There are others like Ms. Petro, others with valid perspectives and rational motives for engaging in sex work, and I think the time is right for the public to hear from voices of sex workers who do not fit the traditional narrative that would stigmatize all such persons as slaves, drug-addicts, uneducated, criminals, emotionally damaged or of low ethical character.
I wish to address two issues of concern: the criminalization of sex work, which has been shown to be ineffective at curbing natural human desire and proven dangerous for sex workers, as well as ruining the lives of patrons forced onto sex offender registries and lumped in with rapists and pedophiles; and the stigma against sex work, a hypocritical expression of sexual repression. How many cases have we seen where a person condemns certain sexual practices yet partakes of them in secret? Emotion often trumps reason, and casting shame upon sex work makes it more difficult to establish rational social policies.
Much of the stigma against sex workers stems from a prejudice about the kinds of people that would engage in that type of work. I wish to dispel some of those notions by presenting a completely different picture of who a sex worker can be.
I am a 38-year-old computer programmer born to immigrant parents who worked hard to provide me a middle-class upbringing. I graduated number two in my high school class, earned a degree in computer science and have been working as computer programmer ever since. If I worked a conventional year instead of traveling for months at a time, I would make in excess of six figures. I did not grow up in conditions of privation nor experience trauma. I have never been diagnosed with any type of mental disorder. I have never been arrested. I do not smoke, rarely drink, never take drugs, and try to cut down on my meat consumption. I do not steal, I rarely lie, and I have never in my adult life intentionally tried to hurt another person. Though eccentric to the extreme, I am a harmless and productive member of society.
Given my active imagination and desire to experience new things, you might understand the decision I made one night during my late twenties. I was at the office late and taking a break from my programming to surf through some online ads. I noticed one offering $75 for participating in a video, and I was intrigued. I called the number on the ad and ended up driving out to the country to satisfy the sexual needs of a middle-aged, shy, and overweight man. At the time I was making nearly $60 an hour as a programmer, and I actually made less money driving to that appointment than I would have if I'd just stayed at the office. It wasn't about the money. My decision was about experiencing something new, and seeing what it was like on the other side of the prostitute/patron line.
My curiosity satisfied, it was several more years before I engaged in sex work again. That second time I found myself out west on a road trip, visiting new Starbucks stores. I had just finished a contract, but I had not won the prize money I'd hoped for at that year's Scrabble championship. I was not broke, but I still felt it wise to conserve my cash while I looked for my next gig. I debated whether to travel across the country to play more Scrabble, and one afternoon I stumbled across a Craigslist ad offering $100-$200 for a massage. His location was nearby, not that far from my next destination, so I decided to call. He sounded like a normal, lonely man in a small town without access to a gay community, and he explained that he preferred not to make the hour-plus drive into the city to find companionship at the bars. I felt like I would be doing him a genuine service by providing what he needed in exchange for the money that would help me continue playing Scrabble.
Years later I started posting my own ads when between contracts, bored, with time to spare, and I felt quite at ease satisfying my pseudo-bisexual curiosity without having to deal with emotional attachments. The money was just a bonus. Engaging in such work also satisfied my need to inject a bit of excitement into the mundane periods of my life when not working or traveling. At no time did I engage in this sex work out of financial need, to satisfy any drug habit, or to punish myself due to emotional instability. My reasons were rational and sensible, and no one was hurt by my actions.
Yet there are many people who would look negatively upon my choices, people who do not understand the value of allowing rational adult individuals the freedom to express their sexuality as they see fit, so long as their choices do not harm anybody else.
Those people who would condemn my choices are being as prejudiced as those who would condemn homosexual sex, sex between races, or other taboo forms of sexual expression. Moreover, people who stigmatize sex workers contribute to their harm. Sex workers often lead lives filled with the stress of leading a double life, or are plagued with low self-esteem. If the stigma of sex work were lifted, those two burdens would be reduced.
The stigma against sex worth is also a misogynistic double-standard, as sex workers are usually women, and patrons usually men. Look around and you will see plenty of examples of men who have patronized prostitutes, politicians like Eliot Spitzer or actors like Charlie Sheen, yet have been rehabilitated in the public eye. While I suspect we can find examples of women who have engaged in sex work and been "forgiven" (as if there were anything to forgive) by the public, women bear an unfair share of the stigma surrounding this oldest profession.
There was a time when acting was considered a vulgar profession, and there was a stigma against women appearing in plays. There was a time when charging interest was seen as immoral. Thankfully, most societies have moved beyond such primitive viewpoints, and a person today who started preaching that actors or bankers are immoral would be seen as a loon. The time has come to stigmatize those who are bigoted against sex work and shift public perception to the point where those who preach against such work are regarded as poorly as we currently regard homophobes and racists. The time has come to regard sex workers as productive members of society who provide a valuable and necessary service. I look forward to a future in which sex workers are as highly regarded as the "companions" from Joss Whedon's forward-looking "Firefly" television series.
The time has also come for the United States to legalize and regulate prostitution. My actions harm no one, and it is hypocritical for a society that values freedom to punish and ruin the lives of citizens for actions that do no harm. The criminalization of prostitution has done immeasurable harm to countless men and women who have to live with criminal records and diminished opportunities in life for engaging in acts that are benign. The criminalization of prostitution has led to the physical harm and death of countless sex workers who are afraid to report their attackers for fear of legal repercussions. Worse still, there is the damage done to individual freedom in a country where freedom is purported to be one of our highest ideals.
I write this in the hope that my words will inspire others who have engaged in sex work for reasons that defy the stigmatized norm, and in the hope that readers will abandon their prejudices, reexamine their perceptions, and realize that sex work should be a freedom as accepted as any we hold dear.