July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

As part of our Taboo issue of I,Science, Mary Barker explored the stigma around sex work, and the dangers it can create for those in the industry.

person passing a massage sign

Sex work can be dangerous and detrimental to those who do it, but the stigma of sex work itself can also cause harm…

For many of us, sex is a fundamental part of our lives. Not only is it vital for procreation, it is also a pleasurable activity enjoyed every day by humans across the world. But what about selling sex? Suddenly, this renders it a disgusting and immoral act. This stigma, or ‘mark of disgrace’, is experienced by sex workers in societies throughout the world. These 42 million so-called ‘whores’ or ‘hookers’ are considered by many to be sub-human, unclean and undeserving of respect. Many clients feel that they have bought the right to the sex worker’s body, so that rape and violence towards the individual is regarded as permissible and perhaps even deserved – that is what they believe the sex worker has signed up for.

black and white image of girl with sh*thole sticker over her eyeblack and white picture of girl with stickers over her eyes

So, sex work is seen as an immoral act, and is at the very least a dangerous one. Accordingly, sex work has been made illegal, or restricted, in most countries. But this hasn’t stopped it, and sex workers continue to be abused and raped every single day. What then, has this criminalisation achieved? A lot of people argue that it has only acted to reinforce the stigma faced by these individuals. The classification of sex workers as criminals places them in the same group as murderers and thieves. Consequently, if sex workers go to the police to report abuse, the police may not want, or even be able to help. Sex workers have simply ended up with no one to protect them.

black and white picture of building with fuck everything sign

black and white picture of wall with pen writing- No one cares about

This enacted stigma experienced by sex workers becomes internalised over time, and leads to fatalistic outlook within the industry. If an individual is constantly treated like they don’t deserve basic human rights, eventually they may come to believe it themselves. This attitude results in increased risk of infections, such as HIV, as sex workers resign themselves to what they regard to be inevitable. Without such fatalism, they might try to do everything they can to minimise their risk of infection by insisting on condom use with clients. However, as soon as they come to think that they will eventually contract something, and possibly even believe that they deserve to get an infection, condom use becomes less important. Yet, contracting sexual diseases and infections can be even more detrimental to a sex worker’s mental health. For example, if a sex worker becomes HIV-positive, the stigma they experience increases exponentially – even from others in the trade. Therefore, many sex workers hide their HIV status, not seeking antiretroviral therapy (ARV), which simultaneously puts their health in a grave position whilst also putting their clients at risk of infection.

black and white picture of man with pill written on forehead

So what can be done to reduce the stigma faced by sex workers? From the feminist abolitionist perspective, sex work has evolved as a result of patriarchy, and thus sex workers should be regarded as victims with no choice in their fate. Although in some cases, such as sex trafficking, sex workers certainly are victims, others see themselves as agents who have decided to pursue the profession. Perhaps by treating all sex workers as victims, we are reinforcing the view that sex work is immoral, and supporting the concept that sex workers can be rescued by criminalising their acts or their clients. Instead, however, if we grant sex workers the same respect as any other worker we will start a culture of caring about their fate. Society will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to their abuse, and women who are forced into the industry can be protected, as any vulnerable human beings deserve to be.

black and white picture of girl crouching on ground

So, what we might actually need is a new way of thinking about women and sex. The ‘whore’ stigma is not just restricted to the sex industry, but, through slut-shaming, is regularly experienced by women around the world. The longer we use words such as ‘promiscuous’ and ‘slag’, shaming women who enjoy sex, the longer the stigma towards sex work will continue.

Mary Barker is studying for an Masters in Public Health

All photos are by Sue White. Click here to read about the inspiration behind Sue White’s work.