We’re having the wrong conversation about sex work, and it makes Rush Limbaugh happy

In the United States, sex work has been illegal since promiscuous ladies still got Scarlet Lettered. But countries are moving towards legalizing the world’s oldest profession—and many women’s rights advocates aren’t happy about it. Just this month, the European Women’s Lobby called on the EU to make the act of buying sex illegal.

To get a handle on the legal sex work debate, we have to ask: just who do we protect by criminalizing sex work? Voluntary sex workers, the victims of human trafficking—or perhaps the strange brain babies of sexism? Many feminist advocates try to push that question aside by considering all sex workers to be unwilling victims. A European Women’s Lobby spokesperson told the BBC that “the most important thing to understand about prostitution is that imposing sexual intercourse with money is a form of violence.”

Generally, we see exploitation as the byproduct of bad governance, not as “violence.” After all, bust out your Dickens and you’ll find that when we don’t regulate industry, we end up with the abuse of workers’ human rights. Some advocates argue that there is no difference between sex work and other trades; sex work is a job, just as much as a spot on an assembly line. Jo Weldon, former sex worker and owner of the New York School of Burlesque, comments in her essay “A Sex Worker Reflects on Research:”

The one things workers talk about the most, and the one thing they show up for every day, is rarely ever discussed in research. How they feel about money is rarely, if ever, compared to the way other workers feel about money. Instead, their sexual deviance is questioned at every turn. Yet few workers ever say, ‘I got into it because I needed the sex.’”

We’ve got a case of tunnel vision that blocks out the fact that like any other trade, the sex industry is about money. When we bury the relationship between sex workers and money, we perpetuate an inaccurate and sexist dialogue about sex work.

Julietta Hua describes this dialogue to a T in her book “Trafficking Women’s Human Rights.” She argues that we label sex workers as worthy or unworthy prostitutes. A “worthy prostitute” is a sex worker who does not want to be a sex worker; she works under duress, not because she wants money. We can fit victims of human trafficking, who generally earn no money, into the “worthy prostitute” frame without difficulty. But “unworthy prostitutes,” people who choose to be a sex worker for economic advancement, end up branded as outsiders who don’t deserve the government’s help.

If this sounds archaic to you, you’re right; but so are our laws. In the U.S., conviction of prostitution means a fine or prison time. We compel police officers to rescue one woman as a victim and jail another. The difference lies in an assessment of her desires and how “worthy” they make her. Unsurprisingly, wanting to make one’s own money and being willing to have sex are excellent ways to achieve “unworthiness.”

As in the case of the European Women’s Lobby, well-intentioned leaders often end up pushing money out of the sex work discussion and capitalizing on the worthy/unworthy trope. It’s an easy way to make the plight of human trafficking victims in sex slavery uncontroversial. But letting this sort of misogyny remain in the political discourse hurts sex workers and women more broadly.

Now, at last, Rush Limbaugh comes into the picture. Think back to his comments on Sandra Fluke’s testimony in favor of government subsidized contraception:

It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Limbaugh’s diatribe is a textbook “unworthy prostitute” argument. Using the metaphor of prostitution, Limbaugh suggests that Fluke’s way of having sex and the support she wants from the government are immoral. He insinuates that far from being a member of our collective, the “you and me and the taxpayers,” Fluke is an unworthy outsider trying to take advantage of us.

We have to stand up for legalized sex work. Otherwise, we help Limbaugh use the stigma surrounding prostitution to undermine the voices of women who want equal opportunities in the work force.

The truth is, the “worthy/unworthy prostitute” framework isn’t any use to anyone else. Far from competing, the needs of human trafficking victims and of voluntary sex workers are linked. So long as traffickers kidnap and enslave women with impunity, voluntary workers will have no way to demand fairer but more costly working conditions. The European Women’s Lobby has got it the wrong way around: We need to make commercial sex legal and govern it with strict labor laws, and thus protect sex workers’ human rights and their civil liberties. That’s the best way to ensure everyone in the sex industry controls their own money, their own bodies and their own futures.

A legalized sex industry will strengthen women’s political position across the board. Just imagine if we had been able to respond to Limbaugh like this: Sandra Fluke isn’t a “prostitute,” but so what if she was? So what if a sex worker asks Congress to pay for the medication she and millions of other women need to have a fair shot in the workforce. You’re right, Rush; we want the government to pay for us to have safe sex, equal opportunity, and self-determination. Deal with it.

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