Is Sex Work Empowering or Demeaning???

Many people believe that working in the sex industry – for example, as a cam model, porn performer, or fetish model – is inherently exploitative, demeaning, and sexist to the people who take part.

This is often wrapped up in debates over the legality of sex work, which is hugely variable across countries and regions. Some believe that it should all be banned, while others advocate for a legalized and regulated industry.

Many sex workers believe that full decriminalization is the best way to protect their rights, while those against the industry advocate for the Nordic Model (which criminalizes buying certain sexual services without criminalizing those who provide them).

However, many of those who make such sweeping judgments about working in the adult industry have never met or spoken to a sex worker. So what do those who are in the industry think?

It’s a Huge and Diverse Industry

It’s important to recognize that working in the sex industry does not just mean one thing. It can involve numerous forms of work including, but not limited to:

  • Performing in pornography
  • Webcam modeling
  • Fetish or nude modeling
  • Phone sex or cybersex
  • Pro-Domination
  • Lap dancing and stripping
  • Being a sugar baby
  • Escorting
  • …And many more!

Some people who work in the industry will perform just one type of work, while others might make their living from several above or other forms of adult work entirely.

It is also important to remember that, while sex industry naysayers focus on claiming that it is exploitative to women, people of all genders work in the adult space – cisgender and transgender people, men, women, and non-binary people.

People get into adult work for many different reasons. Charlie, a part-time porn performer, producer, and director, says, “I’d wanted to do it for a while. It was a mix of it being fun, having an exhibitionist streak, and loving the idea of having more body diversity in porn. I’m not using it to pay my rent, though having a little extra cash is a huge help.”

The sex industry is not just one thing. It is a wide and varied arena that attracts many different kinds of people and for many different reasons.

Selling Skills, Not Bodies

One common criticism of sex work is that workers are “selling their bodies.” But this is a limiting and insulting way to view this type of labor. A person’s body always belongs to them, no matter the type of work they choose to do. Selling a sexual service does not mean that the worker no longer has ownership over their body.

Despite common misconceptions, working in the adult industry requires skill and is not “easy money.” Many people have to do their own marketing, promotions, financial management, bookings, hair and makeup, costuming, and more. For those who create their own content, shooting and editing photos or videos are also essential skills.

Some jobs, such as lap dancing or stripping, involve specific physical skills that need time and practice to develop. And that’s before taking into account the long hours and emotional labor that often go into this type of work.

To say that a person working in the adult industry “sells their body” makes no more sense than saying the same thing as somebody working any manual job. Porn performers, fetish models, camgirls, and other adult professionals are selling skills and services. Their bodies are still their own.

Many Workers Genuinely Enjoy their Jobs

Another criticism of the adult industry is that nobody could possibly enjoy working within it and, therefore, that anyone who does is inherently being exploited. This is completely untrue.

There are (as in any other field) people working in the sex industry who are doing so out of economic necessity and who would rather be doing something else. But many people work in various roles in the adult industry who truly love their work and prefer it to work in any other job. One small study in 2015 showed that two-thirds of the sex workers surveyed said that they found their jobs fun, while 91% described them as rewarding and flexible.

It is insulting to tell people that they are wrong about their own perceptions of their experience. Just because you might not imagine being happy doing what they do, does not mean that their reality is less valid. The only way to know whether a particular individual enjoys working in the sex industry is to listen to them and believe what they say.

Sarah* is in her mid-30s and did fetish modeling for two years in her early 20s. She says, “I was in graduate school at the time and broke. Modeling helped pay my bills and tuition fees. I had fun, I made decent money, and I don’t regret a thing.” She also says that she never felt demeaned or disrespected during her time working in the adult industry. “Every photographer I worked with was very respectful and never pushed my boundaries,” she recalls.

Sarah has since given up her work in the adult industry to pursue other things but looks back fondly and describes the job as a means to an end. “Just like anything else people do to earn money,” she says.

Charlie says that to write the sex industry off as degrading or sexist is “a pretty lazy critique for a couple of reasons. It seems to imagine the industry as it was thirty years ago. Nowadays, my main impression of the porn industry is of a lot of self-employed and entrepreneurial performers and producers who make the content they enjoy, work with people they trust and like, and are very happy with their careers.”

The Same Issues as Any Other Job

Something that came up again and again in my research for this piece is that many people who work in the adult industry feel pressured to love their jobs all the time. But porn performers, cam models, and other adult professionals have good days and bad days at work, just like everybody else. If we do not think that a bad day means that any other industry is inherently bad, it makes no sense to apply the same standards to the adult industry.

Some people working in the adult industry have also experienced it as less exploitative and problematic than working in other spaces. Freedom, flexibility, and the choice to say yes or no to specific jobs are frequently cited as perks of working in the sex industry.

Kink educator and sex worker Taylor explains, “all work is harmful and degrading to varying degrees. I have faced sexual harassment, homo- and transphobia, unsafe working conditions, unethical business practices, and more at every job I’ve had. At least with sex work, I have the option to turn down work that feels degrading or harmful, whereas, in my other jobs, I haven’t had that freedom.” He adds that sex work afforded him more agency and even helped restore a sense of agency that other jobs had taken. “I was able to reclaim parts of me that never felt quite right and figure out what I wanted and liked,” he says.

Sarah had a similar experience. She says, “I’ve worked in food service and retail as well as doing my modeling. I found those far more harmful to my physical and mental health, and I made less money!”

Different jobs suit different people. Some will thrive in the adult industry, while it would be a bad choice of work for others. But we cannot make generalized assumptions.

So is it Sexist to Discuss Work in the Sex Industry?

No. It’s not for everyone, but if it is for you, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Choosing to engage in sex work of any kind is an incredibly personal choice. Some people will fall into it by mistake and find they love it, while others will intentionally cultivate a career in the industry. Some will enjoy it for a while and then do something else, others will do it out of necessity and then quit when a better fit for them comes along, and still, others will have a long and rewarding career.

The problems that arise within some parts of the sex industry are also prevalent (and sometimes even worse) in other spaces. It is important to fight against exploitation and infringements of workers’ rights in every industry. In fact, some people say that working in the adult industry has given them more freedom and more agency than working in a more traditional job.

Charlie also adds that brand all adult work as inherently sexist and degrading is disproportionately harmful to certain industry sections. “Sadly, the porn-is-sexist argument is almost invariably used in attempts to regulate the industry that disproportionately impact non-normative portrayals of sex. This is actively counterproductive if what you want is a broader set of depictions of what sex can be.” Moral panics around the adult industry tend to disproportionately affect queer people, trans people, kinky people, and anyone else whose bodies or sexual practices don’t align with mainstream “norms.”

Instead of judging the adult industry as inherently sexist and demeaning, we should be striving to break down the stigma, fight for sex workers’ rights, build a world where people have more freedom to choose what types of labor they want to engage in, and end exploitative working practices in every industry. All of this can be achieved without applying broad-brush statements to work that many people find fulfilling, rewarding, and fun.

*Names have been changed

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Amy Norton is a sex blogger, adult product reviewer, and community organizer based in the UK. Her bylines include Sex Tech Guide, Lovehoney's Headboard, Hot Octopuss, and Godemiche. You can follow her on Twitter
@CoffeeAndKink or check out her blog, https://coffeeandkink.me.