Allies can play an important role in the sex workers’ rights movement. By vocally supporting sex workers we can challenge the assumptions of the people around us, creating a more tolerant space for sex workers and providing a better environment for sex workers to advocate for their rights. It’s helpful when a neighbour, friend or family member is openly positive about sex work and expresses their support for the movement. As professionals, academics, social workers, educators or people in a position of social power we can change stigma and discrimination of sex workers and even influence legislative reform. We can actually help change things. The most important step for non-sex workers is to stop harming sex workers’ rights. This sounds simple, but it truly is the most important step. Stop promoting stereotypes, stop supporting the rescue industry and oppose laws and regulations that harm people in the sex industry. Discrimination and criminalisation of sex workers don’t just harm sex workers – they harm us all. By becoming an active ally you can participate in a movement that is changing the discrimination and structural violence against sex workers and anyone in a socially vulnerable position.
One of the most important things you can do as an ally is to speak out against violence, discrimination and stigmatisation of sex workers. Too often we remain silent when other people’s rights are breached, we remain silent when discriminatory or stigmatising language is used and we say nothing when a sex worker is harassed, bullied, abused or even killed. Let your school, friends, co-workers and politicians know you do not accept unequal treatment of people working in the sex industry. Say something when a friend makes a whorepohobic comment. Protest when new laws and legislation targeting sex workers are proposed. Talk about sex work as work, sex workers as workers and sex workers’ rights as human rights. It can be scary to openly disagree with the current discourse of sex workers as either victims or dirty whores who were asking for it, but as a non-sex worker you have the privilege of staying relatively safe as you speak out about these injustices. You might help create a less hostile environment for sex workers themselves to advocate for their rights.
Respect sex workers as experts in their field
More often than not it’s non-sex workers that are consulted as experts on issues concerning prostitution. As a non-sex worker advocating for sex workers’ rights your opinion will usually carry more weight in the public eye than the opinion and experiences of a sex worker. You often see tv shows, articles, conferences and even politicians talking about sex work without even one single worker present or being consulted. The perception of sex workers as dumb, uninformed and unable to speak for themselves is part of the stigma, stereotyping and discrimination against sex workers. Work against this stereotype by vocally respecting sex workers as experts in their field. Whenever possible, quote research by sex workers, refer to sex workers’ lived experiences and recommend sex workers’ rights organisations for public events and debates concerning prostitution. Let others know, by how you act around and talk about sex workers, that you respect them as experts in their field.
Check your vocabulary
Words are powerful, and the way we talk about sex workers can harm, shame and degrade them. The way we talk about sex work can reinforce stigma and influence others to treat sex workers in a degrading manner. You’ll notice obvious examples of this type of degrading and disrespectful language in media, rescue organisations and politics. Sex workers are called ‘prostituted women’ (denying their agency) or even ‘girls’, sex work is equated with slavery or trafficking (denying the existence of voluntary sex work) and raids and prosecution are often called ‘clean ups’ (suggesting sex work is filthy). Sex workers are often portrayed as passive subjects, people will state workers ‘find themselves’ in sex work because of pimps, trafficking or drugs. Rescue organisations and politicians treat sex workers accordingly, deciding what will be “done to” or “done with” the workers without consulting them or even asking for consent. At the same time sex work is held to a higher standard than any other type of work, only sex workers who totally love their job and wouldn’t want to do anything else and totally have other options are considered sex workers out of free choice. You’re either a happy escort or a victimised hooker. We don’t make this distinction for any other line of work, it is perfectly acceptable to dislike your job and simply work because you need money and don’t have any other options. Only sex workers are punished when they don’t love their job, only sex workers are treated as mentally disabled object that can be done to as we wish. Check your vocabulary and make sure you adopt a language of equality and respect.
Do not be a hero
It feels good to be the good guy, come in and save those poor kittens from their terrible fate and be loved as their saviour ever after. The sex workers’ right movement is not at all accommodating to these type of wannabe-heroes. Keep your cupcakes and your chitchat over coffee, because sex workers need rights, not some patronising talk with tea. Often we see people from the rescue industry use their acquaintance with sex workers as an accessory or evidence of their expertise on the subject, sometimes they even advise allies to visit the “girls” or stroll through red lights districts, as if sex workers are like monkeys in a zoo for us to gaze at. Please understand you are contributing to a movement of sex workers who have been organising, protesting, advocating and educating long before you came along. Many sex workers are academics, lawyers, psychologists or teachers. If you are respectful and supportive you can get a lot of love in this community, but inflated ego’s kind of tend to get shot down… sometimes harshly. Make sure you not only adopt a language, but also an attitude of equality and respect.
Be respectful and discrete
Never out a sex worker. Most sex workers are not completely open about their job, and even sex workers that are relatively ‘out’ might be uncomfortable letting certain people know what they do. No matter how ‘out’ a sex worker might be, please do not disclose this information to anyone who does not know already and always let the sex worker decide who this information is shared with. Please be discreet. Never ask people if they are or have been a sex worker, many sex workers are not in the position where they feel comfortable sharing this with you, and it forces them to either lie or out themselves when they do not want to. Both options suck. Many allies are (former) sex workers who are not in a position to be open about their job. On the other hand, do identify yourself as a non-sex worker if you are. This is information you can safely disclose and it makes it possible for sex workers to be ‘silently’ open by not explicitly identifying as a non-sex worker. Also be respectful of sex workers’ privacy. They might be open about their job, but that does not mean you get to ask rude questions, know every detail of their sex life or that they have to satisfy your curiosity. Sex workers are people, not entertainment.
Acknowledge your ignorance
As an active ally you will often be told by both sex workers and anti’s to “do your homework”. Of course it is your own responsibility to make sure you have the necessary information to reach sensible conclusions, and when you’re actively advocating for sex workers’ rights you need to have the background and knowledge to support your claims. But you can be an ally without spending disproportionate amounts of time studying the extensive research around prostitution. Supporting basic human rights does not have to be a full-time job and does not require years of studying. Don’t get too intimidated when someone asks you if you know this or that study by some important person, don’t let yourself get bullied into silence and realise it’s not about you when someone snaps at you to “do your homework”. Human rights are not rocket science. Try to get informed as best as you can, know some good resources, but above all acknowledge your ignorance and don’t apologise for not being an academic expert on the subject. Just don’t pretend to have knowledge that you don’t.
- Frequently told lies about sex work by Maggie McNeill
- Excellent collection of resources by Mistress Matisse
- The Myth of Trafficking by Marijke Vonk
- Global Network of Sex Work Projects
Know what you can do
You don’t have to do everything to contribute something to the sex workers’ rights movement. Maybe you can just not laugh when someone makes a horrible joke about sex workers (“so if you rape a whore is that theft or rape?” – actually heard that one more than once..). Maybe you can tell your friend “you know, I just don’t think it’s right to punish people for having sex with other consenting adults”. Perhaps you can contact a sex workers’ rights organisation and volunteer to help with funding, their website, some event. If you work as a health care professional maybe you can organise a meeting about sex work, raise awareness, invite a sex workers’ right advocate to advice your organisation on how to treat sex workers with respect. If you’re a lawyer, you can donate some of your time to assist sex workers when they’re prosecuted or bothered by police. You do not have to save the world or fight for every just cause, just take a little inventory of your life and see if there’s anything you can do. And know that that sometimes “I don’t think that’s funny” is wonderful to hear after a horrible rape-prostitutes joke. If that’s all you can do, do it. Every bit helps.
If you want to read more about being an ally, I recommend the following articles: