This is the first research-on-sex-work blog, by board member Katie Hail-Jares, also a PhD candidate in Criminology at American University and an associate professor at Georgetown University. Stay tuned for more, and send any questions about sex work and sex trafficking facts and research to support@swopusa.org! 

The Question:

I was pulled into a Facebook discussion concerning a particular NY Times article. I shared my observations from my time at HIPS but am not a researcher, nor have conducted valid research. Would you care to comment at all?
Also, anecdotal stories (which I find immense value in) aside, is there any data on the amount of sex workers who are in it simply because they want to and engage in it to express their agency and power? I mean, how many of us actually work in jobs we want to work in rather than surviving, but if we always remember to keep our perspectives in light of the average sex worker, is there any data on this? I am just wondering whether the minority of sex-workers are the powerful female/trans-gendered champions we always hear the stories about, and the majority who are silenced due to trafficking and fear are the ones we should be concerned for — especially if this becomes legal. I really don’t know the answer to this question and there may not be any hard data, but if there is any out there can you let me know?

 

 
The Response:
 
Research-based or not, this marginalization of the “happy hooker” has to stop. Why is it okay to fetishize and hold up accounts by trafficked women as the norm while ignoring or devaluing the experiences of women who are empowered or enjoy their work? Similarly, we never extend this same argument to men. In the aftermath of the Rentboy bust, the federal government did not rely upon a pretense that men posting ads were forced into sex work. They did not publicly claim that “if other educational avenues existed, they men and boys would probably have been happier working as ____________________” And why is that? In my opinion it is mostly because we are willing to accept male sexual behavior as something that is acceptable, chosen, or even undeniable. Whereas, women will not chose to be sexual beings UNLESS they are forced, coerced, or driven to these extremes. 

 

Let me move my value-based rant aside though. We do not have research on sex worker job satisfaction– or how it compares to folks working in retail, fast food, law, or  any other type of employment. The closest we come to this is Rosen and Venkatesh’s article “Perversion of Choice.” The authors interviewed over 50 people (men and women) who were engaged in sex work in Chicago. Most were working street-based or informally out of their apartments. The study is qualitative, so statistics are not provided. But the interviews suggest that most individuals, rather than seeing sex work as the only option did make a rational choice to enter into sex work, especially when given the alternatives. Sex work did not pay more than working at MacDonald’s, for example. But the pay from working a few hours a week as a sex worker was comparable to working 40+ hours a week at MacDonald’s. Sex work allowed individuals the flexibility to engage in childcare or serve in the broader community.

 

And Venkatesh’s findings have been replicated. Leslie Ann Jeffrey and Gayle MacDonald of Canada note in the introduction to their article “It’s the money, honey: The economy of sex work in the maritimes,” that sex workers even in dire economic circumstances weighed their choice carefully:

 

“In this article we focus on their response to “What is the best part of this work?” which nearly universally was: the money. We argue that while “money” may have been the quick answer to what was good about sex work among om- interviewees, this answer did not imply that that these women and men were simply pushed into the trade by economic forces. Either, as we shall see, they often made careful decisions about the economic choices available to them—such as minimum-wage work or welfare and between indoor or street-based sex work. These decisions were based not just on money but on the amount of independence each option offered. Thus, our interviewees were no different them most Maritimers who, in an economy marked by un- and under-employment (Acheson, Frank and Frost, 1985), “cobble together a living” among the options available, but do not accept attempts to marginalize them.”  (Jeffrey & MacDonald, 2006: 314). 

 

Again, though qualitative, Jeffrey and MacDonald went to great lengths to include a great number of sex workers (n=60) in their study to strengthen these findings. Thus, the common narrative of being “forced” into sex work by circumstance appears, in at least two very different contexts to rest upon a very disempowering understanding of how poor people (men and women) navigate their lives and economic-decision making.

 

So then, let’s turn to the other issue– that sex workers are forced into the life, by pimps, and ergo, it is not circumstance, but coercion that is the root of the situation. Here too, we have considerable evidence to illustrate this is false, most decisively in Ric Curtis’s authoritative study on NYC youth involved in the sex trade. Curtis’ study was among the first to include a large sample of youth involved in sex work who were not in the process of exiting. As such, since we (socially) agree that street-involved youth are likely the most vulnerable individuals for pimping and coercion, we would expect the rates of pimping within this population to be extremely high. Curtis found, though, the exact opposite. Out of the nearly two hundred and fifty youth (n=249) involved in his study, less than 15% of boys and girls had been pimped at some point. At the time of their participation in the study, this number was even smaller– just 14% of girls and 3% of boys were working for a pimp. Zero percent of trans youth were working for a pimp. These numbers retained their validity, in a replication study based in Atlantic City, NJ when Curtis asked his research assistants to identify pimping behavior (rather than relying on self-reporting)(Note: The first author on the Atlantic City paper is Anthony Marcus, Curtis’ colleague and protege.) They have worked closely together on both projects). In that study, involving over 100 youth, just 3 were identified as being in a pimp-controlled relationship. Similarly, pimps often did not play a prominent role in routes of entry into sex work. Pimps were involved in the initiation of 19% of girls and 16% of boys; but the vast majority (over 50%) were introduced to sex work by friends and peers. When asked what resources they would need to leave sex work, the youth in both studies noted that what they really needed was more stable housing, employment opportunities that did not discriminate based upon criminal records or sexual orientation, vocational training, and access to drug treatment.

 

Again, we would expect that numbers of sex trade-involved youth involved in pimp-controlled sex work would be much higher given their greater (perceived) vulnerability. And, again, this has largely been borne out. Chin and Finckenauer in their exemplary book Selling Sex Overseas followed nearly 350 Chinese migrant women, their pimps and managers, and traffickers who traveled abroad to eight countries (including the United States) and engaged in sex work. The authors compared their findings to the varied definitions of sex trafficking that exist. Under the most broad definition of sex trafficking (involving the actual transportation of women for sexual purposes, without attention to the women’s agency), they found that even then:

 

[f]raming the Chinese sex workers into the UN definition of trafficking, they show that these women do not meet the severe criteria of trafficking, given the linkage between commercial sex and sex trafficking. The authors conclude that the interviewed subjects are not exposed to high degree of violence, and that this occurs rarely, and that the prostitutes are aware of what the risks of the commercial sex are when they were involved in it either at transnational or domestic level.”

 

Instead, Chin and Finckenauer find that most women had engaged in sex work prior to migrating, were well-prepared to negotiate with clients, and returned home (usually within two years) with substantial economic capital. The same findings have been true in all of the China-based work I have done personally as well.

 

Collectively, these studies suggest that narratives of empowerment and choice may be more nuanced than the traditional framing, but that the majority of sex workers, indeed, do not enter into this work without forethought, consideration, or under duress. Instead of being the majority voice, narratives from trafficking victims seem to be the exception. And as such, their voices should not be used to inform sex work-related policies.