I remember watching the documentary series Sex in Strange Places (unfortunately no longer available on iPlayer) in which Stacey Dooley looks into the sex trades of Russia, Brazil, and Turkey. It is a series that opened up to my mind to the ways cultures impact the sex industry and the toll of the industries on the individuals, in particular the body. Upon reflection, I thought specifically about the way in which sex work is demonised under the premise of a woman (because, yes, it is always women who are demonised despite offering services which men readily, and enthusiastically use) “selling her body.” I believe that all work in its essence, is an act of “selling your body,” for the simple fact that we exchange physical or mental labour for money. Therefore, the aversion to sex work/workers, which spans across cultures world wide, is not about the ethics of selling your body, but rather our archaic attitudes towards sex in the 21st century.
I recall being seven years old, on a road trip to Canada, when we took a wrong turn and ended up in the red light district. It’s a vague memory for me but my Mom tells me how scared she was, and from her descriptions it was an embodiment of the stereotypical red light district – dirty and sleazy with an uncomfortable air.
Before watching The Sex in Strange Places series I hadn’t considered that the sex industry was so complex. In my mind there was only one kind of sex work, and only women of uncertain and unfortunate circumstance worked in it.
However, the episode on Russia’s industry showcased high-class escorts, who I can only describe as classy, professionals with complete control of their sexuality. They were making some serious money, getting wined and dined by some of the world’s richest men, and navigating their business relations on their own terms. The thing that struck me the most was the professionalism and the autonomy these women had. They have websites that clearly list their services and pricing and worked because they wanted to. Overall, the Russian escorts seemed to be women monetising and owning their sexuality. It was the first time I had considered that a woman selling sex isn’t always a sob story.
The issue with this work is not with the escorts themselves, but the way that society views them, namely that their work is immoral by means of selling themselves. This highlights our attitudes towards sex and the lack of sex positivity in supposedly modern societies. Sex is still very much seen as something dirty. Women are still expected to be chaste or married, and once married, sex is purely for their husband’s pleasure, and the acquisition of children. In this day and age, women are still denied the right to sexual expression. We would all like to think that attitudes have changed, but really they have not.
The following episode was based in Turkey, and was by far the most difficult for me to wrap my head around. The laws surrounding brothels and prostitution are very sketchy. Whilst it is legal, there were loopholes through which sex workers were persecuted. Trans women, though prevalently preferred, received the brute force of this persecution at the hand of both abhorrent homophobia and misogyny. During filming there was a regime working to shut down brothels, under the notion that they are against Islam. The values of the state were not completely reflected by the people. It was expected and accepted that men may freely frequent brothels, but it was all done almost secretively. Dooley was not allowed to film the men entering the brothels despite them being legal, so as not to mar the men’s character as upstanding family men.
Whilst the other episodes opened up my mind to sex work (or instilled in me a sense of empathy for women who were forced into the industry), the emotion that this episode most invoked in me was anger. The double standards concerning those who use and those who supply the work, sent my feminist beliefs into overdrive. Here the issue of negative attitudes to sex was coupled with sheer disdain and disrespect for women under the guise of religious morality. Socially, it was acceptable for men to use these services. It did not take away from the fact that they were respectable, but the women providing the services were deemed as less than second-class citizens. In the wide scheme of feminism, the dehumanisation of these women strikes several chords of injustice and gender inequality. In a country of such traditional home values, an unmarried woman has very few options. Women in general are denied social or economic mobility and freedom, but if a woman cannot work because her society frowns upon her serving any other purpose other than as a wife, or a mother, then what is she to do to survive? Furthermore, how dare the same society that pushes these women into sex work, and enjoys their services, condemn them for it! It’s about control, and it’s about patriarchal power. It has nothing to do with religious morality and the sanctity of sex.
The Brazilian sex industry fell somewhere between those of Russia and Turkey in the way that it functioned. There were some very professional and glamorous workers, but also a huge problem with sleazy illegal brothels. The thing that struck me most with this episode is the intersection of race. As a black woman, I couldn’t help but notice that the women presented as high calibre girls, were all white, whilst the favela girls were all black. Yes there was some contempt for the high calibre women from those with more conservative views, but ultimately this was nothing in comparison the brutality and complete disregard for the humanity of the favela girls. Both their clients and their state treated them as though they were less than animals.
If their ill treatment was in response to the immorality of sex work, then Brazilian society would mark all sex workers with the same brush. But they do not. Therefore I can only conclude that this is an extent of issues concerning race and class. The humanity of black and poor people is deemed obsolete. This is an example of the way racist capitalist states work to control people of colour. By demonising and dehumanising them, they are able control them. If you have no money and are not able to exercise your human rights, you have no social mobility. Again, the aversion to sex workers is an expression of state control.
It is almost as though this widespread aversion to sex work and sex workers is more an issue of policing women, than a genuine aversion to the ethics of the work itself. Time and time again, when having conversations about sex, I am reminded of how sexism in particular, shapes many people’s attitudes towards it. Socially, sex and our attitudes towards it are reflective of how the privileged (e.g. rich white men) in our society, exercise their power to keep the social imbalance in their favour.
Despite the persecution and judgment that the women faced, they were able to navigate in spaces that society had told them that they should not. By simply existing, they are challenging the system. Watching this series and hearing these stories was enough to change my views on sex work and sex workers. I think our generation must become more sex positive and aware of gender inequality if we want to create a more equal society. It’s about time we stop condemning sex workers for selling their bodies.
Written by Amara Lawrence