On #SexWork and #Empowerment: But what does it all mean?

I am writing this post because I see something missing from the discussion of sex work, and more specifically, how sex work can be empowering for women, especially women in Western society. What I see missing in these discussions on sex work and empowerment is the lack of the definition of empowerment or what it means to be empowered when one is engaging in sex work.

This post isn’t about whether or not sex work is valid work. As a former sex worker, I acknowledge that sex work is work and should be considered as such. I also acknowledge that sex work is not inherently exploitative—exploitative situations are a different class of experiences and should not be considered sex work. Although exploitative situations may appear in the context of sex work, these are not inherent to sex work itself. These exploitative situations are usually inherent to the criminal regulation of the trade.

In her article entitled, “I Don’t Want Your Pity: Sex Work and Labor Politics,”[1] Belle Knox writes, “The argument that people should only work in jobs that they enjoy or find empowering comes from a place of privilege.” I agree—being able to both work in employment that is empowering and enjoyable is a form of privilege and it is also a privilege to be able to argue that one must work in jobs that are both empowering and enjoyable. Ms. Knox articulates this point rather clearly. I do not disagree with her on this point. Following this point, though, she concludes that yes, her work as a sex worker does happen to be both rewarding and empowering. In another article critiquing Ms. Knox’s argument that porn is empowering, the author argues that porn is not empowering and that porn is degrading.[2] The author attempts to argue that Ms. Knox is a teen and that she does not know what she is doing. She also attempts to argue that Ms. Knox will regret this decision in coming out at the ripe age of 18, because you know, we all regret the decisions we made when we were 18. I am, however, not here to argue whether Belle Knox’s experiences in sex work are both empowering or rewarding.

In both of these articles, neither of them takes time to define empowerment or what empowerment means in the context of sex work. In writing this post, I hope that I can contribute to this discussion on empowerment and sex work— What does empowerment mean within the context of gender equality? What does it mean to be empowered as a sex worker? And why are we focused so much on sex work as a form of empowerment to achieve gender equality (ie should we be directing our attention elsewhere or asking different questions about sex work)?

In support of Belle Knox coming out as a sex worker at 18 years old, I also started sex work at the age of 18 years old. But I was not attending a prestigious university. I was still in high school. It was literally the weekend after my 18th birthday that I began escorting. I know, scandalous. Not really, all my peers at the time were either having sex or experimenting with sexual acts—for free. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about empowerment or reward. Like Knox, I wanted to be “trading the smallest amount of my time for the maximum profit, on my schedule.” Before I began escorting, I was working two minimum wage jobs—one job that wasn’t particularly enjoying having to accommodate my school schedule and a second work schedule. Hey! I had to pay rent, bills, and for groceries somehow, right?

Three years earlier, I also was in a major car accident where I sustained a major brain injury (an ABI to be specific). I went from earning high 80s to earning high 60s. There is nothing wrong with earning high 60s, but I wanted to go onto university and I knew then that high 60s did not get one accepted into university. Following this accident, my doctor told me that because of my recently acquired brain injury that I would most likely graduate in four or five years instead of the two I was expected to graduate at normally (So I was expected to graduate at the age of approximately 22 instead of 19). Struggling with learning how to live with a newly acquired brain injury, I had to learn and adapt to studying with a learning disability (why the reduction in my overall average—my doctor told me to expect this so this wasn’t um, you know, unexpected). Working two minimum wage jobs was tiring along side going to school full time and it was major pressure on my goal to complete schooling at a rate less than what my doctor had predicted. So I had to work hard. I also had to learn to adapt to living with a brain injury–my friends changed and my life changed drastically.

One of the things that I had trouble with was communicating my disability with my employers at my retail and waitressing job. I was left with little room to study to maintain my high grades because of my brain injury–I had to study longer hours and I had to change my study habits (no more direct memorization). Then during the fall, I decided I needed to find a type of employment that was more better and more accommodating if I wanted to achieve all of what I dreamed of accomplishing before my car accident: graduate on the honor roll and go to university. Thus, I enter the world of escorting. Was I naïve? No. I knew what the hell I was doing. Did I regret it? Not one bit—I got to where I needed to be (albeit a bit more slower than expected, but hey, life happens). Was I empowered? What the hell does it even mean to be empowered to do sex work?

This idea that sex work is or isn’t empowering is complicated by the fact that we can rarely find a universal definition of empowerment which is applicable to all situations and contexts at all times. I mean, sex work could be empowering, but it also cannot be empowering—what do we do then? This is where I want to go with this post.

To begin, we have to examine the concept of empowerment. Both women who authored the above articles mentioned are white, cis, and reside in a Western/developed country. One recognizes her privilege. The other not so much. As such, the concept of empowerment in relation to sex work must be viewed through this lens. This is a point I also want to discuss.

Jawad Syed in “Reconstructing gender empowerment,” argues that “gender research continues to be dominated by Eurocentric paradigms” which is also true for the discussion on empowerment and sex work. In his article, Syed seeks to argue “the dominant (Eurocentric) notion of women’s empowerment does not adequately take into account the diverse and complex nature of gender relations in various socio-political contexts.” Citing Mohanty, Syed also posits that employing a dominant notion of women’s empowerment to all women, everywhere, in all contexts, robs non-Western women from their historical and political agency” (283). Within his article, Syed cites the following definition for empowerment, “an interactive process through which less powerful people experience personal and social change, enabling them to achieve influence over the organizations and institutions which affect their lives and the communities in which they live” (284). Specifically pointing to the use of the word power in this definition, Syed highlights that power relates to the ability to make choices. Thus, Syed writes, “empowerment refers to the process which by those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such ability” (284). The tool to measure gender empowerment is also critiqued by Syed as being inadequate because of its capitalist, elite, and secular biases, just to name a few. This tool will not be critiqued any further. Rather, I will call attention to some of the issues with the dominant definition and conceptualization of gender empowerment raised by Syed.

First, Syed argues that the usual perspective regarding empowerment, which is adopted by Western feminists, assumes that access to paid work is crucial to economic independence and empowerment. Syed points out that access to paid work by itself does not result in empowerment. Second, this sole focus on access to paid work ignores socio-economic aspects of women’s lives, which “has not completely alleviated their disempowerment in societies and organizations” (286). Third and final, Syed highlights the fact that the dominant conceptualization of empowerment also homogenizes “women” and argues for a more holistic approach to conceptualizing empowerment which includes adopting a relational framework (including macro, meso, and micro levels) for gender empowerment.

If the definition of empowerment is “an interactive process through which less powerful people experience personal and social change, enabling them to achieve influence over the organizations and institutions which affect their lives and the communities in which they live,” then the result of gender empowerment will translate to the transfer of power from the powerful to the powerless (which results in personal and social change, etc). Within the context of sex work, especially in Canada, this is not the case due to criminal regulation. The power remains in the hands of the powerful—the creators of legislation and the enforcers of legislation. If we focus exclusively on paid work as being crucial to economic independence and empowerment, then potentially sex work might be empowering. I say potentially since many sex workers are also employed in other industries. But like Syed points out, the sole focus on paid employment ignores the soci-economic aspects of women’s lives which does not address disempowerment elsewhere in their lives (whether individually, institutionally, or systemically). This point is particularly emphasized when it is acknowledged that many sex workers are lower class and/or women of colour.[3] For women from marginalized positions in society, they experience many negative assumptions, which are informed by negative social and institutional stereotypes, about who they are as a person. Syed writes:

“A person is prone to experience the positions of disadvantage under the influence of negative social/institutional stereotypes. However, she exercises her unique agency to respond to various macro-level and meso-level factors to negotiate and improve her power. Her individual experiences and perspectives are dynamic, continuously shaped by the multiple identities she holds, such as based on her religion, gender, or family role. Indeed, neither women nor men are homogeneous social categories; they are shaped and influenced by the issues related to class, age, race, ethnicity and sexual preference (Charmes & Wieringa, 2003: 420). Therefore, contextualised understanding of dynamic and complex inter-sectionalities is instrumental to tackle gender empowerment in a society.”

Simply, the concept of empowerment must be context specific and we must not attempt to apply the concept of empowerment universally to all women in all situations, everywhere. This contextualization of empowerment, as noted earlier, adopts a holistic framework.

Within this framework, Syed identifies three relational levels that must be considered in the conceptualization of empowerment: the micro-level, the meso-level, and the macro-level. The micro-level is defined as recognizing women’s multiple identities (and thus, recognizing intersectionality) (p. 291). This level also includes adding value to women’s agency (ability to make choices for their own well-being) and autonomy (addressing issues of power and inequality in other realms) (p. 291). The meso-level relates to organizations and institutions within a particular society, and assigning value to policies within these organizations and institutions that affect women. For instance, Syed lists legal compliance such as the legal compliance with legislation and anti-discrimination laws within an organization as a measurement of empowerment. The macro-level includes legal empowerment (assigning value to provision of equal opportunity in national legislation and its effective enforcement); Political empowerment (assigning value to women’s participation in political structures); Economic empowerment (assigning value to women’s participation in religious structures and decision making); and finally, social empowerment which seeks to address social stereotypes (slut/whore shaming/stigma). All of this information is on page 291 of Syed’s article.

With respect to sex work and the discussion of empowerment, this contextualization of empowerment becomes important. We must refrain, like in the two articles mentioned above, from employing the concept of empowerment without defining what we mean by empowerment. Syed’s inclusion of various levels of empowerment is crucial to this discussion. It is important because once we include the micro, meso, and macro-levels of empowerment, the idea that sex work is empowering falls short. This isn’t because, for some, sex work is exploitative or degrading—I noted at the beginning that although exploitative situations may appear in the context of sex work, these are not inherent to sex work itself. These exploitative situations are usually inherent to the criminal regulation of the trade itself which is a result of the disempowerment of sex workers.

If sex workers are excluded from making decisions about their own lives due to criminal regulation, then sex work is not empowering. If sex workers are excluded from accessing the same labour and employment rights afforded to other industries, then sex work is not empowering. If sex workers are excluded from legal, political, economic, and social spheres, then sex work is not empowering. Sex work is not disempowering because it is degrading or abusive. It is disempowering because of the fact that sex workers are excluded from making decisions about their own lives due to the criminal regulation of their employment (especially within Canada). When sex work is criminalized, it prevents sex workers from making choices without the threat or fear of arrest (Note: this threat or fear of arrest isn’t dissolved through the Nordic model as some feminists argues since criminalization of sex workers occurs in many ways especially sex workers who are racialized or indigenized or who come from a lower income bracket).

For sex workers, empowerment does not rest solely on the ability to be paid for their services. Empowerment, for sex workers, means being included in the discussions and the decisions that (in)directly affect their lives and livelihood, including discussions on the criminalization and decriminalization of the sex trade.

So should we be really focused on whether sex work is empowering or not? But what does it really mean to be empowered as a sex worker or through sex work?

As a partial answer, we should direct our attention to whether or not sex workers, as persons who have the right to live with dignity, security, and safety, are able to access the same rights as non-sex workers instead. We should also work to address the social stereotypes about sex workers. These stereotypes about sex workers not only affect sex workers lives but also non-sex workers lives—everyone benefits when we reveal these assumptions about sex workers or sex in general. Because let’s face it, mainstream society does not have healthy ideas about sex or sexual health.

One example that the rest of the world can look to as championing the empowerment of sex workers is the Songachi Project in India, which adopted a multi-prong approach to addressing HIV prevention. A part of this project was their empowerment method and messaging. The Songachi Empowerment Methods and Messages are “Sex Work is valid work” and “sex workers deserve to protect themselves.” Relating to their multi-prong approach, the project’s approach included “defining HIV and STIs as occupational health hazards; articulating human rights of sex workers, providing access to condoms and resources for treating STDs, creating a sense of community and political awareness” which ultimately resulted in economic, political, and occupational power for sex workers in Calcutta. A part of this project included employing peer leaders, who were sex workers from chosen communities, to “build skills and confidence in providing education and to foster empowerment and advocacy for local sex workers” (4-5). Empowerment activities within the project included “sustained engagement with local sex workers; showing an interest sex workers’ health and well-being and that of their children; nurturing group solidarity among sex workers; and raising consciousness about sex workers’ rights” (p. 5). For sex workers in India, empowerment then translated to harm reduction and safer sex practices which included collective bargaining with structures of power (effectiveness of interventions), as well as self organizing.[4]

UNAIDs agrees through their best practices on safer sex that “modifications in the way sex work is organized must be encouraged and, in some cases this may be supported by policy enforcement” UNAIDs continues by stating that “possible approaches to building such support include enlisting sex establishment owners and managers to protect their workers’ health and physical safety, working with police to reduce harassment, and promoting self-esteem and workplace solidarity among sex workers.” Thus, changes in sex work organizing as a means to access rights and achieve empowerment can be achieved through the decriminalization of sex work.[5]

In closing, I will share this quote by members of the Network of Sex Work Projects:

“Ultimately, the sex workers’ rights movement seeks resources to enable sex workers to participate in civil society and in decision-making that concerns them. However, as long as commercial sex is seen as degrading and workers as tainted, efforts to improve their working conditions and lives will not succeed. Until this attitude begins to change nothing else will.”[6]

Through the relational framework of gender empowerment, sex work only becomes empowering once sex workers are included in decisions that directly affect their lives, including their dignity, safety, security, and well-being—something that isn’t accomplished through the criminalization of the sex trade. The time is now to include sex workers in the discussion and debate on sex work as a means to achieve gender empowerment.

Oh and to the point made by Docketerman, as a former sex worker, I can say that we don’t give two fucks what frat boys think of us and as for employers? I wouldn’t want to work for someone who discriminates against a class of people based on whatever fucked up false assumptions they have about sex work(ers).

Citation for Syed’s article:

Syed, J. (2010). “Reconstructing gender empowerment.” Women’s Studies International Forum (33), pp. 283-294.


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/belle-knox/sex-work-politics_b_5148528.html

[2] http://time.com/13095/the-duke-porn-star-isnt-as-empowered-as-she-claims/

[3] http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/28/a-feminists-argument-on-how-sex-work-can-benefit-women

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2826108/

[5] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(03)13595-7/fulltext

[6] ibid.

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