Sex work: thoughts on ‘selling your body’

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know that I’m firmly against the criminalisation of sex work. I call it sex work because the term recognises that, as with any other form of work, there should be terms of sale and workers’ rights and safe working conditions. Besides, sex workers pay tax.

But this post is less about the actual work than the language we use to talk about it. Specifically, it’s about the huge problem I have with the phrase ‘selling your body’.

[Disclaimer: this is in the context of female sex workers/male clients. This is mainly because I’m criticising public discourse, and discussion of male sex workers is usually excluded from that. I have no experience of sex work, and I don’t presume to speak for those who do. I am not talking about sex trafficking. That is an entirely separate issue.]

‘Selling your body’

When someone pays for sex, they’re buying sex. They don’t suddenly gain ownership of a woman’s body any more than any other man who sleeps with any other woman does.

If I sleep with someone, I don’t ‘give away’ my body. My body is no one’s but my own, no matter who I have sex with; I retain the right to do what I like with it, and to give or refuse consent as I wish. So do people who have sex for money. We must never lose sight of everyone’s right to bodily autonomy.

Talking about selling a body rather than a service implies a permanent state of affairs. It leads to the belief that consenting to sex on one occasion means that consent is automatic from then on. That’s George Galloway territory, and that’s nowhere we need to go.

Women are constantly told that their bodies are not their own. There’s an assumed public ownership where we’re told that we need to look a certain way in order to please others. We’re taught that bodies are for decoration and for pleasing men. Let’s take every opportunity we can to avoid language that buys into this.

‘Selling yourself’

This is so much worse. Not only does the client now own a woman’s body; they actually gain ownership of the woman.

If you’ve ever used the phrase ‘selling yourself’ and gone on to talk about sex work being degrading and dehumanising, then bravo. You’ve done a fantastic job of dehumanising the people you’re talking about. By equating the service someone provides with their actual personhood, you’re implying that that’s all their worth. Is your estimation of women so low that you think they’re worth no more than the sex they’re having? Sex workers are selling a service, an experience, or their time. They’re not selling their very being.

Sexual behaviours as states of being

There’s an interesting aside to all of this. There are parallels to be drawn between the unsold|sold distinction and the way we talk about virginity. It all reflects this obsession we have with categorising sexual behaviour as states of being. We talk about virginity as though there’s a profound and irreversible change in someone’s character the moment they have (usually PIV) sex for the first time. What other experience do we talk about like that? Trying drugs, alcohol, different types of food? Swimming? Praying?

The idea of exchanging rights over someone’s body being a turning point – your body was yours, but now you’ve given it away and it’s not – suggests that behaviour defines you and enacts an irreversible change. But that’s not the case; shockingly, people aren’t defined by their sexual behaviour. They may choose to have (or sell) sex at some times and not at others. There’s nothing helpful about adding an arbitrary cut off point between ‘unsold’ and ‘sold’. All it achieves is adding to stigma by suggesting there’s something inherently other or lesser about women who decide to have sex for money.

There’s a lot more to be said about sex work and the language surrounding it; this is just something I’ve been thinking about today. I think this needs saying as much as possible: women are not sex, and they are not their bodies. It’s an important distinction to make.


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