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’.
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Reddit discusses rape, and the importance of ‘yes means yes’

Content warning: rape. Links include detailed accounts of sexual violence and rape apology.

Earlier, while reading through a thread on Reddit, I was struggling to think how I would articulate my reaction. The thread in question begins with an invitation for perpetrators of sexual abuse to share their experiences:

Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

The question had received thousands of responses – some of them extremely disturbing or upsetting. I have deliberately said that before adding a link, as the content could be triggering even for those who have not experienced sexual assault. The discussion can be found here.

I have added a few thoughts below, but rather than write a long and in-depth analysis, after reading around I have decided instead to refer you to an insightful and very well-written post by Miriam of Brute ReasonInside the Mind of a Serial Rapist. She has managed to put into words very effectively much of what I was thinking.

The one conclusion I successfully drew from reading some of the responses is that we urgently need to review the manner in which young people are taught about sex. This is something I am sure I’ll come back to in a later post, because it’s something I feel very strongly about. The sex education I received was minimal until the age of about 15, and was largely technical. When the subject came up, we were firmly told that we had the power to make decisions about sex and our bodies; armed with the maxim ‘no means no’, we were taught that we should never feel pressured into sex.

At the time I felt that this was a positive message, but I have since come to think that it is deeply flawed. I now firmly believe that rather than ‘no means no’, we should be teaching young people that ‘yes means yes’. The former places all of the responsibility on the potential victim rather than the perpetrator. Several responses I read on Reddit appeared to take the stance that someone who had physically abused another person was absolved of responsibility because they were not asked to stop. This is, of course, highly problematic, as a girl (as victims are usually, though not exclusively, female) may be afraid to actively stop someone who assumes that they are willing, or may feel pressured to continue. In order to remove the weight of responsibility from the victim – and to avoid victim-blaming – it is imperative that we move away from the mentality that someone is inviting a sexual encounter unless they explicitly say otherwise or put up a fight.