Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
While punitive laws aimed at "protecting" sex workers gain steam, workers themselves frame their experiences more positively.
Why do sex workers do the kind of work they do? A recent study conducted by the University of Leeds funded by the Wellcome Trust and in partnership with National Ugly Mugs—a U.K. sex worker-rights group—asked sex workers themselves why they choose to stay in the industry. Many of their answers pointed to a high level of job satisfaction, for some of the same reasons any job would be attractive to any worker.
A report on a preliminary analysis of data from the study was just released for presentation at the recent U.K. Network of Sex Work Projects conference. (The same data will be used in a more detailed analysis, and the full study is due out in a few months.) What the report shows is that a majority of respondents described their work as "flexible" and even "fun." More than half said they find their work "empowering" and "rewarding." The respondents cited pay, flexible hours, and "freedom in their decisions" about how they chose to sell sex as the most positive aspects of their jobs.
Dr. Teela Sanders, who led the study, writes in the preliminary report that the study is particularly important since it reflects conditions for "indoor" sex workers, a group whose experiences have not been the focus of as much attention as those who work on the street or have experienced trafficking. It is also the largest survey conducted to date of U.K.-based sex workers, says Alex Feis-Bryce, director of services for National Ugly Mugs.
Most of the respondents (89 percent) reported working in the "independent escorting sector," which can offer more safety to sex workers than working on the streets or with pimps. Feis-Bryce says that this type of independent sex work is common in the U.K. and that this study helps paint a more complete picture of the landscape of sex work there.
In the report's recommendations, Sanders references the "Swedish model" of regulating sex work, which has found favor in Scandinavia and recently in parts of the U.S.: Decriminalize or legalize sex work, while paying for it remains illegal. While advocates argue that this approach punishes johns and reduces the demand for sex work, it also reduces wages for workers and does nothing to incentivize safe treatment by customers.
"The findings provide further evidence that a move towards the ‘Swedish Model’ would be detrimental to sex workers' safety," Sanders writes.
A Canadian study released last year by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research similarly found that 70 percent of sex workers there were "satisfied with their jobs," that 82 percent felt well-paid, and that 68 percent felt they had "good job security." "They say it gives them independence, given their life situation, and it gives them income,” lead researcher Cecilia Benoit told the National Post.
Writing about the Leeds study at The Independent, Feis-Bryce offered this takeaway:
We must remind ourselves that sex workers are one of the most stigmatised groups in our society and are often deliberately denied a voice by policy makers who claim to be advocating for them. Only through decriminalisation will sex workers be less stigmatised and feel comfortable in reporting crimes to the police and advocating [for] their rights as workers.