Morality, Society and Sex Work
Sex work is a topic that is widely contested in the modern day. From debates on its principles to its human rights connotations in the political sphere, arguments easily become passionate and sometimes even angry. In a society where sex work is widely looked down upon on the lines of morality and ethics and in extreme cases, considered inhumane, we forget that for most people who are in the profession, it is rarely a matter of a moral choice. Irrespective of where one stands on the opinion spectrum, there’s no denying that there are very niche nuances to the issue. It is only when we begin to look into them, is when we understand the vastness of the seemingly simple affair.
But First, a Little History
Sex work is amongst the world’s oldest professions. What today is considered to be profane originally started as a business of the sacred. The Ancient Near East was filled with shrines and temples that were home to deities. Within these temples, sacred sex work was a very common practice. Sex work as a profession is seemingly first mentioned in Sumerian writings going back to around 2400 BCE.
In the ancient city of Uruk, a temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar had three grades of women. The first grade performed sexual rituals in the temple, the second catered to visitors and the third was allowed to search for clients in the streets. In the later years, sacred sex work was a phenomenon in civilizations in India, Japan, Rome, and Greece. However, sex work and its religious and spiritual connotations came to end in 320s AD when in Constantinople, the temples and practices were destroyed and replaced with Christianity. In recent history, sex work has for the majority, been viewed as a degrading job. The modern perception can be broadly split into two distinct narratives. The first, that considers sex work to be immoral and the second considers that embraces the profession and considers it empowering.
Is Sex Work Immoral?
Often the broad majority, this side puts forth religious and theological arguments that condemn sex work. Since sex work is a profession where 80% of the professionals are female, many feminists call for the criminalization of sex work, considering it to be demeaning.
This appears to be quite accurate when you take into consideration the statistics of human trafficking. Every year, approximately 800,000 people get trafficked out of which 70% are women. Most of these women are then against their will forced into commercial sex work. In India, most of the women who are sex workers in the red-light districts are victims of vicious cycles of abuse. It is often their economic hardship that forces them to enter the occupation out of necessity. Once in the system, they face various forms of abuse including physical and emotional, and yet, cannot escape the skewed web that is purposefully designed for never letting these women escape. Which links the second side of the argument.
Sex work can be empowering
A relatively new facet of the conversation around the issue, it has gained a lot of traction over the past decade, especially in the feminist movement. The core of the argument is this – women have been excluded from narratives and discussions that affect their bodies for centuries. Embracing sex work in a sense is women embracing their bodies and taking back the control that the patriarchy has constantly taken away from them.
Furthermore, sex work is the only source of income for most women in the industry. They are mothers whose children depend upon and for them, this line of work is the only way forward. As a considerable majority of this profession includes immigrants or trafficked individuals, this remains one of the very few professions where their linguistic barrier becomes less relevant.
In addition, sex work is criminalized in the majority of the world. Combined with the systematic abuse that sex workers are faced with, the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible for them to get legal aid on the grounds of labour exploitation and thus leaves them in a condition where the profession is the only option.
The vast majority of us view sex work through a lens of morality. What we fail to recognize is that questioning the morality of the profession is a privilege in and of itself. For the majority, it is the question of having a livelihood and supporting those who depend on them. And with the current criminalization of sex work, only ensures that people involved in this industry never get a chance to escape.
For those who choose to embrace the profession, why does a person assuming control of their entire bodies and capitalizing seem so repulsive to us as a society? Why do sex workers have to constantly justify their occupation to be considered a part of society, people whose voices deserve to be heard as much as others? It is high time that when talking about something as sensitive as sex work, we shouldn’t be excluding the people who are affected by the conversations made by people in positions of privilege.
Cover Illustration: Vice.com