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Navigating stigma and discrimination as a sex worker

What do you think of when you hear the term sex work?

The image that pops into your mind will be different from your friends and co-workers. We all have preconceived notions about sex work, and around the world, the perception of sex work fluctuates. Some circles are sex-positive, and others view sex work very differently.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where sex work does come with a negative stigma. Many sex workers face discrimination, leaving them vulnerable just for existing as adult entertainers. However, we can work towards changing this perception by raising awareness and education.

Are you curious about how stereotypes affect sex workers? Today, we’re investigating how sex workers can navigate discrimination and protect themselves from the stigma associated with their jobs.

Scroll down to learn more.

What do we mean by the stigma around sex work?

Before we dig into the stigma of sex work, let’s quickly define stigma.

Social stigma refers to discrimination or disapproval of an individual or group based on preconceived opinions and characteristics that make them different from the rest of society. For sex workers, this refers to working in an industry that’s still deemed “taboo” due to centuries of societal conditioning.

Stigma against sex workers is visible in most societies and many look down upon sex workers or assume they were forced into the role. Society has one fixed image of sex workers, and this doesn’t evolve with the times.

In short, stigma against sex workers refers to society’s negative assumptions towards anyone in the adult industry.

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Why is this an issue, and how does it affect the lives of sex workers?

Stigma against sex workers is an issue because the problem goes further than projecting misconceptions about this group. These notions can affect their daily lives and sex workers face discrimination when applying for loans or making financial decisions, as institutions deem their income unreliable or invalid. This leaves sex workers at a disadvantage, and it can be tough to set up secure finances and homes.

Companies also discriminate against sex workers. For example, Airbnb, PayPal, Visa, JPMorgan, and Chase have all closed small businesses linked to sex work. The companies deem these businesses “unethical”, leaving sex workers without access to modern infrastructure.

In extreme cases, sex workers are also in danger of harm from clients since clients tend to treat sex workers with less care than non-industry civilians, all due to misconceptions about sex work. Cases range from verbal insults to physical abuse, proving sex workers are not safe – even when seeing clients using sex work services.

Sex workers also report alienation from family members and friends. The discrimination isn’t just institutional and the negative perception of sex workers has bled into the public consciousness. This results in sex workers being rejected by their nearest and dearest and due to this, many sex workers keep their profession a secret.

It’s easy to say, “attitudes are changing”, but when we’re still seeing sex workers treated unequally, it’s obvious that there’s still a long way to go.

Common misconceptions about sex work

Misconceptions surrounding sex work vary and mostly stem from outdated themes.

Here are some of the most common assumptions about sex workers:

  • Sex workers are forced into the industry. This is not true and many sex workers love their job and the freedom it brings them
  • Sex workers have no skills. Again, not true. Sex workers are usually small business owners who cover all bases from accounting to marketing, these professionals have an abundance of skills
  • All sex workers have STIs. A negative stereotype that’s always been used to disempower sex workers. Modern sex work requires regular testing and is often the cleanest sex around
  • Sex work is degrading. Due to society’s warped views on sex, many subconsciously believe sex work to be degrading. This usually stems from the individual’s discomfort with sex and does not reflect the sex worker

How sex workers can overcome discrimination and stigma with practical strategies

The widespread stigma surrounding sex work is an issue, and the only way forward is to overcome misconceptions with actionable strategies.

Ready to start? Researchers believe these are the best ways to reduce stigma and discrimination:

  • Provide information about the industry and the workers to healthcare providers
  • Educate the next generation with sex-positive information about all areas of the industry (especially internet pornography), with an added emphasis on humanising the workers
  • Speak up against inequalities and discrimination – i.e. if a large corporation removes sex workers from their books, don’t sit quietly and allow it to happen
  • Creating universal rights for sex workers — a project spearheaded by the UN Population Fund
  • Improve STI knowledge and remove the association with sex work
  • Decriminalisation of sex work via government action
  • Petitioning your local council or government for a change in home policies

unhappy couple in the bedroom. man sitting on bed in foreground away from woman

What can you do to raise awareness and change societal attitudes towards sex workers?

When it comes to raising awareness and creating real change, the most important step individuals can take is to show up for sex workers. Don’t shy away from the discussion. This is the negative stigma you’ve subconsciously absorbed talking. Instead, fight for the individuals affected by unfair action.

Ways to show up and fight for sex workers include:

  • Donating to sex-positive charities that take action towards supporting workers
  • Sharing sex-positive information with family and friends
  • Get educated on issues happening in your community – the best activism starts at home!
  • Communicate with sex workers and ask them what they need. Don’t assume the best course of action, as your good intentions might harm the community
  • Uplift and provide a platform for sex workers to tell their stories
  • Find trustworthy resources and educate yourself on the issues

Can sex workers benefit from support from organisations and individuals?

Individual opinions are an essential driving force when it comes to changing the overall opinion of sex work. As society’s opinion changes, it’s always thanks to each individual learning and accepting the industry.

However, organisations are an important part of raising awareness. Without non-profit assistance, the all-important educational material cannot be created because both entities are needed to create widespread acceptance.

The takeaway

Sex work is real work, and it’s time for society to catch up.

The stigma around sex work has harmed individuals for centuries, but it’s time for us to break the pattern and uplift individuals in the industry. From effective education to starting uncomfortable discussions, there are numerous ways to change your behaviour surrounding sex work. A future without stigma is possible and probable if we all do our bit.

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