But I understand people’s preoccupation with ‘empowerment’ and its intoxicating appeal as a term to rally around as stigmatised workers. In the same way that the ‘pride’ of the gay rights movement was a reaction to the socially enforced ‘shame’ and the ‘sex positive’ feminists were a reaction to the ‘sex negative’ feminists, so ‘empowerment’ is a direct response and rebuttal to the assumed ‘exploitation’ of sex workers. For so long sex workers have been seen as immoral, passive victims, vectors of disease, ‘fallen’ women, less valuable than others because of the service they use their bodies to ply.
These fears and prejudices are concentrated largely on women (cis or trans) full service (vaginally penetrative sex) sex workers, because it’s them who threaten the natural way of things. Women are not meant to be sexual, let alone financially profit off their sexuality, and their sexuality is meant to be owned and tied to a man in a monogamous relationship. The kind of women that generally populate sex work – working class women, queer women, women of colour, migrant women – not only subvert the status quo if they access wealth through it, they are also women who historically have been spoken over, been regarded as an ‘other’, had decisions made for them, seen as a problematic mass, rather than individuals with their own unique relationship to struggle and autonomy. This has made it particularly easy for women sex workers to be spoken for, to be people to be ‘saved’, an obsession that you never see carried over to gay men sex workers (where are all the white saviour organisations in Thailand funneling male sex workers into poorly paid garment factories for their own good?).