The Perception of Sex Work Throughout History
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Sex – what a word. It has the power to instantly grab anyone’s attention, whether they want it to or not. It probably is both the most talked and least talked about activity in our society.
Paradoxically, while popular media is saturated with this topic, when it comes to sex in real life and off-screen, it suddenly becomes taboo. This is especially true with sex work.
What actually is sex work?
Sex work refers ‘to consensual sexual encounters between two or more adults for some form of payment. Sex work includes different types of erotic labour such as street work, brothel work, in-calls, lap-dancing, web-camming and pornography’.
It is sometimes called the oldest profession in the world. While this statement is not exactly true – rather it is the oldest currency – it does raise the question as to why it is still so deeply stigmatised. To explain this, it is important to firstly understand how both sex and sex work got their current connotations.
Sex: the colonial stigma
Sex has always been part of humans’ lives. It is necessary to procreate in order to maintain the human race. However, for the first few hundred years of human existence, sex was solely that: a means of procreation. There was no negative or positive connotation with sex.
The first evidence of attitudes towards sex can be traced back to India. Ancient texts from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism first talked about sex in moral terms. For example, the texts reveal that polygamy was respected among rulers at the time and they also teach marriage and fertility prayers. Some of the most famous texts from that time undoubtedly are the ones of the Karma Sutra, which talk about sexuality, eroticism and sexual fulfillment in life.
While these ancient Indian texts contain the first proven attitudes towards sex itself, they do not mention sex work. The first account of sex work in literature was arguably in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh (around 2100 BC). The epic is about the temple prostitute Šamhat under service of the goddess of fertility, love and war, Ishtar. Šamhat, or so the story goes, manages to tame Enkidu, the wartime comrade of Gigamesh, king of Uruk, with her sex appeal. It is important to mention here that this story does not fall under the aforementioned definition of sex work. However, because it is one of the first written descriptions of sex being used as a currency, it is highly important for the history of sex and sex work.
So, why then – if even a goddess classified sex work as an adequate means of survival – did sex and sex work become so stigmatised? The answer lies in colonialism - particularly British colonialism. The colonisation of India was instrumental as it was here the first accounts of sex as a source of pleasure were found. The progressive attitudes towards sex in India were quickly condemned as barbaric in an effort to maintain the very prude Victorian notions of sex and to make natives seem inferior and animalistic. Thus, the Western notion of sex began to spread around the world, turning sex into a marital activity which was not publicly talked about or celebrated.
Of course, this concept created gender inequalities. Men were encouraged to follow this idea; their extramarital affairs were often excused by blaming it on the famous male tendency to cheat. Women, on the other hand, were ridiculed and rejected when they dared to admit enjoying sexual intercourse.
However, because women were – and still are– also seen to be the carers of the family, they were and often still are expected to do anything for their family. Yes, even sell their bodies. This consequently leads to a vicious circle of judgement and stigma, making clear that sex work is a deeply feminist issue.
Sex and sex work is a feminist issue
The fact that sex is predominantly catered towards men can be easily observed when turning to other languages. In most languages, such as German, French and Italian the noun of sex as an activity is masculine. It is der Sex, not die Sex. It is le sexe, not la sexe. It is il sesso, not la sesso. Sex is not neutral, it is male.
This perception of sex solely for male pleasure definitely stems from Victorian notions, where women were became the backbone of family life, having to neglect their own desires to protect their loved ones. These gender roles – the man being the breadwinner and the woman staying at home – had fundamental consequences. When the man would or could not work anymore, women had to turn to other means such as sex work to sustain their family. However, because sexual pleasure in women was so looked down upon, patriarchy contributed to the stigma of the sex worker: the poor, run-down and diseased woman with no worth. In addition, sex work was criminalized, with the woman held responsible if someone did use her services.
"patriarchy contributed to the stigma of the sex worker: the poor, run-down and diseased woman with no worth"
In fact, a study by William C.W. Hong, Eleanor Holroyd and Amie Bingham called Stigma and sex work from the perspectives of female sex workers in Hong Kong examined exactly how sex workers in Hong Kong were stigmatised and how they coped with the stigma. One of the women, speaking about the stereotype of sex workers being filthy and dirty individuals, said:
‘They will not let their kids play with you, they think you often touch other men and won’t allow you to touch their kids […]my hands are clean, I will clean my hands after having sex with clients.’
This and many more stereotyped images of sex workers are mostly distributed by the media. In many movies, such as Pretty Woman (1990), sex work is both glamorised and ridiculed. It is represented as being something easy and enjoyable, even though it is hard work.
The porn industry also presents a challenge.While there is nothing inherently wrong with porn as a concept, it is essentially made for men. Of course, this can again be traced back to the stigma around female sexual pleasure. Up until the 1960s and the Sexual Revolution, women were not included in the sex discourse: the erotic market solely focused on men. Therefore, porn often represents a very skewed idea of female sexual pleasure such as unrealistic climax and body standards and the way women are talked to during sex.
In fact, a report published by the UK Children’s Commissioner in 2013 concluded that young men use porn as their key source to learn about sex. Of course, this is not something bad per se. Sexual education is not adequate in our educational system making self-education vital. However, since porn focuses on male pleasure, it paints an inaccurate picture and depicts women as sexual objects rather than sexual humans.
In order to fight this and remove inequalities and stigma in sex work, we need to start talking about it openly. Sasha Grey, a famous porn star comments:
"We do have a distorted view of our fantasies in society, but that’s because we don’t talk about them enough. Whereas men maybe try to have sex with their girlfriends or wives like they saw a guy having sex with a girl in a porno movie, women also expect to get a fat diamond ring and a guy who doesn’t cheat on them. We’re taught to expect things that are just not possible. It’s not an exclusive problem to pornography, it’s a problem for human relations."
Therefore, to fully destigmatise sex work, we need to increase discussions around sex – discussions among all genders. Without sufficient dialogue, our current stigmas will remain. Sex and sex work need to move beyond their current reputation of something shameful and derogatory for women.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.