Even if sex workers did have histories of sexual abuse or assault—histories that many women share, regardless of their occupations—does that mean they're incapable of making decisions in their own best interest?
I think human history is littered with examples of how people. left to their own devices, make decisions contrary to their best interests all the time.
Indeed, from a utilitarian perspective, one of the best arguments for preserving and maintaining social institutions like strong extended families, churches, schools, civic organizations, etc. is that they help guide people away from making decisions that might look appealing at the outset by might have all kinds of unforeseen consequences down the road.
As a gay man, I've never had to resort to paying for sex in order to indulge in my desires. On the contrary, I'm not ashamed to admit that I've done a little sex work on the side myself when I was younger. It always seemed like a harmless thing. Sex is enjoyable; I was scrupulously honest with my partners, and, when "working", used my position to advocate for and educate my clients on how to protect themselves. What's not to like?
Except, as I've become a little older, I find myself having second thoughts. Has my approach to sex helped contribute to problems with relationships? Does it perhaps point towards other issues that I'd been masking (indeed, my desire to act out sexually in pretty clearly unhealthy ways has decreased as I've worked on some other problems I've had). With 20/20 hindsight, it now occurs to me that my life might have been better without having taken the path I did.
And this doesn't even look at the potential harm to my clients and their
families that I was enabling. I had clients who were closeted and married with children. Hiring me was their solution to the problem of their situation. But was I co-signing their dishonesty? What if, despite my precautions, I passed on an STD to a partner who thought he or she was in a monogamous relationship? Was a contributing to an escalating, ticking emotional time-bomb in those relationships? Was I making those relationships better or worse? Yes, the primary responsibility for those choices lay with the client, but I do bear responsibility too as an enabler.
Does that mean that my experience applies to everyone? No, of course not. And I hope that anyone who chooses this path ends up like Xaviera Hollander rather than with having any second thoughts or regrets.
But at the same time, I also know I'm not the only one in this position. Was I exploited by a pimp? A victim of sex trafficking? Damaged or abused? No; I freely chose to do what I did. But, even if I can't point to any of those obvious harms associated with the industry, I think it did leave its mark on me, even if that mark was only avoiding and hiding from issues that I needed to confront. I wish someone had had the opportunity to sit down with that younger version of me and really talk through what I was doing and whether I really wanted to be doing it.
Ideally, all of these hedges and social controls we build up around the sale of sex (and sex generally) should be opportunities to engage in those conversations. To encourage those second thoughts before
we act in ways that could potentially harm ourselves and others.
I think sex work can
be done in an ethical and healthy way. But I also think that that is a lot harder to do that than it would appear, and that for many people it would probably be best to avoid the business, as either a customer or purveyor, altogether.