Would you sleep with someone who used to be a hooker? Probably not, right? Now, imagine someone refuses to date you because they think you’re diseased. How would you feel? Pretty hurt? Filthy, perhaps? Well, that is how current and former sex workers feel when they’ve been rejected for telling someone about that part of their life.
Sex workers are wrongly stereotyped as diseased. Since there are differing levels of agency within the sex industry, sex workers differ in their ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STIs). On one end exists people who will have sex without a condom because they’re desperate for food. On the other end are workers who won’t perform handjobs or blowjobs without a condom. They make their clients use hand sanitizer and gloves when fingering them. Those workers have the agency to protect themselves from STIs. To call them diseased is ridiculous, considering that their professional sex is safer than the average hook-up. Even workers with less agency get the help they need to protect their health from organizations like Boyle Street Community Services.
This stigma is a form of social control. In her book Playing the Whore, sex worker Melissa Gira Grant writes, “it was all whores who first theorized that all women live under the conditions of what they named ‘whore stigma’.” Grant argues that this stigma is attached to any women who is or appears more promiscuous than is socially accepted; it’s like slut-shaming, but including the women who are most harmed by this discrimination. Sex workers are stigmatized because they break societal norms regarding sex.
Such stigmatization makes them susceptible to violence. In the past, it allowed state officials to sexually assault them. Grant points out that police officers harass them when they’re off the clock. Serial killers prey on them. Labelling someone as diseased signals to others that they don’t deserve care.
It also affects their personal lives. People refuse to date them because of their work; since many people desire sexual activity in a relationship, they’re hesitant to sleep with someone they believe is diseased. People may refuse to share drinks with them. Workers may lose career opportunities if employers discover that they engaged in sex work.
Workers can also be humiliated when they try to donate blood. Canadian Blood Services say they can’t donate because the HIV rate among prostitutes is higher than standard. By only studying prostitutes, workers with the least agency, Canadian Blood Services labels all sex workers as diseased. Sex workers take extra precautions because they’re sleeping with strangers; they act to mitigate the risk of STIs given the amount of agency they have. In addition to the methods mentioned earlier, sex workers can also discreetly examine clients by giving them massages. Workers with higher agency do not have a higher risk of STIs because they have the agency to use extra protection.
Next time someone tells you that they were/are a sex worker, remember that different workers have different experiences and different levels of agency. Instead of making assumptions, respectfully ask about their experiences. Listen to them. Since sex workers are human, they deserve to be treated as such.