No, Teen Vogue, ‘Sex Work’ is NOT Real Work

By Dana Levy

Dana Levy, who was herself in prostitution in Israel for a number of years, responds to Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng’s recent article in Teen Vogue entitled “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.”

Teen Vogue recently published an article by Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng under the title “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.” Spoiler alert: the title is misleading. Largely, the article doesn’t even pretend to answer its own supposition. The only argument that can be construed as somewhat of a response is, that all of us are sex workers, in some way or another: “I am a doctor, an expert in sexual health, but when you think about it, aren’t I a sex worker? And in some ways, aren’t we all?”

Therefore, according to Mofokeng, sex work is real work. This is obviously ludicrous, but I prefer to look at the glass half full here – it gloriously demonstrates how preposterous the euphemism ‘sex work’ is.

The term ‘sex work,’ which many use interchangeably with ‘prostitution,’ is an all-encompassing term that bunches together not only prostitutes, but also nude models, strippers, and even pimps. It seems that Dr Mofokeng considers them to be too shady a group to categorise what they do as ‘real work,’ so she pushes the boundaries further to include herself.

She says: “I find it interesting that as a medical doctor, I exchange payment in the form of money with people to provide them with advice and treatment for sex-related problems; therapy for sexual performance, counselling and therapy for relationship problems, and treatment of sexually transmitted infection. Isn’t this basically sex work?”

Even though it’s a rhetorical question, I’d risk answering her that I don’t know.

The abolitionist movement doesn’t recognize the term ‘sex work.’ We don’t think a doctor, a pimp and the prostituted women share common interests. We oppose the act of prostitution – that is, the practice that allows a man to purchase the right to push his penis into an otherwise uninterested, or even repulsed woman. The Doctor can rest assured – the Nordic Model doesn’t deal with her clients.

The rest of the article is dedicated to opposing the criminalisation of people in prostitution, as occurs in her country, South Africa. Dr Mofokeng looks longingly at the decriminalisation in the Netherlands. The extent of her knowledge of other legal models is unclear or maybe non-existent. She fails to recognise any of the options on the spectrum between South Africa’s full criminalisation and the warm institutionalised embrace given to the sex industry by the Netherlands. If those other options didn’t exist, I would prefer regulation as well.

The Doctor attempts to explain why criminalising people in prostitution is wrong, while failing to give a coherent explanation. She says: “I do not believe it is right or just that people who exchange sexual services for money are criminalised and I am not for what I do.”

This is, obviously, not a satisfactory reason – the fact that her job is not harmful to the community is not enough to argue the same for everyone else’s. The reason to abstain from criminalising the people in prostitution is their vulnerability, not simply the fact that they’re doing it for money.

Prostitutes definitely need protection from individual and institutionalized violence, that’s where I agree with Mofokeng. But ‘decriminalisation’ involves legitimising the buyers, the pimps and other exploitive segments of the milieu as well.

The writer doesn’t bother herself with the morality of regulating pimping: it’s enough for her, that “it’s supported by sex work organizations.” The problem is ‘sex work organizations’ do not necessarily represent the interests of the community. Furthermore – they do not represent the majority of the population in prostitution, but rather a small group who self-describe as ‘sex workers,’ and others, not even in prostitution – such as pimps. This is not a conspiracy theory. ‘Sex worker organisation’ websites around the world unapologetically represent the interests of ‘employers’ and ‘managers.’

I know that some people in prostitution support the decriminalisation of their pimps, who they refer to as managers and see as having a legitimate business. I understand where they’re coming from.

Sometimes, in order to remain sane, you must normalize, repress, say you’re doing well – at least until you’re in a safe enough a position to recognise what has been done to you. I was there too.

But support for full decriminalisation, which ultimately makes the sex industry into a legitimate financial business, is not shared by most people in prostitution. Most prostitutes are not interested in a professional status that will expose them to tax and other authorities. They are interested in exit services, which practically do not exist in the decriminalisation countries, because who needs rehabilitation from ‘real work’? Worse case, you change the employment conditions.

The sex industry, which rolls trillions of dollars a year, has a lot of money to invest. Some of it is spent on self-branding which includes presenting decriminalising pimps as an essential interest for prostitutes, and presenting prostitution as ‘regular work.’ But we all know that ultimately prostitution isn’t ‘regular work.’ Even Dr Mofokeng knows that. She can speak all she wants about her medical counselling as ‘sex work,’ but she would refuse an employment contract that requires her to work at a bordello. If she were ever to work under a supervisor who conditions her employment on having sex with him – she’ll know to call it ‘attempted rape’ or ‘sexual extortion,’ and not ‘expansion of duties.’

The ones who may find themselves most confused within this conceptual labyrinth are young girls, especially those who come from a background of poverty and family dysfunction. The sex industry lobby presents prostitution as a social mobility tool for poor women. The myth of ‘easy money’ finds its way into the hearts of adolescents.

These girls do not know that a poor woman who goes into prostitution does not get out wealthy, but rather finds herself in a decade or two much poorer, physically and mentally ill, dysfunctional, living in the margins of society, without employment alternatives. When that happens to the next girl who is convinced that prostitution will enrich and empower her, the Teen Vogue team will not be there to rehabilitate her. Therefore, I would expect the newspaper to take minimal social responsibility and not give a platform for this dangerous nonsense without any balance and criticism.

I’ll finish by quoting Mickey Meji, a brave survivor of prostitution from Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng’s country, South Africa:

“Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and ‘choose’ to be prostituted. Prostitution is chosen for them by our colonial past and apartheid, persistent inequalities, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities and the men who buy us in prostitution.  I agree that those who sell sex should be decriminalised but there is no basis to decriminalise those who buy sex and those who sell women and girls (pimps and brothel owners). They must remain criminalised. They should not be given a license to exploit a position of vulnerability caused by gender inequality, unemployment and poverty.”

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