How We Discuss Sex Work



We need to have a sit down and consider how we’re discussing sex work.

I would like to talk about the widely shared article published in E-tangata by Pala Molisa called ‘White Ribbon, Too White And Too Polite’. In many ways this is a great article, but there is a particular view in here about sex workers – a particular mindset – that needs to be changed because of the kinds of social and physical risks it encourages. Risk encouragement is contrary to the intentions of all of us who strive together against (often) gender-based domestic violence. You can read the article here:

Very strongly, it is not OK to call sex work “commercialised rape”.

Please understand that rape is a very specific term that must not be appropriated and used in ways other than it is intended. It is not up to us to decide if someone else has been raped, nor look at them and state that they are making themselves available to be raped. Sex work is and should always be consensual. If it is not consensual, then it is rape. If it is consensual then it is simply lawful, adult sexual contact. If you portray sex work as “commercialised rape” that’s almost like saying sex workers are:

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1) Complicit in their own rape, 

2) Intentionally making themselves available to be raped, and
3) That others should look at them as people who have made themselves available to be raped.

Just take a minute with that and think about how dangerous it is to spread that idea around. In the words of a friend: “this muddies consent in a way that those who might seek to abuse it want it muddied.” It is objectifying to see sex workers as vessels of rape and there is nothing worse for workers than to be seen as objects rather than people who have the right to be in control of their own bodies and the right to be listened to.

Sex work is voluntary, just like sex is voluntary. Having sex and then taking money for it is no more a form of exploitation than other forms of work in a capitalist economy that inherently requires such exploitation.

Furthermore looking down on sex workers is something that causes their social isolation, stops them from being able to talk about safety issues and discourages them from seeking help if they do need it. Sex workers are not safe to discuss their work and that is due to social perceptions of them as often being low-class, low value, and it is our job to change that. Also don’t eliminate the impact of class, privilege and race from this conversation.

If someone says they have been raped that is their body, their words. Imagine how devastating it would be if someone told you you were letting yourself get raped. That is the essence of the victim-blaming mentality we want shut down.

In less detail I also want to pay a little tribute to the idea of gender essentialism and how we consider the male as the natural aggressor and the female as the fragile feminine flower and how these stereotypes also play into notions about domestic violence and that violence is often seen as inherently tied to what is ‘natural’ to gender. Not only do we need to bust the binary but we also need to stop telling guys it’s in their nature to enact violence upon others.

I understand why this article is being shared and the value of it in calling on the whiteness and politeness of white ribbon. I see where he is coming from, but we don’t sell out sex workers and use them as ‘ideas’ to make a point. Sex workers are people – not ideas, or concepts to play with – they are not the embodiment of immorality and their work should not be used in this way. It is not right to turn them into a target to gain the ‘likes’ of a conservative majority.


  1. Good article, Jessie. Sex workers can be raped, like anyone else, but they are not raped every time they engage in sex work.

  2. Too often when people write words about sex work and sex workers, they write with little real understanding.

    It is my firm opinion that anyone who wants to write words about sex work and sex workers should just stop. And either STFU or find a sex worker to tell it in THEIR words.

    There are plenty of ex sex workers and current sex workers willing to speak up. Their voices aren’t often heard. Those who would write their words are too ready to speak for them.

    It’s probably one of the most problematic areas of feminism this speaking for sex workers by people who have zero experience of it.

    • You’ve got to have a really small peaker if you have to pay for it, or a really big head. It’s like some guys don’t know how to make friends, like really good friends, like really good friendship. Instead of having a really expensive wank

    • This article would make more sense if critique of prostitution was the same thing as revictimisation of prostituted individuals.

      It isn’t.

      If we were to apply the same logic to capitalism then we would end up saying this: “To be critical of capitalism is attack workers. People should work if they want to. Therefore capitalism isn’t coercive.”

      Being critical of the coercive institution of prostitution is not the same as blaming prostituted individuals.

  3. Don’t always agree 100% with your blogs, but this one is spot on. Great article.

    As for the article you linked it is filled with conspiracy theories about how our society operates. It is way off the mark in identifying the causes that drive violence in our country.

  4. “Please understand that rape is a very specific term that must not be appropriated and used in ways other than it is intended. It is not up to us to decide if someone else has been raped, nor look at them and state that they are making themselves available to be raped. Sex work is and should always be consensual. If it is not consensual, then it is rape. If it is consensual then it is simply lawful, adult sexual contact.”

    What staggers me that this has to be pointed out in the opening decades of the 21st Century. It’s like very little has changed from 1915.

    How many times do we have to repeat the difference between concensual and non-concensual????????

    • That depends on how many times people ignore the system of violence behind a transaction that makes consent a meaningless token.

      Funny how the the predominant sentiment on dailyblog is hostile to neoliberalism and co-ercive capitalism… until it comes to the mens access to womens bodies.

      • I think it’s more complicated than that. I agree this system of violence permeates everything, the argument is that sex work is not distinct from other forms of labour so scapegoating sex workers is still not cool. We should be able to discuss everything that is wrong about the system without separating sex workers out from that discussion as being distinctly worse. At least sex workers are potentially being better paid for their labour. What about the bodies of people being paid minimum wage for 40 years while they struggle to feed themselves and families?

        • Does this notion of inclusion also include survivors of the trade in womens bodies who support prohibition?

          I mean, I totally agree that we should listen to the survivors. Including women still in the game.

          Survivors are organising across the globe. There are groups like Space International (, Ruhama and OPS – survivors who want to be heard.

          “What about the bodies of people being paid minimum wage for 40 years while they struggle to feed themselves and families?”

          How about advocating for them and organising for them, without advocating for mens access to their bodies?

          • @ Rob. I’m curious that you’d quote Ruhama as having a positive impact on sex workers. Ruhama are in fact a front organisation set up and run by the same orders of nuns who ran the Magdalen laundries in Ireland. Therefore they know plenty about the enslavement of young women for their personal profit. They are absolutely the last people who should have any say over sex workers’ rights and freedoms.

      • Rob, it depends on what definition of coercion you are referring to. Drug dependency? Economic? Spousal abuse/coercion?

        Then again, there may not be coercion any more than I am “coerced” to go to work each morning to pay my mortgage; keep the bank manager happy; and deliver another healthy dividend to the guvmint…

        We don’t know. I suspect each sex-worker has her (or his) own reasons for pursuing that line of work.

        • Regardless I doubt you’ll ever meet a sex worker who’s background isn’t characterized by deprivation or abuse. Part of a liberal conceit to assume that anyone with properly formed self-esteem and options would still get involved in the sex industry.

  5. Criticising Molisa for victim-blaming is disingenuous.
    She explicitly and clearly does *not* do that in her article.

    She does the opposite: describing how systematic injustice puts many women into a position where they have no choice but to sell access to their bodies.

    In other words: the women she is talking are *forced* into this position.

    What word to we use to describe *forcing* women into providing sexual access?

    The accusation of victim-blaming is just a straw man. It’s a distraction from the real issue: the co-ercion of women into providing sexual access to men.

    • I’m going to vehemently disagree with you on this point.

      What she does is speak for a group of people who are one of the most marginalised and stereotyped groups in our society, and she makes blanket statements about them and their experiences.

      And you’re doing that too. Your comment is about women (ignoring trans people) who are “forced” into prostitution (please, lets call it sex work instead).

      You appear to have assumed that all sex work is by force, either overt or systematic.

      My point is we need to stop speaking for them. If we do not have direct experience, our own experiences, of sex work, then we shouldn’t make blanket statements about sex work and sex workers.

      Of course that’s a minefield. Because a great many sex workers aren’t going to speak up because then they’d be “outed” as ex sex workers.

      But there are enough current and ex sex workers willing to speak up. We need to be listening to their voices on this topic, and not making blanket statements about something that quite frankly we know nothing about.

      We’re quite likely to get it wrong.

      • “she makes blanket statements about them and their experiences.”

        That’s the nature of political analysis: You look at institutions and systems. You look at how power affects groups of people.

        “we need to be listening to their voices on this topic”

        I agree. Lets listen to the survivors who want to stop men from acting on an entitlement to access womens bodies in state-sanctioned commerce.

        There are no shortage of such voices.

    • ‘He’, not ‘She’.

      And no. Saying women are forced into being sex workers is not accurate of sex workers on the whole, otherwise they would not be sex workers, they would be slaves. Slavery is not OK. Rape is not OK. Consensual sex, and consensual sex where money is given is very different. You can’t just take the word ‘force’ and apply it to this situation when it is very literally not an example of ‘force’. You have to be accurate and honest. There are slaves in New Zealand and there are sex slaves in New Zealand. They’re being forced and that is terrible. But assuming and claiming all sex workers in New Zealand are being forced in any way to do the work that they consent to do as adults with agency, well that’s just wrong.

  6. Unfortunately a lot of men don’t realise the word no actually means no, JK is a bit of a clown when is comes to social graces ie the Colonial Clot?

  7. I remember making submissions to the Justice Select Committee supporting the law change from “rape” to “sexual assault”, and “sexual violence”. This was an hugely important change because it helps to shift the emphasis on the behaviour of the victim onto the perpetrator. “Rape” is the common usage – but since the mid 80’s the word has been dropped from the law and has been replaced by the term “sexual assault” which covers a far greater range of assault than rape and is not exclusive to violence perpetrated against women.
    Perhaps it’s time that those working in the sex industry and society in general started to stop using the word “rape” and started to use words that actually describe the violence much more clearly. When a sexual assault occurs it doesn’t matter whether or not the perpetrator has had previous sexual relations with the victim or not. In 2008 consideration was then given by government to changing the law again (particularly the Evidence Act) with respect to making the issue of ‘consent’ more clearly defined.

  8. The majority of the global sex trade is coercive. Poverty is the massive driver behind people selling their bodies (of having their bodies sold without their consent).

    What people in the sex trade need is justice, freedom, and human dignity. That’s only going to come about if there is economic reform so that those who do not wish to sell sex have other viable alternatives to make a living.

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