With movements like #MeToo, we are finally giving issues of sexual assault and harassment attention. Victims are now more comfortable speaking up and revealing this epidemic in our society. However, a certain group of people must still fear retribution for speaking out: sex workers.
Paid sex work is currently illegal in the United States, making it difficult for sex workers to reach out to law enforcement when they are sexually and physically abused. Sex workers will be punished for speaking to law enforcement, instead of aided in ensuring their abuser receives the legal punishment they deserve.
Currently, sex workers are not protected by rape shield laws in the majority of U.S. states. The only states that explicitly exclude prostitution from being mentioned in rape cases are New York and Ohio.
Yet, sex workers are one group that needs the most protection, as they are more likely to experience sexual violence than those in other fields of work. One in five sexual assault police reports from an urban emergency room pertained to sexual violence against sex workers. Victims in these police reports were also more likely to be young, poor and sustained greater injuries than other sexual assault victims.
With all the abuse that sex workers undergo, their struggles are hardly ever discussed even in movements like #MeToo, which are intended to encourage survivors to speak up and erase the stigma around reporting sexual violence.
In fact, some people have even wondered why those accused of sexual harassment and assault could not simply have gone to a sex worker to meet their desire.
The idea that sex workers exist to satisfy people’s predatory desires is prevalent in our culture. Sex workers are not viewed or treated with respect, thus their well-being is never considered. Sex workers are not people that can be sexually abused in order to erase the threat of sexual assault and harassment for non-sex workers; they are not punching bags for men like Louis CK or Harvey Weinstein.
However, many seem to forget that and believe sex workers are in some way “asking” for sexual violence because of their occupation. This is ironic given that this thought process is just another form of rape culture, which movements like #MeToo are supposed to help end.
If movements like #MeToo truly want to help all victims, they must protect sex workers as well. One major way is recognizing that sex workers’ occupation should never be brought up in cases of sexual assault and harassment. A sex worker is using their body to make money the way many other workers do, yet they do not have the same rights as other workers.
Simply because sex workers are providing a sexual service does not mean their customers do not need their consent or that they are not allowed to stop any sexual activity they are no longer comfortable with.
The media should acknowledge the abuse of sex workers when talking about #MeToo, because not only are they more at a risk, but they are currently unable to report their abuser to law enforcement for fear of punishment. Those in the #MeToo movement should advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, so that sex workers can report these crimes and feel safer. Rates of sexual and physical violence against sex workers are lower in countries where sex work is not criminalized. Issues of sexual violence against sex workers need to be given media attention and notice in our movements. Most importantly, #MeToo needs to do something to protect sex workers or this movement is not as inclusive as it likes to believe it is.