Prostitution is an age-old industry that has always been shrouded in mystery and misinformation.
The backgrounds of sex workers are a good example. People think it’s a profession only for the uneducated, drug-dependent or mentally ill.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Many sex workers are educated – they have professional qualifications or even the highest level of academic achievements. Each person’s story is as unique as are the reasons why and how they ended up in the industry.
Take someone calling herself Phoebe Kay as an example. She worked as a call girl for six weeks and described it as a temporary solution.*
“I think there’s a common assumption that women in the sex-work industry are there by choice or because they like it. Maybe that’s true for some women, but I can’t imagine enduring the whole thing unless I really had run out of options. Yes, it got me through a rough patch. And I don’t regret those six weeks exactly — more like, I wish I had never been that desperate. But this is a brutal economy, and I’m sure I’m not the only one getting morally creative.”
Stigma of sex work leads to marginalization
A typical sex worker lives in the shadows of a society. She or he does not officially exist, they either have a double identity or are rejected by their friends and family.
“Sex work everywhere has a huge stigma, regardless of culture. The manifestations of this stigma vary from culture to culture. For instance, there might be a claim that a sex worker can’t look after their children,” says Jaana Kauppinen, Executive Director of Pro-Tukipiste, a Finnish specialist service that promotes the participation and human rights of people who work in the sex or erotic industry or victims of human trafficking.
Stigma creates stereotypes and causes sex workers not to be seen as individuals by those outside the industry. This stereotype gets reinforced by our attitudes and daily discourse.
“Few sex workers are able to break the stigma and be accepted as the person (s)he is. (S)he is someone’s child, sister, brother, parent, and has many strengths and an opinion of what sex work means to her/him,” notes Kauppinen.
The problem, according to her, is that in different societies, prostitution policies and legislation are based on stereotypes and over-simplifications.
“This has created structures that effectively keep sex workers at the margins of society. Research is also rarely is able to reach the diversity of this field,” she says.
The paths to sex work are diverse
Some become sex workers by accident and decide to be part of the industry just for a limited time. Some get out of it, but some don’t. Some may be unable to do so.
“We have interviewed men, women and transwomen in prostitution in nine countries on five continents. 89% want to escape prostitution but are unable to find sustainable jobs,” said Melissa Farley, Ph.D., Executive Director at Prostitution Research & Education, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization.
“So critical needs, according to what those in prostitution tell us, are housing, medical and psychological care, and job training,” Farley continues.
Whilst training is necessary, educating such a diverse group of people presents challenges.
“The unique needs and multiplicity of co-occurring traumas and added barriers to well being such as chemical dependency, chronic homelessness, and mental health to name but a few, as well as the over-representation of traditionally marginalized groups make this a unique population with extremely high barriers,” says Alisa Bernard, Director of Education and Partnerships from the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, a Seattle-based volunteer-run organization.
Entrepreneurship training potentially beneficial to sex workers
The reality is that there are millions of sex workers in the world, but the work itself is not being recognized as a proper profession anywhere.
Getting an alternative job that society accepts without proper qualifications can be hard. Even daily requirements such as a bank account or mobile phone can be hard for those without proper registers.
Having a background in sex work qualifies the individual for nothing. If you openly tell about your sex work, getting work or training can be difficult.
“This is why women who do sex work often end up lying about their background and creating two worlds for themselves in order to gain access to education or job opportunities,” says Kauppinen.
According to many countries’ laws, you can be a sex worker but you can’t be an employee, since pimping is illegal. So the work has to be run by the individual. This is why many sex workers could benefit from entrepreneur training, for instance.
“Sex workers have to deal with the day-to-day issues of running a small business – how to do bookkeeping, how to organize security, how to manage client lists effectively, marketing and so on. They need negotiation skills, location scouting talent, taxation knowledge, data security backups – but learning these skills can be difficult,” says Kauppinen.
Shame limits the benefits of education
Even if some sex workers decide to take courses that may benefit them, such as computing skills or bookkeeping, many are too ashamed to admit what they do so they don’t fully get the benefits from the learning.
However, some in the industry are considering training. There has been discussion about training for special-needs clients such as bedridden people – how to lift these people without injury to both parties, how to avoid hurting the client or what their requirements are.
“Many sex workers who offer these kinds of services may already have some health care training, but they could do with more help in this,” says Kauppinen.
The experts note that it’s not impossible to see that at some point in the future there may be training specifically tailored to sex workers, which would help to tackle the issues they face on a daily basis. These include entrepreneurship challenges, the physical aspects of the work and security, for instance.
But as of now, no such courses exist due to the heavy stigma associated with the job.
Education a two-way system
No reliable data or studies exist about sex workers and education. It’s a much-neglected area, since it’s hard to define the group and because of the nature of the work. People come and go and they move around.
ProTukipiste has arranged workshops for women where they deal with health and other issues amongst sex workers. One of the challenges they have come across is the fact that there is no single training or awareness method that works with a group as diverse as sex workers.
“We had to tailor our workshops to all individuals. First, we needed to work out what their experience was, what their cultural reference point was, and what kind of level of education they had,” says Kauppinen.
Sex workers have plenty of learned capital, after all they deal with other humans and their needs for living on a daily basis.
“We were not be able to produce workshops with ready-made material, so we had to learn from the sex workers first. We would not want to put education ahead of experience but something that we tried to create was combining the two,” says Kauppinen.
Today many sex workers are mobile and move around from one place to another, even from one country to another. This in itself creates challenges when it comes to access to education.
Some may be refugees without any official statuses or they may be illegal workers who do not fall under the country’s jurisdiction. For these people, taking advantage of a country’s adult education facilities is nigh impossible.
Because they lack official status, they may not be able to get any of the benefits that are publically available.
No single solution for changing the line of career
Getting out of sex work should be focusing on providing opportunities outside the industry.
The avenues to exit are as myriad as the diversity of people within the sex trade. There is no tried and tested educational model that works best, and measurement of success can be difficult.
Again, lack of reliable global statistics on life after prostitution makes it difficult to determine the success rate sex workers have in staying out of the industry.
There are different factors at play.
“Some have found that their children’s well-being is a motivating factor for seeking assistance, while others report culturally competent services. Some tout recovery from chemical dependency as their means to exit, and others indicate that an arrest or diversion by an especially understanding law enforcement officer was the catalyst for exit,” says Bernard
Getting a proper vocation that pays a living wage backed by educational opportunities are the keys when it comes to getting alternative income to sex work. Programs that provide a broad base in basic skills that can be adapted to real world vocations are the most effective, along with encouragement.
“Some times I see women who are just genuinely naturally skilled at research and should be encouraged to pursue academic careers. I think there is no ‘one size fits all’ model, I don’t even really think there are a set number or type of best practices that can be followed when it comes to this type of service provision. Rather, the need for individualized services and life planning are essential to each person’s success,” says Bernard.
Many young women are dazzled by the false promises of the adult industry – the easy money without any qualifications or officially recognized skills. But those who have seen it say it isn’t so.
“I know I’m lucky to have gotten out of this relatively unscathed. But I also know that plenty of other women aren’t so lucky,” says Phoebe Kay.
*Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, a collection of stories by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.