A sex industry matrix

As this module has talked about, sex work and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation are often conflated experiences. Confusing or equating these experiences create barriers for people seeking support, whether they are sex workers or persons experiencing exploitation.

Service providers should understand that these experiences are (1) different and (2) potentially overlapping. To help explain this dynamic, we can imagine the sex industry as a matrix impacted by choice, coercion, and circumstance.

  • Choice: the autonomous, personal decision to engage in the sex industry
  • Coercion: another person using coercion/exploitation to force someone to engage in the sex industry or share their income from sex work
  • Circumstance: factors that may place pressure on a person to engage in sex work (ex. capitalism and systemic poverty, high rates of unemployment, homelessness/housing instability, substance use, family needs)
imagining a sex industry matrix

A sex industry matrix recognizes that:

  • there are many reasons and ways people engage in the sex industry;
  • choice, coercion, and circumstance can each individually, and simultaneously, impact a person’s involvement in the sex industry;
  • people may move between different experiences:
    • ex 1. someone may feel like they are doing sex work one day, and feel like they are experiencing exploitation the next day
    • ex 2. someone may both (1) do sex work independently and (2) be exploited by someone

Why is seeing the sex industry as a matrix important?

If the sex industry is considered to be only exploitative:

  • we cannot recognize or effectively respond to the specific forms of exploitation, violation, and abuse (including that of human and labour rights) that someone may experience while doing sex work
  • we fail to realize that the majority of the world’s workforce work to survive, to feed and secure shelter for themselves and their families – and are hired so that their work can provide more wealth for those who are already wealthy, because capitalism is exploitative in itself
  • sex workers are no different than construction workers, people who work in the food service industry, or any other worker – except that sex workers are prevented from accessing the same basic rights and protections
  • we cannot value and embrace the the freedoms that sex workers advocate for (ex. the occupation of nocturnal and public spaces, sexual contracts that are respected and negotiated) and the knowledge and experience they have (ex. an appreciation and diverse understanding of sexuality)

If the sex industry is understood to be a matrix, we can visualize how people

  • move across the different axis (choice, coercion, circumstance) of the matrix
  • can identify with the sex industry in the way they choose to, and
  • should be supported in their unique, personal experiences.

Understanding the sex industry as a matrix is an important aspect of intersectionality and better equips service providers to provide client-centred / youth-directed support.

Practice what we’ve learned in this lesson below.

A note on sex work abolition perspectives:

We want to respect and uphold the diverse choices and perspectives of people and their experiences within the sex industry. With that in mind, we recognize that there are people who have been involved in the sex industry who believe that abolition of the sex industry, through legal decisions such as the criminalization of clients and brothels, is the best way to create safety for those involved in the sex industry. These perspectives come from knowledgeable people with important lived experiences. These voices and lived experiences deserve recognition when informing policy and practices. However, it’s important to consider how anti-sex work stories are the ones we hear most frequently in mainstream media. As will be discussed in Module 4, when engaging with mainstream media we always want to ask ourselves whose story is being told and whose story is missing.

There are also many sex workers advocating for alternative ways to provide safety beyond legality. An excellent example is the work done to address sexual exploitation by the Dunbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in West Bengal, India:

  • The DMSC is a self-regulatory board made up of 65,000 sex workers dedicated to identifying, removing, and supporting persons who are unwillingly involved in the sex industry
  • The DMSC accounts for 80% of successful interventions.

While some believe the end of the sex industry is the answer to ending sexual exploitation, we want to keep in mind the variety of creative and caring ways sex workers are challenging sexual exploitation and keeping youth safe that do not focus on criminalization. Our goal in this training is to encourage service providers to have flexibility and be able to support youth, no matter what their stance on the sex industry as a whole is. At the end of the day, and as we will discuss throughout this training program, we need to work toward widespread cultural shifts that de-stigmatize sex work, end gender-based violence, end white supremacy culture, and value the lives and safety of sex workers – regardless of what is considered to be legal or illegal.

Read more about the DMSC in Dasgupta’s (2019) article Of Raids and Returns: Sex work movement, police oppression, and the politics of the ordinary in Sonagachi, India.

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