A preview of Santa Cruz island and an interlude about “sex work”

August 18, 2023 • 10:45 am

Yesterday, when I wrote this, I anticipated being on Santa Cruz island all day, the most populated island of the Galápagos, and visiting Puerto Ayora and the several biology research stations there. Santa Cruz has nearly 16,000 inhabitants and a substantial town. (The population of the entire archipelago is about 25,000.)

Here’s where it’s located:

But yesterday I did manage to produce a long post on our visit to Santa Cruz, which will be up tomorrow morning (tortoises!). Nevertheless, I wrote this before we did our full-day trip to the island, anticipating that I wouldn’t have time yesterday to write a report for tomorrow. I did! (All posts are written in the late afternoon or evening when we return to the ship.) So, here’s what I produced to fill the anticipated lacuna:


Here’s a new NYT op-ed by Pamela Paul that I recommend (click to read):

It’s always made me a bit queasy when prostitution is called “sex work,” for that implies it’s a simple job that women choose to engage in, when in reality many are compelled to enter the trade by dire circumstances or predatory men—and, in places like southeast Asia, it involves underage girls forced into the trade for the delectation of foreign sex tourists.

Some excerpts from Paul’s piece:

“The media uses terms like ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ in their reporting, treating prostitution as a job like any other,” said Melanie Thompson, a 27-year-old woman from New York City who introduced herself as a “Black sex-trafficking and prostitution survivor.” The language of “sex work,” Thompson argued, implies falsely that engaging in the sex trade is a choice most often made willingly; it also absolves sex buyers of responsibility. (My colleague Nicholas Kristof recently profiled Thompson, who now works for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.)

“I urge the media to remove the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ from your style handbooks,” she said.

In reporting the event afterward, The New York Post used the term “sex workers.”

The Post is hardly alone. In what at first glance might seem like a positive (and possibly “sex positive”) move, the term “sex work” suddenly appears to be everywhere. Even outside academicactivist and progressive strongholds, “sex work” is becoming a widespread euphemism for “prostitution.” It can also refer to stripping, erotic massage and other means of engaging in the sex trade. It’s now commonly used by politicians, the mediaHollywood and government agencies. But make no mistake: “Sex work” is hardly a sign of liberation.

. . . Why, you might wonder, does exchanging money for sex need a rebrand? Derogatory terms like “hooker” and “whore” were long ago replaced by the more neutral “prostitute.” But “sex worker” goes one step further, couching it as a conventional job title, like something plucked out of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” Its most grotesque variant is the phrase “child sex worker,” which has appeared in a wide range of publications, including BuzzFeedThe Decider and The Independent. (Sometimes the phrase has been edited out after publication.)

. . .No advocacy worker wants to stigmatize the women or children who are trafficked or who resort to prostitution. Survivors of the sex trade should never be blamed or criminalized. Nor should the humanity of individuals working in the sex trade be reduced to what they do for money. Both opponents and advocates of the term “sex worker” share these goals. Many of those urging legitimacy for the sex trade also take a stand vehemently — and presumably without seeing any contradiction — against child labor, indentured servitude and slavery.

. . . But as with those close competitors for the title of “oldest profession,” the reality of prostitution isn’t worth fighting for. Though data is often incomplete, given the difficulties of tracking a black market, research from those who work with survivors indicates that only a tiny minority of people actively want to remain in prostitution. Those who enter the sex trade often do so because their choices are sorely circumscribed. Most prostitutes are poor and are overwhelmingly women; many of them are members of racial minorities and immigrants; many are gay, lesbian or transgender. Many, if not most, enter the trade unwillingly or underage (one oft-cited statistic shows the most common age of entry is between 12 and 16; some have also disputed this). They are frequently survivors of abuse and often develop substance abuse problems. Many suffer afterward from post-traumatic stress disorder. To say that they deserve attention and compassion is to acknowledge the breadth of their experience, not to deny them respect nor cast them solely as victims.

I don’t think it’s prudishness to object to this change of “language”, for the implications of “sex work” are such as to hide its dark side and inhibit people from fixing it. I agree with the statement of one woman:

“Prostitution is neither ‘sex’ nor ‘work,’ but a system based on gender-based violence and socio-economic inequalities related to sex, gender, race and poverty that preys on the most marginalized among us for the profitable commercial sex industry,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, told me.

In this case, the euphemism “sex work” hides a world of sadness and desperation, and the word is harmful—Orwellian in the reality it masks. “Prostitution” is what it should still be called, but beyond that we have to realize what it entails, most distressing when girls who are very young are forced into the trade.

29 thoughts on “A preview of Santa Cruz island and an interlude about “sex work”

  1. Horrible term. Indeed, it risks normalizing what is often, in effect, the product of sex trafficking. It reminds me a bit of the now frequent use of the phrase “involved with the criminal justice system” (or similar) as a replacement for “criminal.” Instead of college or trade school, his resume touts that he spent four years as a ward of the criminal justice system. Just another entry on the resume, sadly.

  2. There’s some circular reasoning on the sex work topic, in my opinion. Social condemnation of sex trade leads to laws against it, which creates an illicit industry in which women and children are abused, because there are no regulations to protect them, in fact, they get abused by both the illicit trade and by law enforcement, as well as condemned by society.

    But abuse of workers isn’t unique to the service being provided, it happens in everything from meat packing to avocado picking. We just tend to think it’s worse to be sexually abused than to have one’s time and freedom taken away and to be forced to work for low wages. And indeed, there’s nothing more odious than the sexual abuse of children, although forcing them into virtual slave labor is a close second.

    So, is the problem with the service being offered or in a lack of government regulation, which could resolve abuse in any of these industries? Is trading sex for money inherently immoral? That seems to be Paul’s assumption.

    In countries that legalize sex work, it would appear that there is less abuse. So why can’t it be regulated, with workers and children protected?

    1. Although I concede that “sex work” is a silly term, I have to agree with you (Phil) on the substantive issue. The fact that many women and girls are coerced into prostitution is not a good reason to stop the women who genuinely do want to engage in it-and it isn’t that hard to find advocacy groups run by prostitutes who support legalization-from doing so. Pakistan has a serious problem with kids being forced to make carpets. Does that mean that anybody who hires a willing adult to make a carpet in Pakistan and pays them a fair wage should be jailed? I like Paul and Kristof, but they really need to stop with this sanctimonious fearmongering about sex (Paul wrote a whole book denouncing “pornography.”) I think Wendy Kaminer and other classical liberal feminists get this right (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/sex-trafficking-porn-and-the-perils-of-legislation/240175/), and not the puritanical MacKinnon-Dworkin types (and their friends in the Christian Right.)

      1. Your comment of : the women who genuinely do want to engage in it. Seems to be a bit of a male fantasy.

        The fact that women stay in it is probably for financial reasons and not an overwhelming commitment to the industry. Bearing in mind that no wealthy woman ever joins the sex worker community because she genuinely wants to do so. This alone should highlight that woman are forced to do it for many reasons and not because they are sex mad.

        I am not making a moral judgement about it but many women do seem to be permanently harmed physically and psychologically. Men not so much.

        1. I don’t deny the obvious facts that A. Many women are coerced into prostitution and harmed psychologically and physicallyB. men tend to have a much greater appetite for casual sex (commercial or non commercial), but the simple fact is that there are indeed prostitutes who are genuinely disgusted as the media presumption of them as victims, and want prostitution to be legalized and regulated for their own safety. For instance (https://www.hips.org/sex-worker-advocates-coalition-swac.html https://desireealliance.org/ https://swanct.org/ https://www.eswalliance.org/). Isn’t it funny how those who want to ban consensual prostitution always deny there are women who go into the profession by choice, but those who want to legalize it never deny that there are many women who are coerced into prostitution, and that the men responsible for this should be prosecuted? Why is one side of this debate realistic and the other absolutist?

          1. There are fact-based arguments made against the legalization of prostitution.

            For example, a 2012 study ( https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1986065 ) found increased inflows of human trafficking in countries with legal prostitution.

            Further, basic market principles of supply, demand, and competition give an intuitive reason to suspect that legalization would force prostitutes to continually offer more for less, and this is precisely what we see from the legal brothels in Germany and Amsterdam. Sources:

            Now, does any of this constitute a conclusive case for one particular policy? Of course not. However, it does mean that it’s not fair to characterize opposition to legalization as “unrealistic”.

            1. If prostitution is a legal trade and we can exclude coercion as a significant factor, what does it mean to observe falling prices with a growing “service portfolio”?
              Apparently, prostitution even at lower prices is still preferable to minimum wage menial work. Due to demographic transformation here in Germany, you see notices looking for workers in probably a third of shops and nearly all restaurants. So if prostitution persists and there is a stiff competition driving down prices for services while at the same time the are alternative jobs one can do even lacking formal, I can only conclude that the job of a prostitute is still preferable to stocking shelves for 12 Euros per hour.
              Once wages rise in such jobs, prices in brothels will rise accordingly.

              1. You are correct as long as (1) coercion is actually absent and (2) coercion is the only possible factor limiting a prostitute’s ability to find work. Instead of simply assuming these premises, it behooves one to listen to what these women have to say. Some of the sources I linked include such accounts.

                Example: https://nordicmodelnow.org/2020/01/20/what-makes-exiting-prostitution-so-hard/

                Leaving prostitution is difficult for many, and not because selling your body is preferable to working at McDonald’s. There are reasons there are entire organizations set up to help women exit prostitution.

                Example: https://www.sase.org.uk/services

              2. @NulliusInVerba
                Sadly I cannot reply to you directly. Having read your first link, I wonder… do you believe, that a German official listened to a man admitting he raped his daughter multiple times and that official not pressing charges immediately? Let alone putting the victim back into the care of the offender.

                I agree, that the absence of coercion is an important factor and the authorities should protect everyone from the crime associated with the trade. However, if someone shuns the authorities, is the resulting lack of protection a sufficient reason to conclude that such protection doesn’t work?

              3. As to your question about the plausibility of German authorities being absolutely horrible, yes, I think it’s possible. Germany has a very poor track record when it comes to child safeguarding, among other things. ( https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/07/26/the-german-experiment-that-placed-foster-children-with-pedophiles )

                Whether any “protection” per se works is a separate question from whether the program or policy of “protection” works. Some government program may be offer great things for people, but if no one uses it—whether due to coercion, social pressure, distrust of government, byzantine rules, cost, stigma, learned helplessness, or whatever reason whatsoever—then the program itself is a failure. The program doesn’t work. Because we don’t live in a completely rational and ethical society without misogyny, sexual assault, patriarchal mores, malignant abusers, or sociopaths, any thoroughgoing policy regarding prostitution has to take those things and others into account. That’s going to be difficult to square with the flourishing of women, whose historical oppression has been predicated largely on the commodification of their sexuality (in the broad sense).

    2. The Netherlands is one country that legalized and regulated, but it is now pulling back and reducing the size of the industry. Not sure why. What has been their experience?

    3. The case of liquor prohibition might be instructive here. One the production for sale and sale of liquor became illegal, it became impossible to regulate the industry. The result was not only the production of unsafe alcohol, but also a development of a huge underworld devoted to making it available. Once Prohibition was legalized, regulation re-asserted itself, and bad liquor and gangsters were driven from the market. On the other hand, there are examples in the 20th century of generals trying to provide safe prostitution for their men, but the public outcry forced them to stop.

  3. I am very worried about the issue of prostitution. On the one hand, there is nothing immoral that I can think of for selling sex for money, where both parities are willing adult rational actors. On the other hand, the abuses are rampant. Not all individuals are participating freely. It would be nice if the two kinds of transactions – the rational and the coercive could be treated separately by the law. I don’t know if that could be done though.

  4. I have wondered about the rise of the term “sex work,” but haven’t bothered to dig into it. It seems to cover not just prostitution, but also professional and amateur “adult entertainment.” I think that, probably intentionally, confuses the discussion about prostitution. I don’t know why we need a new term, except as part of a general Progressive attempt at removing stigmatizing words (such as vagrant or even homeless, or convict) from the language. Ultimately, the word doesn’t remove the stigma, it just takes a while for it to be used derogatorily.

    1. I would suggest differentiating sex workers from sex slaves. The first would include those who voluntarily work in the industry and earn wages, the second would be those under someone else’s control and have no autonomy, such as children and prostitutes under the control of pimps.

  5. There is an excellent account of the complex issues involved in the discussion of prostitution in a chapter on the sex industry in Holly Lawford-Smith’s book, Gender-critical Feminism. She brings out the parallel with related questions like what is involved in allowing the sale of organs like kidneys. And she discusses the policy questions about legal treatment of prostitution, which are distinct from questions about what it is morally appropriate that people should be able to buy, like kidneys, or rent, like a woman’s womb, or the sexual use of a woman’s body.

  6. I should have made clear in the post that while I haven’t pondered the issue, I have no immediate objections to women engaging in voluntary prostitution, but there should at the minimum be registration and regular mandatory health checks.

    1. This is just a thought experiment, not a criticism of your position and not meaning to put you on the spot during your trip. What I’m getting at is that if someone offers a position, “I support A, subject to mandatory conditions B & C,” must his position change if conditions B or C turn out to be impossible? Purely a rhetorical question.

      Are the mandatory health checks to protect the women or the clients? Transmission of many STDs is more efficient from men to women than the other way round. And with HIV via anal intercourse, the risk is overwhelmingly to the receptive partner. So from a beneficence & autonomy view, are the prostitutes being seen as victims or vectors? This will become important owing to the role of doctors in the process.

      A mentally capable person can always refuse offered medical treatment including “health checks” except (in most states and provinces) mandatory treatment of contagious forms of tuberculosis. (This can include incarceration.) It is clear from the HIV experience that a person with a contagious sexually transmitted disease cannot be quarantined, ordered to stop having sex, compelled to have treatment (if there is any), or compelled to be tested to see if they have it. It is often a crime to expose a sexual partner to a disease you know you have but that you hid from that trusting partner. This varies from place to place and involves expensive prosecution and criminal standards of proof of guilt.

      So “mandatory” would be ~ impossible except: In licensing prostitutes, (not merely “registering” them in a database), the state could demand as a condition of licensure that they submit to the specified health checks at specified frequency, including treatment of any diagnosed diseases which would be reported (as now*) to the public health authorities. Non-compliance (or detection of disease) would lead to licence suspension. And prostituting without a valid licence would be an offence, even if the prostitute remained registered with the authorities. This possibility would tempt many prostitutes to not bother registering in the first place, especially those working on the street or on line where there was no brothel administrator to scan for valid licences at the start of each shift. It seems likely (though I don’t know) that prostitutes breaking the law by evading the licensing regime would be more at risk of being exploited and trafficked.

      Even then, medical associations have been uncomfortable with doctors carrying out medical procedures on people who were “consenting” only so as not to lose their legal livelihood. We weren’t allowed to raise this concern about legally mandated Covid vaccination as a condition of employment because it was A Public Health Emergency.
      But mandatory testing and treatment whether to protect the individual or to protect third parties or society at large have always been ethically dubious and could lead to accusations of professional misconduct against the participating doctor, especially given the intimate nature of the health checks in women. The extreme issue of court-ordered treatment in women who do not consent at all is regularly discussed in the medical-legal literature, e.g.,
      The Ethics of Court-Mandated Cesarean Sections. Anna Glezer (2018)

      In sum, I think mandatory health checks of prostitutes would not pass constitutional, ethical, or practical scrutiny in individual-rights societies like the United States (and to some extent Canada.) So, again rhetorically, is the position supporting registered voluntary prostitution tenable? I don’t know what I really think of prostitution either. In Canada it’s illegal for customers to communicate, not for prostitutes to solicit. Paying for sex is not itself illegal.
      * Some STDs require reporting in all patients in all jurisdictions. But there are many STDs that are not usually reportable, such as scabies, crab lice, genital herpes, trichomoniasis, molluscum, but which the licensing authority might wish licensed prostitutes to be treated for or suspended from working while possibly contagious.

      1. And as an addendum, why not require regular health checks of customers? After all, if the women are going to all that trouble to be free of disease, why should they risk losing their licences because some skanky man gave them a dose?

        In practice, of course, condoms go a long way (but not al the way) to reassuring everyone. We settled for condoms as the sole defence against HIV for many years until highly-active anti-retroviral therapy rendered the semen of many men probably non-infectious. (But don’t bet someone’s life on it unless she really really wants to get pregnant by you.)

  7. I wrote an article about prostitution a few years ago, here in Democracy Chronicles but also in two other places: there’s a lot people get wrong about the job: particularly that it is usually “sex trafficking”. Amongst American citizens forced prostitution is much rarer than those looking to forbid it think.


    I write about the REAL reason why so many hate prostitution and it isn’t to protect vulnerable women.

    By the by, I’ve (successfully) defended some hookers* in court when I was a criminal defense atty in Queens and Manhattan. When I had more hair and it wasn’t so gray. 🙂

    NYC https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/
    *I’m totally off the euphemism treadmill. I am uncancellable by pedants and scorns.

    1. Liked your article.
      My own thought on the issue: it seems that if you don’t mind being filmed and having the film distributed to others, it is perfectly legal to be paid to have sex.

  8. Child labour and slavery are already illegal as they obviously should be despite the US GOP working hard to undermine laws against the former. “Sex Worker” as a generic term encompassing all the various occupations involving sex seems entirely reasonable. People who by violence or threats of it prevent sex workers or any other workers from resigning their jobs are guilty of slavery and should be imprisoned for that. It may well be true that only a minority of sex workers are in those occupations voluntarily, but the same could be said of the staff of McDonalds or Walmart. The people working there are doing it voluntarily in the sense that they are free to walk away and lose the income they depend on to partially feed themselves (food stamps picking up the slack) and house themselves. In our disgust and horror of the abuses suffered by sex workers at least in large part because of its partial or total criminal status in many jurisdictions, let’s not infringe on the rights of those who do choose one of the many jobs which fall under the umbrella of “sex work”. Just as the answer to abuses of workers by their employers was organizing and protesting unfair working arrangements, sex workers should be given the opportunity to avail themselves of those options. The first essential step is to decriminalize all aspects of voluntary sex work. The next step is the crack down hard on all modern slavery and abuse of workers.

  9. For me, a key part of the moral difficulties surrounding this topic is the question if poverty alone already constitutes coercion. Many who oppose sex work (for me a term encompassing prostitution as well as other adult entertainment) deny the existence of sex workers who chose that profession voluntarily (e.g. user Kelcey in the comments). I wonder though, if the removal of an option is beneficial for some suffering from poverty and facing the hard choice of what to do about it.
    Of course extremely few if any would choose to offer their body for sex, if the alternative is a well paid office job. If you only alternatives are 12-16h labor in sweat shops or a mine, or suffer even more crushing poverty then the calculation changes significantly.
    Sadly ensuring nobody faces such harsh choices is completely unrealistic.

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