Lori Watson, in Logos, discusses why “sex work isn’t work,” and what the consequences of such a view would be in the real world.
Consider further that Courts have found the presence of “pornographic magazines.” “vulgar sexual comments” “sexually oriented pictures in a company- sponsored movie and slide presentation,” “sexually oriented pictures and calendars in the workplace,” all relevant to hostile work environment claims. In Barbetta, “the court held that the proliferation of pornography and demeaning comments, if sufficiently continuous and pervasive “may be found to create an atmosphere in which women are viewed as men’s sexual playthings rather than as their equal coworkers.” How could such a ruling have effect in a brothel: where pornography is used as an accompaniment to sex? Where “vulgar sexual comments” are the eroticized language of clients? Where sex is the job?
Of course, these rulings and regulations are premised upon the fact that sex isn’t the job itself. If the sex is the job, what sense can we make of the claim that treating (unwelcome) sex as a condition of employment is an instance of sexual harassment, and so sex inequality? Legalizing prostitution is not compatible with the legal recognition of sexual harassment as a form of sex inequality. And, supposing advocates argue for a carve out, an exception, for this form of “work,” what message does that convey? Some women are deserving of protection from, or legal recourse in the event of, unwanted sexual harassment while some women are not? And those that aren’t are the least advantaged of all “workers”? This reeks of the all to common view that women that prostitute themselves are whores by nature and deserve whatever they get…
If sexual autonomy is to mean anything, it has to mean the right to refuse sex with anyone, at anytime, for any reason. We may think in one’s personal life refusing to entertain the possibility of dating or becoming sexually involved with someone solely on the basis of their race, religion or disability is an undesirable preference, especially if such preferences are rooted in prejudice or animus more broadly speaking. Nonetheless, everyone has the right to choose their sexual partners on whatever grounds they subjectively judge to be relevant, including the sex and gender of any potential partner. If someone thinks they absolutely don’t want to have sex with anyone over 65, it is absolutely their right to act (or refuse to act) on that preference. We are under no obligation to have sex with someone who might be interested in sex with us. The right to refusal for any reason, whether an “admirable” reason, or not is absolute.
However, where sex is a commercial activity, considered to be work just like any other form of work, its hard to see any rationale for defending the “rights of workers” to refuse service to someone based on their subjective preferences. Should “clients” have the right to sue brothels or particular women for “refusing service” based on their membership in a protected class? If this sounds absurd, consider the evidence New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) offers: In a report following up on the PRA, five years after its passage, the Review Committee queries, among other things, the ability of “sex workers” to refuse sexual services to a particular client. They found that 60% of “sex workers” felt more able to refuse sex with a particular client than prior to the passage of the PRA, which, of course, means 40% did not feel more able to refuse sex with a particular client. In interviewing both brothel owners and “sex workers”, the Committee reports that although “workers” have “right” to refuse a particular client both “workers” and owners held that refusal was acceptable “only with a good reason.” One brothel owner is quoted as saying, “We won’t allow nationality to be the reason—they [the women selling sex] don’t have a right to discriminate.”