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I Was Never a “Sex Worker” but I Am a Survivor


A survivor’s response to Teen Vogue’s article “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.”

“Aren’t I a sex worker? And in some ways aren’t we all?,”1 said Dr. Tlalel Mofokeng in her recent Teen Vogue article “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.” No, I am not, nor was I ever a “sex worker,” but I am a survivor of sexual exploitation in prostitution and porn.

And no, Dr. Mofokeng’s experience as a doctor that treats STDs does not make her a “sex worker.” Her lack of real-life experience with this issue is glaringly obvious throughout her article.

As a survivor, I have experienced the harm and inhumanity of purchased rape that she calls “sex work” and I would not advise any person to choose this. I definitely would never promote it as a career choice for teenage girls, which is the target audience of Teen Vogue.

I was trafficked in my teen years, from 11-17, in prostitution and porn and it did not give me an empowered life. On the contrary, it damaged me and crippled me emotionally and physically for years to come. If Dr. Mofokeng had actually experienced the realities of daily repeated rape she would not be idealistically promoting it to teenage girls.

If Dr. Mofokeng had actually experienced the realities of daily repeated rape she would not be idealistically promoting it to teenage girls.

Even her definition of “sex work” seems delusional. “Sex-worker services between consenting adults may include companionship, intimacy, nonsexual role-playing, dancing, escorting, and stripping.”2 First of all, in what world do sex buyers pay for non-sexual role-playing and companionship? No man that bought me came in just for conversation. The “conversation” was usually “take that b*tch” or “you know you love it wh*re,” which they screamed as they slammed me up against the wall.

Mofokeng’s follow up to this fantastical fairytale about the conversation and companionship that sex buyers are having with us is to characterize their motives this way: “The idea of purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people who need human connection, friendship, and emotional support.“3 If sex buyers wanted connection they would talk to the wives whose rings they took off when they came into my room. They purchased sex with me because they wanted disconnected sex their way without any consideration of my humanity to leave them conflicted.

“One male sex buyer explains, ‘she is a prostitute she is not a person. She is just a commodity. When I strip her of her humanity and she is just an object then I can do whatever I want to it and have no remorse.’” This is the more common motive of sex buyers.

WATCH: Should Prostitution Be Legal?

The transaction of sex buying is not an equal exchange between two people with the same amount of power. As Lisa Hersch of World Without Exploitation puts it, in her own response to the article: “The vast majority in prostitution are not privileged women paying off students loans, but some of our most disenfranchised women and girls, mostly of color and poor. They are being bought by men with money and power. The inherent inequality alone should disturb anyone with a conscience.“4

I was not allowed to refuse anything. The one time I openly refused a customer my night ended with a gun pointed at my head. Both the pimps/traffickers and the demanding sex buyers ensure that sex buying is a one-sided transaction played out their way.

Immersed in some delusion of an imagined benevolence in this exchange Dr. Mofokeng goes on to say that: “Some people may have fantasies and kink preferences that they are able to fulfill with the services of a sex worker.”5 For survival, not benevolence, I used to sense my buyers’ perversions—“kink preferences”—as they walked towards me. The twisted fantasies we “played out” left a black hole spinning through me for years to come. Terror, not fun, was my experience as, while naked and bound, I stared into the eyes of men getting off on my pain.

RELATED: Incest Was My Boot Camp for Prostitution

Sexual exploitation is not a clinical exchange without harm. It is damaging to the human person inside who disconnects to survive the violent sex buyer’s demands and violation. In fact, the majority of women studied in prostitution meet the criteria for PTSD on the same level as combat veterans and torture victims.

WATCH: Is Prostitution a Job?

Prostitution is inherently dangerous. Dr. Mofokeng’s belief that “Today, online spaces and apps make the interactions and negotiations safer for women,”6 is not based in reality. In the end, it is just you and a worked up man alone in a room. Whatever you think you “researched” beforehand, this is an unpredictable and dangerous moment.

There is one point we do agree on and that is that those whose bodies are being purchased for sex should not be criminalized. I advocate for the Abolition Model, which would make buying sex, pimping and trafficking illegal, but would not criminalize women being prostituted. This makes it possible for those being exploited to receive services as well as a way out, for those who want it.

The author does not stop there, though. She advocates for full decriminalization that would also legalize pimping, trafficking, and sex buying. And she seems to believe that anyone with experience in the industry is on her side. This is not the case.

Helen Taylor, Director of Intervention at Exodus Cry replies to her article this way, “The opinions this doctor holds are NOT the mainstream opinions of prostitution survivors. And by advocating for full decriminalization, she may not realize that she is saying that johns, brothel keepers, and pimps (i.e. third parties who benefit financially) should be decriminalized too.”7 The Abolition Model, also known as the Nordic Model, is the choice of survivors of sexual exploitation across the globe.

Dana Levey, a prostitution survivor from Israel, said in her own response to this article, “Most prostitutes are not interested in a professional status… They are interested in exit services, which practically do not exist in the [full] decriminalisation countries, because who needs rehabilitation from ‘real work’?”8

It is irresponsible of Teen Vogue to send teenage girls blindly into the hell we fought so hard to escape from.

Dr. Mofokeng ends her article by saying, “Evidence, not morality, should guide law reforms and sex work policy for full sex work decriminalization.” And, what about shared humanity? Shouldn’t that be our guiding principle? Repeated paid rape is not a humane “profession” for anyone. And the criminalizing of pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers is the most humane thing for the girls and women involved.

Listen to survivors on this. We would not send anyone into what we have been through. It is irresponsible of Teen Vogue to send teenage girls blindly into the hell we fought so hard to escape from.

Mofokeng clearly needs to do more research because the vast body of evidence about prostitution demonstrates that it is a form of violence against women, sexual exploitation, and a form of gender inequality.

As Laila Mickelwait, Director of Abolition at Exodus Cry has said,9 Teen Vogue is grooming a generation of young girls into prostitution—one of the most violent, dehumanizing, and traumatizing industries on the planet—and convincing them that this form of violence against women is a good ‘job’ option, and it is unacceptable.”

Raise your voice! Email [email protected] and encourage them not to post content like this which promotes sexual exploitation.

Bring Freedom to Exploited Women

Photo Credit: unsplash-logoShashank Sahay

Footnotes

  • 1. Mofokeng, Tlaleng. “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.” Teen Vogue, Teen Vogue, 26 Apr. 2019, www.teenvogue.com/story/why-sex-work-is-real-work.
  • 2.Ibid
  • 3. Ibid
  • 4.Hersh, Lauren. “An Open Letter to Lindsay Peoples Wagner.” Medium, World Without Exploitation, 29 Apr. 2019, medium.com/world-without-exploitation/worldwe-says-no-to-teen-vogue-e638cae8b80
  • 5.Mofokeng, Tlaleng. “Why Sex Work Is Real Work.” Teen Vogue, Teen Vogue, 26 Apr. 2019, www.teenvogue.com/story/why-sex-work-is-real-work.
  • 6.Ibid
  • 7. Helen Taylor, Director of Intervention and Outreach at Exouds Cry, From Letter Sent to Teen Vogue
  • 8.Levy, Dana. “No, Teen Vogue, ‘Sex Work’ Is NOT Real Work.” Nordic Model Now!, 30 Apr. 2019, nordicmodelnow.org/2019/04/30/no-teen-vogue-sex-work-is-not-real-work/.
  • 9.Showalter, Brandon. “Teen Vogue Pushes Prostitution as Legit Profession, like a Medical Doctor; Feminists Enraged.” The Christian Post, The Christian Post, 2019, www.christianpost.com/news/teen-vogue-pushes-prostitution-as-legit-profession-like-a-medical-doctor-feminists-enraged.html.