Ethics characterise what’s ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ with business dealings and I’ve been recently been considering why sex work doesn’t have an official one. Bearing in mind that a fair number of people would view sex work as ‘wrong’ and not even business, there’s obviously a conflict of interest in creating an ethical standard for sex work. People are too busy trying to delete sex work, shame sex workers and make our lives 100x harder, rather than focusing on how to make it safer. Or, alternatively, there’s a stronger emphasis on health standards.
Every other industry that deals with people requires a code of ethics that symbolically represent and reflect the values of that industry. They print them on a shiny piece of paper, and hang them up in rigid frames, sometimes with clever phonetic abbreviations (R is for RESPECT!) and they dignify the business conduct. They stick out proudly in offices and scream ‘of course I’m going to look after you, look at these ethics!’ Considering how hard it’d be to hang a code of ethics on a street without the police getting wind of where you’re working and charging you, it’s understandable why sex workers don’t have that piece of resolute paper. On the axis of morality, some people might say sex work sits on one side, aka the shit end, making it a bit contradictory that anything ‘good’ could exist within it. Nevertheless, ethics within sex work inevitably exist, a system created by the workers themselves. As sex work functions on an intimate (emotional and physical) level; surely a code of ethics is essential to protect everyone in and around the industry.
Even though we don’t have that shiny piece of paper, sex workers are not without ethics. Sex workers have an unspoken code of ethics that we adhere to. Our code of ethics relate to how we treat our clients, how we treat ourselves and how we treat other workers. Things like: the guy in the black sedan was a bit rough, better warn the other workers; do I feel like the means justify the end of doing this service, today; he wants me to do an intense BDSM session, am I qualified to do this? We have an idea of what is acceptable to us and what is not. But this code of conduct is not taught, it is inherently learnt with time and that’s where a lot of confusion stems from. It’s not entirely the industries fault; in every sector we are too busy fighting for our rights, trying to make ends meet, trying not to succumb under the weight of stigma. When one enters the industry, they are not congratulated; they do not get a welcome pack; they do not get any sort of support unless that individual is brave enough to ask for help or clever enough to research in the right ways, or connect to the right people. Exclusively, we have the sole responsibility of learning the ropes with wobbly legs. It’s during the process of being in the sex industry that you learn the ethics and the rules.
Some sex workers don’t fully get it. I recently read of a sex worker asking for information to report a fellow worker for providing incalls (this is an illegal activity in my state). I wanted to pour my hot coffee on my chest to displace the shock and horror I felt. How could she do that? How can you potentially ruin someone’s livelihood because of a law that dislocates you from your human right; a law created to keep the public happy and the workers unsafe? I was beside myself, needless to say. But I began to think and I thought to myself ‘well of course, if she didn’t know this, if no one taught her, if she didn’t pick this up the rules herself, how can she know of the damage?’ The implicit guidelines, rules, ethics and conducts that I’ve fundamentally learnt will not be latent or learned by others, not without perhaps, a piece of paper.
But then I thought – if we did have a code of ethics, set out on stone, what would it be? I tried to think specifically but I came to realise what might be applicable to me, might not be applicable to another worker. There are copious species of sex workers; to make a specific guideline would be impossible to fit appropriately with all sections of the industry. Making general rules might be good for concise understanding of the behaviour that’s encouraged for harm minimisation but even then, implementing them will be difficult. Their application will not be well received by every worker. You couldn’t even have a value like honesty; honesty sometimes means the world betrays you when you’re a sex worker. Honesty could mean that you are considered to be 45 when you advertise as 29, even if you are 29.
A sex worker who’s had a crash hot career of 3 months to save up for that holiday they always wanted it not going to be primarily focus on ethics. They’re going to do everything they can to get as much work as possible in the shortest period of time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A sex worker who frequents the streets is more interested in learning the rules that are best for them; they’re not going to have the same values of being impeccably dressed, groomed and scented as a private high-end escort. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The principal discourager for good business practices for industry members is the fact that their sex worker status is not something respected or taken seriously. Not everyone wants to be the upmost professional in a role that’s shunned in the public eye. Why would they take that extra effort, to be respectable in an industry that’s not respected?
But then there are workers like me, who are very serious about being successful in the sex industry. There’s thousands just like me, exercising good business practices because they plan on being in the industry for a while. Workers like me who care how the industry functions and the impact of the industry, and not just the money. The ones who work hard at their business conduct help produce the unheard rules. We have a way of thinking that dictates how we communicate to people; that we are fair with our dealings with clients; that we try to deliver ourselves as promised and that our clients leave satisfied. We are weary of the consequences of our actions, to ourselves and health (which will inevitable link into how long we can work), to our clients and to other workers. Yes, I’m a privileged worker and yes, that gives me the opportunity to branch out for the pursuit of knowledge, other career paths and personal improvement. But that doesn’t mean I’m absolutely ignorant to hard times, I was never born privileged. I worked up to it.
At the end of the day, I’m content keeping to the silent rules. Keeping them unwritten give them a level of discretion, makes them more accessible and applicable to any scenario and ultimately flexible to the individual worker. The most important values; the duty of care we have to other human beings; the things we know to be fundamentally true; the things that make a good person – those are the guidelines that have always been invisible. Those are the ones you should be doing regardless of the work you do – that’s the code of ethics sex worker follow to be successful – as should does any other person.