Misconceptions about Sex Work Hurt Women, Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In much of the media, sexual professions are portrayed negatively. Not all of “sex work” is coercive, exploitative or defined as human trafficking. Our society has a narrow view of sex work that assumes women could not possibly make an informed decision about entering into sex work. This assumption is supported by the patriarchal view of women and males asserting their privilege in differing attempts to control their bodies. Joe Scott’s article for YES! Magazine reports three common myths about sex work that impact legislation and enforcement.

The first myth is that the average age of entry into sex work is between 12 and 14. In debunking this, Scott reports that, in 2014 the Atlantic and the Washington Post identified a 2001 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania as the source of this misinformation. As Scott summarizes, the Atlantic and the Post documented that the study “was not peer-reviewed, the researchers themselves said it was out of date, and many questioned the findings.”

The second myth is that “human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery” (Scott). However, Scott writes, the International Labor Office (ILO) estimates that “22 percent of forced labor is sexual exploitation, while 68 percent is labor exploitation. Why the drastically different results? The UNODC counts only cases that are first detected by law enforcement and then taken to court; sex crimes are more likely to make it to court because prosecutors have an easier time getting a conviction. That is why the ILO combines crime data with surveys of a country’s various governments and experts. Its estimates are likely the best guess anyone has on the scope of human trafficking and labor exploitation.”

The third myth is that “target the demand,” a policy introduced by Sweden, works. This policy focused on convicting sex workers’ clients, which actually has the effect of stripping away sex workers’ safety disempowering them. Scott writes, “criminalizing demand strips sex workers of their agency.” Criminalization encouraged a transition from in-person sex work, to online sex work—which was not included in the prohibition—and meeting in secret locations, which put the workers at greater risk of assault.

So why misrepresent the facts? The author claims that people like exciting news that pits good versus evil. “Unfortunately, without big bad stats, people don’t seem to listen. If people believe only the stories of good guys and bad guys, the voices of many real, complicated, and marginalized people get lost in the fray,” Scott concludes.


Joe Scott, “3 Myths About Sex Work That Harm Everyone,” YES! Magazine, March 10, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/3-myths-about-sex-work-that-harm-everyone-20160310.

Student Researcher: Kady Stenson (College of Marin)

Faculty Researcher: Susan Rahman ( College of Marin)