The Ethical John: Fair-Trade Sex Is Hard to Find

I know you don't run an advice column, but I was wondering about something and others may be curious as well. I've never hired a sex worker, but I was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness (though it doesn't show yet). Since I wouldn't want to lie to women about that, it'll be difficult to date. But it would be nice to have sex again. …

Though I might not ever follow up on this, the first step would definitely be to find a professional who's in the business by choice, and isn't being abused or coerced by someone (or by an addiction). Is there some kind of resource for finding sex workers who are in positive situations? You know, kind of like a fair-trade sex-work certification. Maybe an organization or green pages? Or is this something that's inherently impossible to regulate while sex work is criminalized? Just wondering if you'd have any insight from your perspective. Either way, thanks for your advocacy and an interesting column. — Consciously Curious

First of all, please accept my sincerest condolences about your diagnosis, CC. I've had several clients over the years who have faced some kind of medical crisis, and navigating dating and sexuality in such times can be overwhelming. But physical affection can be a crucial part of coping with illness, so seeking out a provider to meet those needs can be very beneficial.

I get questions like yours a lot. It's no surprise that in the Bay Area, where Priuses dominate the freeways and organic coffee is cherished, people would want their sex to be fair trade as well — and rightfully so. Exploitation is anything but sexy.

Avoiding and preventing that exploitation is a priority for both providers and clients. But the truth is, CC, there is no easy answer to this one. Just as you suspected, the type of “fair-trade sex-work certification” you dream of is hard to come by while the work is criminalized.

The sex industry is not dangerous by nature. But when the work is illegal, it attracts criminals who desire to keep their business dealings underground. This contributes to exploitation and abuse, because victims within the industry are unable to access the judicial system without fear of being prosecuted themselves.

Even something as simple as an advertising platform that asks providers to upload photo identification to prove they are of legal age can be problematic, because that platform then has access to the legal names, addresses, and photos of sex workers — evidence that could be used to prosecute them with prostitution-related offenses.

There isn't a fail-safe way to ensure the sex worker you see is in what you would consider a “positive situation.” So when choosing a provider, you have to rely on tools similar to those we sex workers use to stay safe — mainly internet research and pure gut instinct.

Start by researching providers to see what their internet presence is like; see if they are active on social media, or if they have reviews of their services posted. If something seems strange or gives you a funny feeling, go with that instinct and err on the side of caution. Sadly, as long as this profession is criminalized, the tools you have access to are minimal at best.

There must be a better way, right?

Imagine a world where a sex worker could simply report a crime committed against him or her on the job without fear of arrest, ridicule, or further violence from law enforcement. If the sex industry were aboveboard, then true crimes like abuse and trafficking would stick out like a sore thumb, and sex workers could be key allies in the fight to end that kind of violence.

I was discussing this very subject with a client the other evening and he said, with great conviction, “There should be an app for that.”

There most certainly should. San Francisco is the heart of both the tech industry and the sex-worker rights movement, so why hasn't somebody figured this out yet?

If the type of certification that you're suggesting did exist, CC, it would have to be free or on a sliding scale so all sex workers could access it. But staffing and overseeing an organization like this would cost money, so finding a way to fund it would be critical.

But I know there are plenty of tech-savvy, social-justice-minded folks in this city with money to burn and a soft spot in their hearts for sex workers.

So while what you're suggesting doesn't yet exist, San Francisco seems like the place where it will probably pop up first.

In the meantime, supporting organizations like the Saint James Infirmary (an occupational health clinic for sex workers), Red Light Legal (legal aid), and the Sex Worker Outreach Project (an education and advocacy organization) is a great way to make a positive contribution to those in the sex industry, whether they be in a “positive” situation or not.

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