3 Myths About Sex Work That Harm Everyone

It's not just young girls and big bad wolves. Lies and misconceptions about sex work can hurt women and keep negative stereotypes alive.

Illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

Iris, the 12-year-old prostitute in the movie Taxi Driver, defends her character against Travis “Are You Talking to Me?” Bickle, who won’t hear it. He says, “You walk on the street with these fucking degenerates and low lives and sell your pussy for nothing.” He calls her pimp a killer. When she says he isn’t, Travis says, “Looks like a killer to me.”

His story of her life is the only one he’ll accept. And, eventually, it’s the story that allows him to murder three people (her pimp and two clients) while Iris screams for him to stop, left behind in a whirlwind of violence and uncertainty.

This isn’t so different from what police do in dramatic busts—coming in guns ready, pulling the financial rug out from under the workers they’re there to save. These busts happen, in large part, because of widely believed myths about sex work, which endlessly echo back and forth between policy and pop culture. The politicians and activists who perpetuate these myths believe they’re saving people, but only through careful examination of the facts can governments begin to reduce the violence and marginalization that sex workers suffer. Here are three myths in particular that impact legislation and enforcement (and help keep those harmful stereotypes alive in our heads).

Myth 1. The average age of entry into sex work is between 12 and 14

It’s shocking, right? It tells the whole story of exploitation, stolen innocence, and society turning a blind eye to horrific tragedy. Good thing this is a widely debunked statistic.

In 2014, The Atlantic and The Washington Post tracked down the source of this erroneous information: a 2001 study from the University of Pennsylvania (funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice) that looked only at minors. It was pretty problematic: The study was not peer-reviewed, the researchers themselves said it was out of date, and many questioned the findings (most research points to an average of around 16 or 17 for minors entering sex work, so 13 would suggest many 9- and 10-year-olds, which limits the conversation to be only about the rare circumstance of a kidnapped child). But the number lives on.

The Internet is a double-edged sword that way: instant access to troves of new information, no matter how false or misleading.

Two months before The Post debunked it, the paper ran an op-ed written by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cindy McCain, whose argument for state legislation was led by the number. About a year later, Klobuchar reused it on the Senate floor. In response, The Post published yet another piece disproving it. Finally, Klobuchar, speaking at an event in St. Paul, stopped citing the number. But she gave an anecdote of child sex trafficking “in case anyone doesn’t believe this involves young girls.”

This is still the most pervasive lie on the subject of sex work. Earlier this year, actress and activist Jenna Elfman played up the number to raise awareness in a Medium post. Since 2010, NPR has ranked it toward the top of a sidebar for “Trafficked Teen Girls Describe Life in ‘The Game.’” Thorn, a nonprofit started by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, handpicked the stat for its “child sex trafficking statistics” page. The Internet is a double-edged sword that way: instant access to troves of new information, no matter how false or misleading.

Myth 2. Human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery

This can be found in a 2011 FBI bulletin, which also references the 12–14 age-of-entry stat, but a more current claim comes from DoSomething.org, an NGO whose mission is to incite young people to action: “Approximately 80 percent of trafficking involves sexual exploitation, and 19 percent involves labor exploitation.” Those numbers likely come from a 2009 study from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which tracked global human trafficking in 155 countries and territories. But when the study was repeated in 2014, the numbers were different: 53 percent involved sexual exploitation, while 40 percent was related to labor, a much less exciting gap.

In 2009, CNN reported that, as a matter of fact, “The most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation.” The network failed to mention the critical information that immediately followed the study's statistic: “Because it is more frequently reported, sexual exploitation has become the most documented type of trafficking, in aggregate statistics. In comparison, other forms of exploitation are underreported.”

Even after the 2014 results were released, CNN continued to cite old statistics from the FBI, the U.N., and McCain, largely ignoring the UNODC’s latest study.

Nobody can say for sure how many people are victims of human trafficking, let alone a ratio of sex-to-labor trafficking.

Meanwhile, the International Labour 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.

And yet, with over 100 pages explaining its methodology, the ILO still warns that its studies are limited by challenges inherent in researching hidden populations.

In a world saturated with statistics, it may be hard to swallow this conclusion: Nobody can say for sure how many people are victims of human trafficking, let alone a ratio of sex-to-labor trafficking.

Myth 3. “Target the demand” works

An effective policy on sex work could mean different things to different people. It could mean that the policy reduces the number of people engaging in sex work. It could mean reducing violence toward sex workers or HIV rates among them. The policy could just empower women. But one policy does none of these things.

Look to Sweden, where “target the demand,” a policy that criminalizes the purchase of sex (the client) and not the sale (the sex worker), has been embraced as in line with the government’s broader feminist goals (yes, the Swedish government is officially feminist). They claim their Sex Purchase Act (Sexköpslagen), passed in 1999, has been successful at reducing prostitution and enabling workers to exit the profession, citing evidence from a 2014 report that “street prostitution has been cut in half since 1995.” People have taken their word for it.

However, the report goes on to stress that technology may have had something to do with it: Ads for paid sex increased by 2,300 percent, suggesting that sex work is migrating from street corners to computers. The report also notes that “the proportion of individuals in Sweden who have bought and sold sexual services is relatively constant over time.”

Criminalizing demand strips sex workers of their agency, which is the opposite of empowerment. 

With regards to violence, a 2014 study published in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) showed that criminalizing clients tended to risk the safety of sex workers: They were displaced to more clandestine locations where the risk of violence was higher, they were forced to rush the client screening process, and they were less able to negotiate safe sex practices (e.g., using condoms). In part because of the unsafe sex, the study suggests, “target the demand” may also increase the spread of HIV.

And criminalizing demand strips sex workers of their agency, which is the opposite of empowerment. Swedish activist Pye Jacobsson says the law makes all sex workers into victims. “If you scream and shout that you’re not a victim,” she says, “then you’re [supposedly] suffering from a false consciousness.”A report considering the prospect of Canada adopting the Swedish system says that “target the demand” stereotypes workers and systematically undermines their status. The report concludes that the law would actually be unconstitutional in Canada because it would harm a group (sex workers) engaged in an otherwise legal activity.

If our goal is to humanize and understand people, then criminalizing the demand does the opposite by placing all of sex work into a single narrative of exploiters and victims. And the truth is far more complicated than that.

So why misrepresent the facts?

Houtan Homayounpour, forced-labor specialist at ILO, says, “Sexual exploitation, for lack of a better term, is sexy.” If you search for labor exploitation, he says, you’ll find countless articles on sex slavery because it’s typically a simpler story to tell than labor exploitation in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries; it usually requires less context.

And there’s really not much good data on sex workers, says Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University. Sample sizes are usually too small, and because sex workers are a hidden population, getting a good sample requires more time and money than most university researchers can afford. But people want answers anyway, good or bad, and because of our culture’s stigma of sex work, they’re more likely to believe the bad, says Weitzer.

When actors and senators tell stories of pimps and young girls, when they rattle off erroneous statistics, they’re not trying to harm anyone. The fact is those stories—the ones about young girls preyed upon by big bad wolves—are real and scarring. And, 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.

As Iris puts it in her grand argument: “Haven’t you ever heard of women’s lib?”