By Hannah Blair
If seven out of ten women don’t want to be in the commercial sex industry, then why don’t they leave? No one is holding a gun to their head – they could just get up and walk out, right?
When people think about women working in strip clubs and brothels, they picture women who find pleasure in peddling their bodies for some quick cash. They picture women who have simply chosen to work in the commercial sex industry, but this isn’t the full picture.
Catherine MacKinnon said, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?” The women you see in strip clubs and brothels are primarily there due to a lack of choice. No one fights to work in the commercial sex industry against all odds. Rather, women find themselves there when the odds beat them. The truth is that most women don’t turn to selling their bodies as an entirely free choice from a plethora of good options. The commercial sex industry is full of women driven there by the exploitation of vulnerabilities and the lack of alternatives. The vast majority of sex workers don’t wake up each day excited to get paid for the degradation and abuse of their bodies.
Whether those in the sex industry hate or love their “job,” many don’t plan on working in the industry forever. But the same complex reasons pushing women into the sex industry are the same complex reasons that make it challenging for them to leave.
Some women in the industry are there because of poverty and an absence of other necessary resources. They are pulled into the life by a desperate need for income and staying in the industry can become a way of survival. In a survey consisting of 475 women who were working in the commercial sex trade, 92% of them said they wanted to leave but they didn’t have a safe place to live, job training, sufficient health care, or access to therapy and other treatment services.
A big problem many of these women face is the lack of alternatives. It’s just about impossible to afford the cost of living making minimum wage. College students have been known to work in strip clubs because they can’t afford to pay their bills on top of what they owe for student loans. Ironically, the education they sought to set them on a sustainable career path is the very thing that is putting them on the verge of homelessness. There have been cancer patients who succumb to working in the industry because the costs of chemotherapy and other necessary treatments are out of reach without the supplemental income of selling their bodies. Some single mothers gravitate to the life because they might make too much money from their day jobs to qualify for state benefits, but they receive no child support and struggle just to make ends meet. The fear of losing their children to a broken system drives them to a world that takes more than it gives.
Many women in the sex industry end up with a criminal record, which presents issues with getting sustainable employment. Women who have spent many years in the life also have gaps in employment and may not be able to show necessary job trainings. They stay in the sex industry because they have no other way to support themselves. It can sometimes boil down to working in the clubs to put a roof over their head and food on their table or leaving the industry and having to live on the streets. Which would you choose?