Former prostitutes are taking Teen Vogue to task in a big way for an op-ed it published last week titled, "Why sex work is real work" — essentially a defense of trading sex for money and a call for decriminalizing it worldwide.
What does the op-ed say?
The op-ed author, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, asks provocatively, "I am a doctor, an expert in sexual health, but when you think about it, aren't I a sex worker? And in some ways, aren't we all?"
More from the piece:
So, what exactly is sex work? Not all sex workers engage in penetrative sex, though, undeniably, that is a big part of sex work. Sex-worker services between consenting adults may include companionship, intimacy, nonsexual role playing, dancing, escorting, and stripping. These roles are often pre-determined, and all parties should be comfortable with them. Many workers take on multiple roles with their clients, and some may get more physical while other interactions that may have started off as sexual could evolve into emotional and psychological bonding.
The clients who seek sex workers vary, and they're not just men. The idea of purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people who need human connection, friendship, and emotional support. Some people may have fantasies and kink preferences that they are able to fulfill with the services of a sex worker.
I find it interesting that as a medical doctor, I exchange payment in the form of money with people to provide them with advice and treatment for sex-related problems; therapy for sexual performance, counseling and therapy for relationship problems, and treatment of sexually transmitted infection. Isn't this basically sex work? I do not believe it is right or just that people who exchange sexual services for money are criminalized and I am not for what I do. Is a medical degree really the right measure of who is deserving of dignity, autonomy, safety in the work place, fair trade and freedom of employment? No. This should not be so. Those who engage in sex work deserve those things, too.
Here comes the pushback
But Nicole Bell — a former prostitute who now runs a clinic for prostitutes — told the New York Post there's nothing dignified about sex work.
"It's not empowering," Bell, 38, added to the paper. "You're told what you're going to do with your body for how much by the men that are buying and selling you … you're at the disposal of the sex buyer."
She also noted to the Post that prostitution comes with "violence, substance use disorder, homelessness and vulnerability. Not privilege." In addition, Bell told the paper many of the women she works with are "forced" into prostitution — and when she's asked them if they want to leave it, "not one person has ever said no."
"If it's such a great empowering job opportunity, why does everyone want out so bad?" Bell asked the Post.
Vednita Carter — a former prostitute who now runs anti-trafficking outfit Breaking Free — blasted the op-ed's assertion that prostitution can involve non-penetrative "intimacy," the paper said.
"Wanting to talk about their problems and get a massage isn't [a john's] reason for meeting with these young girls," Carter, 65, added to the Post. "They want one thing: it's penetration. How are they going to feel when he tells you to get down on your knees and open your mouth?"
Perhaps the most searing response came from Lauren Hersh — a former Brooklyn special victims prosecutor — who penned an open letter Sunday on Medium to Teen Vogue's editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner over the op-ed's publication, the paper said.
"As the mother of a daughter, I feel sick that your magazine is selling our daughters the regressive belief that their bodies should be commodified and that commodification, exploitation, and trauma should be empowering for them," said Hersh, who now runs nonprofit World Without Exploitation, the Post said.
"But as the mother of a son, I feel raging mad that in the middle of this #MeToo moment, your magazine is sending my son the misogynistic message that purchasing women and girls is legitimate and harmless," she added, according to the paper. "The rate of physical and sexual abuse among people in prostitution is staggering. The majority of those exploited in the sex trade experience post-traumatic stress disorder that is destructive and often long term."
What did Teen Vogue have to say?
A Teen Vogue spokesperson told the Post in a statement that the magazine "routinely publishes opinion pieces by outside contributors to provide our audience with a variety of viewpoints on the full spectrum of issues that young people face. While these topics are at times controversial, we welcome the important dialogues that they generate."