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Juno Mac: How Does Stigma Compromise The Safety Of Sex Workers?

Feb 23, 2018

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Stigma.

About Juno Mac's TED Talk

Sex worker and activist Juno Mac says the current legislative models for sex work perpetuate a dangerous work environment. She explains the high social costs of letting stigma influence legislation.

About Juno Mac

Juno Mac is a sex worker and activist based in London. She works with the Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), a collective of sex workers focused on advocating full decriminalization of sex work, campaigning for better working conditions, and educational resources for sex workers in the United Kingdom.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Confronting Stigma. And so far on the show, we've heard about stigmas that we can all more or less agree are kind of damaging and need to be overcome. But this next story might be a bit more challenging because it involves what may possibly be the most stigmatized thing a person can do.

JUNO MAC: Hi. My name is Juno Mac, and I'm a sex worker and activist in London.

RAZ: Juno thinks that, as difficult as it's going to be to destigmatize prostitution, we should for the safety and security of sex workers.

MAC: I should be clear as well. I don't think of my job as an activist for sex worker rights to be in any way a defense of clients purchasing sex, prostitution in general or the sex industry. I think it's OK to hold a neutral to negative view of those things. It's just you need to be very careful not to be talking about the value or the worth of the people doing it.

RAZ: Juno turned to sex work about a decade ago. She'd been in college and had piled up a lot of debt.

MAC: I was working in a shop. I'd moved to London. I had found I couldn't really - even with some of the financial help students get, I was struggling to keep my head above water. So I ended up dropping out of college and working a shop for a few years. And I hated that job. Every single month, payday would arrive, and by the end, it would all be gone. I knew some older girls in my area who'd left high school and gone on to be strippers. And lots of people spoke about them like they were really worthless or like that was a terrible downward spiral. I just - I never saw it that way.

I never considered that - I considered it to be highly-paid work for something, you know, being remunerated for something that is stigmatized. I observed the stigma then, but I, you know, I considered it to be their own prerogative basically. I know for some people, sex work seems like it would be a leap. For me, it was a lot less of a leap. I never really felt like it was too strange or bizarre. So I decided I'd start working in like a massage parlor/brother in London. And that's kind of where I started out. I worked in brothels for a few years. And now I'm an escort, which is, you know, just a euphemistic way to say indoor prostitute basically.

RAZ: So when you made that decision, when you started to work at a brothel, how difficult was that for you? Like, how emotionally difficult - or was it not as difficult as you thought it would be?

MAC: Kind of a mixture of both. There is definitely a sense of self-stigmatization around these things. I remember after my first day at that brothel looking in the mirror and thinking like, oh, am I different now? Like, have I changed? Because back then, I completely bought into the idea that prostitution tarnishes someone. The stigma against prostitution very much follows on from this idea that sex can tarnish a woman. You know, that's why women are called sluts and like, you know, they're branded as lesser when they sleep around a lot because sex has seemed to kind of tarnish their identity.

And for prostitutes, that stigma is tenfold, you know, the idea that you're - you know, bits of you are eroding. You know, you're becoming less. And, you know, lots of people find prostitution sad because, you know, maybe it's not what people wanted to be when they were little girls. That's something you hear over and over again, you know. But, you know, there are a lot of jobs out there that no one wants their daughter doing and no little girls want to do, but that's just not the world we live in.

RAZ: Juno says the moral stigma against sex work doesn't stop it from happening, and it actually makes the work more difficult and dangerous because it compromises the safety of the world's 42 million sex workers, 80 percent of whom are women. Here's Juno Mac on the TED stage.


MAC: People get really hung up on the question of, would you want your daughter doing it? That's the wrong question. Instead, imagine she is doing it. How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn't she safer? In the years that have passed, I've had a lot of time to think. I've reconsidered the ideas I once had about prostitution. I've thought about gender inequality and the sexual and reproductive labor of women. I've experienced exploitation and violence at work. I've thought about what's needed to protect other sex workers from these things.

In this talk, I'm going to take you through the four main legal approaches applied to sex work throughout the world and explain why they don't work, why prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers of vulnerable to. The first approach is full criminalization. Half the world, including Russia, South Africa and most of the U.S., regulates sex work by criminalizing everyone involved. So that's seller, buyer and third parties. Lawmakers in these countries apparently hope that the fear of getting arrested will deter people from selling sex. But if you're forced to choose between obeying the law and feeding yourself or your family, you're going to do the work anyway and take the risk.

Criminalization is a trap. The law forces you to keep selling sex, which is the exact opposite of its intended effect. In many places, you may be coerced into paying a bribe or even into having sex with a police officer to avoid arrest. The second approach is partial criminalization where the buying and selling of sex are legal, but the surrounding activities like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street are banned. And brothel-keeping, by the way, is just defined as just two or more sex workers working together. Making that illegal means that many of us work alone, which obviously makes us vulnerable to violent offenders. But we're also vulnerable if we choose to break the law by working together.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was nervous after she was attacked at work, so I said that she could see her clients from my place for a while. During that time, we had another guy turn nasty. I told the guy to leave, or I'd call the police. And he looked at the two of us. And he said, you girls can't call the cops. You're working together. This place is illegal. He was right.

The prohibition of street prostitution also causes more harm than it prevents. Firstly, to avoid getting arrested, street workers take risks to avoid detection. And that means working alone or in isolated locations like dark forests where they're vulnerable to attack. If you're caught selling sex outdoors, you pay a fine. How do you pay that fine without going back to the streets? It was a need for money that saw you on the streets in the first place. And so the fines stack up. And you're caught in a vicious cycle of selling sex to pay the fines you got for selling sex.

RAZ: So your basic argument is that there are real-world consequences when you do stigmatize sex work because it actually makes the problem worse. It actually endangers women even more and makes them vulnerable to predatory, you know, managers and clients.

MAC: Yeah, absolutely. Criminalization and a mistrust of the police is a gift to rapists because it basically tells them you have no recourse to justice.

RAZ: Yeah.

MAC: So criminalizing sex work in the name of keeping sex workers safe is one of the biggest ironies I can think of. It just helps the people who wish to exploit us.

RAZ: You know, Juno, there are a lot of really interesting ideas in your talk and a lot that I just viscerally disagree with for a variety of reasons. So I just want to throw some of those at you and kind of get your take because I am open to being convinced. I am. It's just very hard to...

MAC: Tell me what your biggest, strongest emotional response was.

RAZ: Well, I mean, I just can't help but think of the women who are in sex work as, by and large, people who are exploited. Obviously, there are people who do it voluntarily. But it seems to me that there are lots of people who are very vulnerable, and they are doing it at a vulnerable moment in their lives.

MAC: You know, I would - you know, you could speak to other sex workers who would disagree. But I don't think what you just said is stigmatizing. I think as a sex worker activist the same concern is at the heart of why I try to do. Sex work is dangerous. The answer isn't to kind of deny that or pretend that's not the case. But to ask why. Why is it dangerous?

There are lots of other things that are dangerous for women to do in society as well. I've just been in Cape Town, for example, where it's much more the case that women just do not walk home in the dark or after dusk. Like, why? That's - it's not a stigmatizing thing to say. It doesn't stigmatize the women or the streets they're on particularly. But, like, why can't sex workers feel safer is the question not, you know, is it safe. To say that it's not safe is to speak the truth, to my mind.

It's when you start to think of people who are in danger or at risk as fundamentally eroded or altered or made less of because they're at risk, then that's stigma. And to talk about the risks and the dangers of sex work is to concern yourself with the conditions of it - not really a statement on the identity of the people who do it. Do you know what I'm saying?

RAZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean - but to me, I mean, if there were any stigma around this at all, it would lie with the clients not with the sex workers.

MAC: Yeah. I mean, I myself have had a pretty dim view of clients over my time as a sex worker. But if you were to say to me, Juno, you know, you have sex for money with these disgusting, horrible, repugnant men - how do you do that? - then it's clear the stigma is sliding off the client and sticking to me. Do you see? That is how stigma works. It contaminates people in a way that I don't think everyone is aware of.


MAC: So if criminalizing sex workers hurts them, why not just criminalize the people who buy sex? This is the aim of the third approach I want to talk about, the Swedish or Nordic model of sex work law. The idea behind this law is that selling sex is intrinsically harmful. And so you're in fact helping sex workers by removing the option. Despite growing support for what's often described as the end-demand approach, there's no evidence that it works. There's just as much prostitution in Sweden as there was before. Why might that be? It's because the people selling sex often don't have other options for income. If you need that money, the only effect that a drop in business is going to have is to force you to lower your prices or offer more risky sexual services. If you need to find more clients, you might seek the help of a manager. And so you see rather than putting a stop to what's often described as pimping, a law like this actually gives oxygen to potentially abusive third parties.

Something I'm often hearing is, prostitution would be fine if we made it legal and regulated it. We call that approach legalization, and it's used by countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Nevada in the U.S. But it's not a great model for human rights. Under state-controlled prostitution, commercial sex can only happen in certain legally-designated areas or venues. And sex workers are made to comply with special restrictions like registration and forced health checks. Regulation sounds great on paper, but politicians deliberately make regulation around the sex industry expensive and difficult to comply with. It creates a two-tiered system, legal and illegal work. We sometimes call it backdoor criminalization. Rich, well-connected brothel owners can comply with the regulations, but more marginalized people find those hoops impossible to jump through. And even if it's possible in principle, getting a license or a proper venue takes time and costs money. It's not going to be an option for someone who's desperate and needs money tonight. They might be a refugee or fleeing domestic abuse.

In this two-tiered system, the most-vulnerable people are forced to work illegally. So they're still exposed to all the dangers of criminalization I mentioned earlier. So sex workers are real people. We've had complicated experiences, but our demands are not complicated. We want full decriminalization and labor rights as workers. No doubt many of you work for a living. Well, sex work is work too. Just like you, some of us like our jobs, some of us hate them. Ultimately, most of us have mixed feelings. But how we feel about our work isn't the point, and how others feel about our work certainly isn't. What's important is that we have the right to work safely on our own terms.


RAZ: If you could do something else that was, like, as well paid and, you know, didn't mean that you - that you did sex work, would you do it?

MAC: Yeah. I mean, if we just for a second imagine that the activism wasn't a part of my life and like something that I am spending a great deal of my time and energy on. If it was a value-neutral thing, then sure, I would because sex work is something I do just for the money. I don't think of it as a inherently meaningful thing. It's just, for me, an economic decision. So, for sure, I would swap out for something that was equally well paid and worked around my lifestyle as well. The fact that I might be able to do that - and it hasn't happened yet - I don't think should be ever used as an argument to sweep aside some of the stuff that I've said in this conversation or like that I try to say because I'm trying to make visible politics that do not just concern me.

In fact, I hope to try and draw people's attention to politics that always censor the most-marginalized people, you know, because there are a lot of people doing sex work around the world in many different nations for whom there is no alternative. And those are the people whose needs should always be being thought of. You know, like what are we going to do to make their work safer? It doesn't really matter - it's a distraction to think about the fact that some vocal advocates could just do something else. You know, what about the people who can't? It's really key to keep remembering those people. But I can't - I lose track of the amount of times somebody has used that against me in an argument.

They've said, you know, it's all very well for you, but what about the truly vulnerable? And I, you know, I'm talking about the truly vulnerable. And I'm talking about the moments I felt truly vulnerable. And the things that I shared in common with some of the most vulnerable people in prostitution are the same. It's - we need decriminalization. We need sex workers to be involved in policy discussions. And if they can't be involved in policy discussions, you know, like, whatever it is that's holding them back from that need to be addressed. For me, those are my priorities. And those are the things I'm working towards. Because why should people be socially outcast for something like that?

RAZ: Juno Mac. She's an activist with the sex work advocacy and resistance movement. You can find her full talk at ted.com.


BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) You can't judge an apple by looking at a tree. You can't judge honey by looking at the bee. You can't judge a daughter by looking at the mother. You can't judge a book by looking at the cover.

RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for listening to our show Confronting Stigma this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. And you can listen to this show any time by subscribing to our podcast. Do it now on Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Janae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Deba Motasham (ph). Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a review. You can also write us directly at tedradiohour@npr.org. And you can tweet us, it's @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


DIDDLEY: (Singing) You can't judge by a book by looking at the cover. Oh, you misjudge me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.