When thinking about small business, our thoughts often go to the local florist or our favourite plumber – some sort of visible enterprise, perhaps run by a mum and dad with kids helping out during school holidays. Rarely do we think about a different type of business; one that's less visible and regarded by many as immoral. Sex work is one such enterprise; a business arguably as legitimate as any other.
A study published last month by Canadian researchers has illuminated this darkened world. The researchers interviewed more than 200 sex workers spanning a diverse spectrum of age, gender, sexuality, and even the nature of services offered (such as whether the work was solicited on the street or via indoor venues). The scholars discovered quite a few of their interview subjects perceived their work in genuinely entrepreneurial terms.
Take, for example, this comment from Marie who saw her work as facilitating the autonomy many other salaried employees are denied: "I guess I think about myself being independent and I like the idea that I'm kind of an entrepreneur in many ways and sex work is just one of the ways. I know how to make money. I feel good about having control over my body and what I'm allowed to do with it."
Similar sentiments regarding self-determination were expressed by Giselle: "Since I'm in this job, I get to control when, where, how – all of these things. So, I feel more empowered."
At a time when empowerment has become very much a buzzword in the corporate lexicon, it's interesting to see it used in this context proactively rather than passively. In most businesses, employees wait passively for their manager to pass on empowerment, maybe via delegation or additional job variety, oftentimes waiting an eternity for something that never eventuates.
The same could be said for compensation and job security. In both of these areas, too, standard employees usually have little influence over how much they're paid and for how long they'll continue to be employed. Not so for Elise: "I have more money and so I've been able to do things that a lot of people haven't. I've gotten to travel a lot, I have a lot of nice things, and I have a lot of job security."
It's also often said employees are at their most engaged when they're able to incorporate their skills and talents into their work. Melissa, in the following comment, demonstrates this truism in relation to her sex work: "I'm a therapeutic person, so that's what I was bringing to the industry and I always felt good about that and I still feel good about that."
I'm conscious this article probably comes across as advocacy for sex work, which isn't the intention. There were certainly numerous sex workers, mostly those who were addicted to drugs or who worked on the streets, who developed a negative view of themselves. "It makes me feel dirty," said Mona, while Robin admitted sex work "took away [her] self-respect and dignity".
That group, though, was a minority. The majority of the study's participants experienced an enriched sense of self-esteem, which is why sex work shouldn't necessarily be seen as worthy of stigmatisation, especially not when it's performed voluntarily and free from the cruel effects of abuse.
As the scholars conclude, these optimistic findings do not mean "sex workers' significant others or the general public will accept them. Ultimately, we need to use our empirical evidence to develop anti-stigma interventions. Sex workers should be involved in this process so that the programmes and policies we design and evaluate are effective."
James Adonis is the author of The Motivation Hoax: A smart person's guide to inspirational nonsense.