If you have sex with a prostitute without her permission, is it rape or shoplifting? This is just one of the tasteless gags that comes up when you type "prostitute jokes" into Google.
Some people still believe there is a core of truth to it. There is currently a nasty strand of public opinion that says it is impossible to rape a sex worker—simply because sex is a service they offer. As a result, those who are unlucky enough to face violence while working will have to see it as an "occupational hazard." This sentiment reared its ugly head in full force after US porn star Stoya tweeted in November last year that she had been raped by her ex-boyfriend and onscreen counterpart James Deen, sparking a heated debate on social media and causing other sex workers to speak out about their experiences.
Once upon a time, there was another group of women who were also deemed to be "unrapeable": married women. It was only in 1991 that it became illegal in the UK for a husband to have non-consensual sex with his wife. America followed suit two years later. Thankfully, attitudes towards marital rape have since changed—but it hasn't budged for sex workers.
And sadly, sex workers still encounter violence on a regular basis. A 2015 survey by the University of Leeds and National Ugly Mugs (NUM), an organization aimed at providing support to sex workers, showed that almost half of respondents (47 percent) have been victims of crime during the course of their career.
Gemma is a current sex worker in her late twenties. She started working in massage parlors when she was just 19, as she found herself unable to pay her rent on a minimum wage income from two jobs. She has first hand experience of the violence sex workers often encounter. While rape, battery, and sexual assault aren't uncommon, there is also sex work-specific violence which threatens their safety.
"One type of abuse you might get on the job includes being robbed of payment after sex, which violates consent retroactively," she says. "Other examples I've heard of involve having a condom removed without their knowledge, being forced into doing a service they only offer under certain conditions or having their price bartered down by coercion. So yes, sex workers experience lots of sexual violence."
Part of the reason sex workers are targeted so heavily is because of the stigma that surrounds the profession. Dr Nicola Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham who specializes in sex work, believes that it has led to violence against sex workers being seen as "normal."
Sex workers are seen as natural victims of violence, which is obviously an awful way of thinking about violence against anyone.
She explains: "Sex workers are seen as natural victims of violence, which is obviously an awful way of thinking about violence against anyone."
The bigger problem is that offenders often feel untouchable. According to Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of National Ugly Mugs, the main reason sex workers are targeted is because offenders believe they won't report it to the police. "When someone reports an incident to us we always ask what was said to them at the time, and quite often the perpetrator tells the sex worker the reason they're raping them is because they know they won't report it or that they won't be believed if they do," he says.
Sadly, the attacker is often right. Besides battling prejudices, murky laws around sex work mean workers feel that the odds are stacked against them. Figures by the NUM show that of the 2,000 attacks it has recorded since 2012, only a quarter of sex workers have reported their incident to the police.
The current laws around sex work in Great Britain have been influenced by radical feminism, which sees sex work as inherently violent, explains Smith.
"If you read through parliamentary debates such as those for the 2009 Policing and Crime Act, the narrative that surrounds them is based on this notion that we need to protect women by further criminalizing the industry," she says.
Sex workers tell us that the last time they saw a police officer they were breaking down the door with 20 others.
In practical terms, this means that while the exchange of sexual services for money is legal in England, Wales and Scotland, a number of related activities are not. These include street walking, pimping, owning or managing a brothel and kerb crawling. In Northern Ireland, which previously had similar laws, paying for sex became illegal in June last year. Meanwhile, all types of sex work are outlawed in the US with the exception of Nevada, where it is legal to run a registered brothel.
Even though these laws have been put into place to protect women, they often do the opposite. "It actually makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence. For example, many people are forced to work alone because working with others means they could be arrested for brothel keeping. They also have to work in more remote locations, as they're worried about being detected," Smith explains.
Many sex workers have also had their fair share of run-ins with the police. Raids on brothels are commonplace, which tend to take place under the pretence of "saving" trafficked women.
"Very rarely do they find anyone who has been exploited or trafficked. But then sex workers tell us that the last time they saw a police officer they were breaking down the door with 20 others. So they've had bad experiences, which doesn't encourage them to report crime," he says.
Social discrimination, bad working conditions, and police prejudice don't paint a pretty picture. But sex worker activists are determined to fight for change. Gemma, Feis-Bryce and Smith all agree that decriminalization would be the first step to improve sex worker safety. One study showed that 70 percent of sex workers were more likely to report violence to police after sex work was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003.
Sex education is also needed to stamp out ignorant views on sex work. "While the stigma exists throughout the world, in the UK there's an element of Victorian prudery around sex. I find it odd that most of us have sex for pleasure, but as soon as someone is paid for it, people react badly. Being more open about sex will definitely help," Feis-Bryce comments.
Luckily, the debate around sex work is improving. While two years ago a bill to further criminalize sex work almost made it through the Scottish Parliament, this year politicians will be looking at a bill in favour of full decriminalization.
Besides New Zealand, no other countries are currently implementing or considering this option. While Canadian sex workers were given fresh hope in 2013 after the Supreme Court ruled that its original legislation was unconstitutional and putting workers in danger, the government has since adopted the Swedish model and criminalized the buying of sex.
But ultimately, sex workers say that they need to have their voices heard. "For these ignorant ideas to shift, people need to hear more from sex workers themselves," Gemma says. "Media outlets need to amplify the voices of sex workers when we talk about violence and stigma, not prohibitionist feminists who work with the police."