Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
The ‘world’s oldest profession’ is attaining new relevance in the internet age

The ‘world’s oldest profession’ is attaining new relevance in the internet age

Old Pros founder Kaytlin Bailey on sex worker rights and changing norms

Episode Summary

For thousands of years, humans have been buying and selling sex. The ancient Sumerians in 2400 BCE included female and male prostitutes on a list of known professions, so the term “oldest profession” is actually more than just a cliché.

Despite the fact that sex economies have existed for far longer than most civilizations, many people seem uncomfortable with discussing the important roles that sex workers play in our society, economy, and even our politics. In 49 of the 50 states, prostitution is illegal and far-right Republicans are seeking to ban birth control and pornography, shortly after they succeeded at rolling back a nationwide right to abortion access.

While the suppression efforts are part of larger efforts by radical Christian nationalists to roll back modernity, they are also the product of cooperation with less religious people, some of whom even call themselves progressive, to ban work arrangements that don’t really understand.

Joining me for an in-depth discussion about the history of sex work and how it’s being revolutionized by the internet is Kaytlin Bailey, she is the executive director of Old Pros, an organization that does both research and advocacy for sex workers. A former standup comedian, she is also the host of “The Oldest Profession” podcast.

A computer-generated transcript of the edited audio follows. The video of our August 10, 2023 conversation is available.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Kaytlin.

KAYTLIN BAILEY: Thank you so much for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, there's a lot of ground here to cover and I think, as I said in the intro, I think a lot of people may not be familiar with a lot of the topics that we're going to be talking about here today. And I should mention that this episode is going to be the first of a few that are going to be talking about sex work.

But I wanted to have you come on as our expert to get it started. So how about let's maybe define some terms here first. So, sex work, what does that [00:03:00] mean?

BAILEY: Sex work is a broad umbrella term that encompasses all erotic labor exchanges. It’s a phrase that was coined by Carol Lee in the 1970s to push back against prohibitionist feminists at the time who were using the phrase prostituted woman, but sex work refers to full-service sex work or sort of plastic prostitution.

It also includes legal forms of sex work, like stripping or pornography. Domination, foot fetish work and because we're trying to build a big tent, I would like to include Hooters waitresses and other people who use erotic labor as a part of their job.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, okay, and there are some other terms as well, like, a lot of sex work jobs involve kind of a murky legal status in many jurisdictions.

BAILEY: The thing that unites all sex workers, whether their work is directly criminalized or not, is the stigma against [00:04:00] sex work. So, there are perfectly legal strippers or

Legally registered sex workers in brothels in Nevada that have their children taken away from them or lose job status or are kicked out of school or housing because their employer or landlord or significant other found out about their involvement in some form of sex work.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Yeah. And you use the word decriminalization there. Let's maybe define that. And especially in regard to some of the other terms.

BAILEY: Sure. There are only four models for policing prostitution. So, there's criminalization, right? Which criminalizes both the buying and selling of sex work. The way that this plays out is that mostly providers are criminalized.

But there's also legalization regulation. So, this is the model that you see in Nevada or Amsterdam, where some forms of prostitution are legal, but you have to work in a registered brothel. And this is sort of [00:05:00] a model that tries to contain and control sex workers and really diminishes the negotiating power of sex workers and creates a two-tiered system where the overwhelming majority of people who are doing this work outside of the registered brothels have no legal protection at all.

There's also end demand. Maine actually became the first state in the U S to pass this law, but it originated in Norway. This is sometimes it's referred to as the Nordic model, the Swedish model, Canada has experimented with these laws, but the theory is that in order to reduce the demand for the oldest profession, they try to criminalize the clients or buyers or third-party folks.

But of course, it's impossible to surveil clients without surveilling sex workers. And because of the stigma associated with sex work, this leads to people being evicted, a temporary reduction in in demand, which sends people into, a more economic desperate [00:06:00] position that they were in, and desperate people do desperate things.

So everywhere that the end demand model has been implemented, violence against sex workers goes up. It undermines our ability to screen our clients or to self-advocate. But what sex workers all over the world have been asking for decades is decriminalization, where neither the buying, selling, or facilitating sexual services is criminalized.

And this allows people to report crimes committed against us and move throughout the communities that we're already a part of.

SHEFFIELD: And it's the idea that you can just be, like a freelance worker and in charge of your own schedule, that's kind of the way basically a lot of people are doing it anyway, because they don't like other arrangements to be working for somebody else.

BAILEY: Yeah. I think it's important to remember that sex work is work, but it is also sex. So, any [00:07:00] kind of surveillance or criminalization or effort to regulate the consensual adult choices that are being made in a very private space is going to erode all of our all of our freedoms. There's no way to surveil sex workers without surveilling-- well, everyone.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it's interesting, because the same types of models of regulation, they exist with regard to hallucinogenic drugs and, but it's interesting that people seem to be more open to the idea of decriminalizing crack, which can literally destroy your body and brain, and meanwhile, the idea of decriminalizing or legalizing sex work is just somehow offensive. What do you think is the dichotomy network here?

BAILEY: From a policy perspective, I think it's really important to remember that drugs are a substance [00:08:00] that can be regulated. But sex workers are service providers.

We are people, we are neighbors and mothers, and we have other jobs. So, it's not actually possible to contain and control us in red light districts or exclusively in registered brothels. Sex workers are and have always been everywhere. So, efforts to contain and control us.

End up creating a criminalized class, and that reduces our ability to self-advocate for safety and health. And this is the kind of thing that leads to rapes and also murders that we’re not able to report or get a hold of.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Well, and a lot of it also does pertain to the fact that that a lot of this does come out of both misogyny and also anti LGBTQ attitudes as well, because, historically basically acknowledging that there are people out [00:09:00] there who are doing this it's an affront to some people. That it should not exist and should not be known to exist.

BAILEY: Sure. I do think that sex work in general is an existential threat to the patriarchy. It's very hard to have a patriarchy if you don't know who the dads are. And I will say that the long history of criminalizing sex work is very much grounded in misogyny and. also homophobia. I'll give you an example of the CANs laws in Louisiana cans stands for crime against nature. And this was a statute that was originally written in the 1800s to target the gay hustler scene in New Orleans. But it was a Louisiana law that made talking about oral or anal sex, a federal crime. And so, when the tough on crime the Reagan administration came through the police officer started using that statute to arrest black women and trans women and charging them with these cans [00:10:00] laws.

In addition, they forced them to register as sex offenders, and this really all came to a head in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina when thousands of black women were turned away from shelters for being registered sex offenders when really all they were guilty of was simple prostitution.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and only with adults, like, that's being clear with that.

BAILEY: Yes, that's right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. In some of your advocacy, have you seen kind of a stigma applied both from men, but also from women against sex workers? Like who's doing this in your view?

BAILEY: Yeah, I mean, the criminalization of sex work is really a very old coalition between, the religious right and the righteous left, there's [00:11:00] a long and dark history of progressive dating back to the progressive era of criminalizing vice. And a lot of this was grounded in white supremacy.

You, if you look at the man act or the white slave law that was passed in 1910, this is really something that is coming from feminists who are sort of demanding this protection against, what would be sort of a, a trafficking panic from the late early, early 1900s. And so, I think it's really important to understand that although prostitution has become a symbol of violence against women, the decriminalization of sex work is the only policy that actually reduces violence against women.

So, when Carol Lee coined the phrase sex work in the 1970s, she was really pushing back against. people who considered themselves feminists that nevertheless found themselves advocating for, more police to arrest vulnerable women.

SHEFFIELD: [00:12:00] Yeah. Yeah. And it's, and it's also I mean, when we've, we were talking about this topic earlier I think you had said something like that, that some, sort of anti sex work feminists, they kind of think it's like, the sex workers are, have hacked the system, that they're cheating in a way.

BAILEY: Sure. I mean, I certainly can imagine, especially before women had a lot of other job opportunities that, brothels and bars were a real source of anxiety within the household, right? When women don't have property rights and their husbands are, spending their paycheck that is supposed to go to the mortgage or to feed their families.

At a local tavern. This is the energy that propelled us towards prohibition. But we know what prohibition does to markets. It doesn't make them safer. And I would implore folks that consider themselves to be feminist to remember that you cannot help people. people you are hunting, and that the oldest profession is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of.

We can talk [00:13:00] about ways of raising the negotiating power of victims, of increasing folks’ ability to do other work, but we can't send SWAT teams into massage parlors with legally licensed masseurs who are giving their clients sexual services and call that a service to the community that we're arresting and raiding.

I do think it's important for listeners to understand, especially as we are absolutely on the ascent of another moral sex panic that is targeting the queer community, the trans community, and also sex work, pornography and consensual sex work.

And so, when our government says that they're engaged in anti-trafficking work, we like to envision a good guy with a gun Rescuing a victim from a violent situation. But what, in fact, is happening is that law enforcement officers are engaging in sexual services [00:14:00] with folks and then arresting those people for engaging in those acts.

This is not a situation where the good guys are going after the bad guys and people end up better off for it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it's also that it's with a lot of these, that as you were saying, that if you're trying to protect people who may be coerced into this, because, and there are some studies that have indicated that legalization or decriminalization can in some jurisdictions has increased trafficking to some degree. But there are conflicting studies with that—

BAILEY: No, the studies have shown that there's an increase in sex worker advertising when the when legal penalties are removed, which makes all of the sense. So, if you look at the case of Rhode Island, which decriminalized indoor sex work between 2003 and 2009, you absolutely saw an explosion of sex worker advertising and people traveling to Rhode Island in order to engaged in decriminalized sex [00:15:00] work.

You also saw a reduction of gonorrhea rates by 40% and a reduction in reported rapes by 30% and an overall reduction in violence against women. So, the results were actually very positive. You didn't see an increase in violence. You didn't see an increase in exploitation. You did see an increase in prostitution.

Now, I think that those results would You know, it wouldn't look like that if the entire region was decriminalized, but when you have an isolated area where this is the only place that you can go to engage in this work without the fear of arrest, of course, you're going to see an increase. But New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, and although there was a temporary uptick in advertising, the markets really leveled out, and it's Mostly you've seen a reduction in STIs and violence against women and an increase in sex workers who feel comfortable reporting crimes committed against them.

But you haven't seen a huge uptick in prostitution overall because the entire country [00:16:00] decriminalized, it wasn't country concentrated in one city or area.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess I just meant in the sense that that for instance, with drugs marijuana legalization, that in California, when, when we decriminalized marijuana out here, it led to an increase both in the legal sale of marijuana, but also the illegal sale of marijuana in some, in some ways.

And so, and like, but it's important, I think, the Rhode Island experiment, if you will, it, it shows that. You, you really need to stick to a policy for a while because there are effects that may exist in the short term but are going to go away once the pressure is off, or something like that.

And but you mentioned the violence against women. I remember reading about the, the rape rates in the various counties in Nevada where prostitution is legal, [00:17:00] and there's one of them, Elko County, where there are no rapes and there were literally no rapes in that, in that, in the years that they were looking at.

BAILEY: I think some context here is really important because you're only allowed to have a legally licensed brothel in a county with less than 700,000 people in it. So, there's no way to work legally in Vegas or Reno, where the highest demand is. And so, the overwhelming majority of sex work that's happening in Nevada is happening outside of these legally licensed brothels. And these brothels came into existence in the 1970s and were very much a compromise sort of between the mafia and local law enforcement.

And these brothels are beloved in the communities that they're in. It's a huge source of tax revenue. There are a lot of counties in Nevada that wouldn't have adequate healthcare service, but for the revenue that these brothels provide. But it's not a model that we want to replicate nationally because it really doesn't increase the negotiating power of the people who work there in order [00:18:00] to work as a legally licensed prostitute in Nevada, you have to register with the local sheriff's department.

This becomes a subpoenable fact about you for the rest of your life. You can imagine how this. plays out in child custody cases. You have to be hired and work at one of a handful of legally licensed brothels. You're working 12- or 24-hour shifts. And because you are a legally licensed prostitute, you don't actually have the same freedom of movement that any other citizen of that county would have.

You have to remain on the premises of the brothels or face a fine. You can't just go to a bar or go to the movies. Because all of these laws are about restricting, containing, and controlling sex workers.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Right. Well, okay. But I actually only meant to talk about it in the context of violence.

BAILEY: Oh, sure. So, yes.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So that basically, there are people, especially like people like Jordan Peterson, talk about sexually frustrated men and how it's this plague on society and only [00:19:00] they are concerned about it.

And no one wants to give an outlet to these men who can't get a date or whatever. And yet then they also go adamantly against sex work. And the facts are pretty clear that when you have some form of legalized prostitution, that it does protect the rest of the women. And also, the sex workers themselves.

BAILEY: There was a fascinating comparative study that was done, Scott Stern, I believe was the lead researcher comparing the impact Craigslist erotic services had on the cities when it became available. So, Craigslist erotic services, if you don't remember, was a place on Craigslist where people could advertise their interest in engaging in either casual or paid sexual encounters, and it became available in different cities at different times. And what they found is that everywhere that Craigslist Erotic Services became available, the female homicide rate dropped on average [00:20:00] 17%. We already talked about what happened in Rhode Island when indoor sex work was decriminalized.

You saw a reduction in rapes of 30%. These results have been replicated in places like Amsterdam or, as you mentioned, in Nevada, clear correlation between access to professional sex workers and a reduction in gender-based violence. I think this has two causes. I think that the presence of sex work allows women to escape abusive relationships.

And I think there is something to that point as much as I loathe ceding any ground to Jordan Peterson that there is something about sex workers that turns the temperature down on, on male violence. And this goes back to the epic of Gilgamesh, when Ishtar, the goddess of love and war sent a harlot to spend seven days or excuse me, six days and seven nights with a warrior.

Teaching him how to bathe and have table manners and yes, [00:21:00] who was, experiencing intimate sexual moments with him, which helped ease his transition from a violent theater of war back into civilization. And this is something that, like, militaries have known about for thousands and thousands of years.

The relationship between sex workers and soldiers is very long.

 But I, I also think that the military is responsible for some of the most egregious human rights violations when it comes to sex workers. There are the comfort women that we know about in Japan, armies have done similar things and the horror story that you, you think about of like, a woman and a line of men, but it's only the during times of war that you, that you see that that kind of thing play out.

But also, here in the United States in 1917, when the U. S. got involved in World War I, we passed something called the American Plan. And our effort to reduce STIs, we shuttered all of the brothels that had been, legally operating in cities across the country. And we also deputized [00:22:00] local law enforcement to arrest women in the vicinity.

And this led to a very dark chapter in our history of arresting women for being in public and making the wrong kind of eye contact with a cop. So, I think it's really important for folks to remember that the criminalization of sex work always undermines women's ability to move freely in public space and that efforts to contain and control us rather than reduce the STI rates for example, when they shuttered the brothels in Alaska STIs went up 300%.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and so part these efforts to kind of crack down on things are religious derived as well. And, and we've certainly seen a lot of that. And I guess right now, lately, the Christian right has been focused on trying to ban abortion. But they made very clear that they have an agenda of [00:23:00] items and banning birth control is on the list and rolling back, same-sex marriage is on the list. Some of them are openly talking about banning pornography entirely.

One of the ways that they have attacked porn is to be putting in age verification laws. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BAILEY: Sure. So, Pornhub, for example, has stopped operating in, I believe three states. I know it's Virginia, I believe it. I'm not sure what the third state is, but age verification laws would force users to upload identifying information, right? Their I. D. in order to watch pornography. Now, legal porn performers, of course, are already subjected to a ton of regulation. They have to sign all kinds of consent forms. They have to upload their own ideas. But the fear here is that users are effectively putting themselves on a stigmatized list.

And so, the, the ramifications of that, it's just, [00:24:00] it's, it's too much. And so Pornhub, one of the largest sources of pornography said that they, they can't comply with that law. And so, they are not making their sites available in those states. There's one case I believe of a woman in Louisiana whose husband is in is in the army.

And so, pornography is a big part of their relationship, especially when he's overseas. And I believe that she's currently suing, and I wish her luck in her case to get access to pornography. There's one more point I want to make which I think it's really important for folks to understand the history between the criminalization or censorship of obscenity and the criminalization and censorship of information about birth control and abortion.

This dates back to the Comstock laws of the 1870s, and he was on a crusade to remove pornography or smut from public space. But in doing so, criminalized [00:25:00] information about birth control and sort of famously went on to arrest Margaret Sanger for obscenity when she was simply trying to share information about how to prevent unintended pregnancy.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and we're seeing that now repeat in the state of Florida. Where now they have expanded their, don't talk about gender identity or any sort of sexual education stuff all the way through high school. And now, people can be, fired for having a picture of their spouse or trying to tell children about condoms or how to buy menstrual products.

BAILEY: No, it, it, it is it should be alarming. I think the, the long history and the tenacity of conflating the existence of queer people. with obscenity. And so, I know a lot of well-meaning liberal moms that, have a discomfort [00:26:00] with pornography and stand behind a lot of these laws that are already being used to persecute LGBTQ plus folks and make it harder for not just young people, but all people to access information about their own bodies.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I think that's a, it's a point worth exploring here, because the idea of publicly acknowledging that sex exists, but even further is that this idea that there are some people who do not agree with a conventional viewpoint about sex and sexual relationships, that really is kind of the root of the conflict here, I think, especially for the, for a lot of these fundamentalist religious people.

That the idea that there could be a woman who says, ‘I don't care if I have sex with 10 people in a week, [00:27:00] it doesn't bother me. I don't think there's anything wrong with it and I'm going to do that for my job.’ Or there's somebody who says: ‘Yeah, you know what, I'm going to go and find other men and try to help them fulfill needs that they can't get in their regular lives,’ that cannot exist. It's an affront, right?

BAILEY: And it's, I think a big part of my job is reminding folks that we already live in a society where people are having all kinds of sex all around you, whether you live in a suburban home or an apartment, people are engaging in sex that might make you uncomfortable. Already, and there's no amount of criminalization or censorship or prohibition that's going to change that.

But similar to abortion, we cannot legislate this away, but we can make it less safe. And that's exactly what criminalization and [00:28:00] censorship does.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Well, it's a, and I mean, let's delve into it a little bit further. Like, why do you think they're so disproportionately concerned about this compared to, I mean, like you, you talk about as drugs versus as a substance that could be regulated.

But it's, it's more than that, right? It's about other people having an agency that you don't approve of.

BAILEY: I think we should get really specific here because the overwhelming majority of laws targeting prostitution are directed at women. People of all genders have always engaged in this work.

And a lot of the same language and rhetoric and statutes. that have been, applied to criminalized prostitution are used to target the queer community. But this has always been about controlling women. And I think that this can, this really dates back to the Catholic church, which codified the Madonna.

a horror complex and [00:29:00] sort of waged war on fertility deities and priestess prostitutes and powerful women that did not subject themselves to the normal standard of, fidelity or the, this obsession with chastity. I think that informs our obsession with sex ed and contraception and also prostitution.

And my basic argument and the point that I make on the Oldest Profession podcast over and over again is that whorephobia is the foundation of misogyny. Hmm.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Now you mentioned the idea of, of Madonna hoard. Let's for people who haven't heard that term, but

BAILEY: sure. So, dating back to one of the oldest deities that we have written records about Ishtar the goddess of love and war and the myth around her is that she was Born a virgin every morning and she went to bed a w***e every night and priestess prostitutes were an important part [00:30:00] of the temples that held space for her.

And this is at a time when temples were really the organizing force of the ancient world. They weren't just places of worship, but they were also places where important decisions were made. They were the keepers of important knowledge, especially around fertility. They were also the only bank in town. But these temples, polytheism transitions into the Greek empires and the Roman empire and the Roman empire falls and is replaced by the Catholic church.

The Catholic church sort of separates that ancient deity and turns her into the two Marys, right? The virgin mother and the repentant w***e and does a lot. Undermine Mary Magdalene who, there's no evidence to suggest that she ever engaged in the oldest profession, but Pope Gregory called her a sinful woman from the pulpit in 591 and really locked into this [00:31:00] idea of That she was a sinful woman and that justified over a thousand years of denigrating her contributions, her significant contributions to the Christian church.

And so, this institution that was ostensibly built on the teachings of Jesus, right? And love and forgiveness became about persecuting people who are engaging in these older rights. And so, we have a long history of the Inquisition targeting courtesans or known sex workers for witchcraft and conflating sexual fidelity, especially amongst women with holiness or, or godliness, which is not something that, like Jesus, the historic figure was especially concerned.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, he was documented repeatedly in the New Testament to have been regularly, with and befriending,

BAILEY: Much more comfortable with sex workers than he was with tax collectors, for example,

SHEFFIELD: Well, actually, [00:32:00] no, he was friends with the tax collectors as well. So, but, but, but, but getting biblical with this, like there is another figure even older than Mary, the two Marys that was like, she was kind of in a large part, I feel like one of the, the very first canceled literary figures, and that was Asherah, and she was, so the, the Hebrew the ancient Hebrews and Judaism grew out of Canaanite polytheism.

And Asherah was the wife of the chief deity, and she was the last remnant of that. Over time, the worshipers of Yahweh sort of censored and extirpated all the other deities, but Asherah was the last one that survived, and she was a fertility goddess and people continue to worship her.

And she's in the Bible. Like that's what's interesting is and it's really like, and you see people being killed for [00:33:00] worshiping her and, and praying to her and like, she was God's wife. So why wouldn't they pray to her? But yeah, like it's, I mean, that's, that's, it's, it's, it is interesting that there may be something to this monotheism and creating a male deity that a female deity could not.

be allowed to exist.

BAILEY: And, the Catholic Church is, has a long and well documented history of being much more committed to patriarchal control and property accumulation than they are to love and forgiveness or anything that I might associate with Christian values.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and then there's also the Lilith story. Do you want to tell that one?

BAILEY: Yeah, so Lilith the story of Lilith coming from the Old Testament was Adam's first wife. And so, the myth, as I understand it, is that Lilith and Adam were created at the same time and from the same clay.

So, this [00:34:00] Lilith really wanted to be on top during sex. Now, most marriage counselors of course would tell you that that wasn't the real problem, but it is what the scripture literally says. Both God and Adam agreed that Lilith wanting to enjoy sex with Adam was an existential threat. And so, she left she left the garden of her own volition.

started a love affair with some other, some other figures and was living independently. And this all-knowing, all-powerful God could not get Lilith to come back to the garden. So, we see, sort of a very early complication to patriarchal control or this all-powerful God.

And so, God made Adam a, a consolation prize, Eve, from Adam's body, his rib or some other part, depending on which translation you're looking at, who was supposedly smaller and more submissive than the original Lilith and even [00:35:00] Eve is blamed for all human suffering from eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

SHEFFIELD: So yeah, so and it is it's really important, I think, to know this history because I think there are a lot of people who—I mean there's kind of a paradox that I feel like that the more educated you are on the political right, the more likely you are to support sex workers, whereas in a large measure, the more educated you are on the left, the less likely you are to support sex workers.

BAILEY: And I think that's really important because I know a lot of otherwise smart, well-meaning people that support laws that inevitably hurt. The people that those legislators or advocates are claiming that they're trying to help, right? I think everybody is interested in increasing the negotiating power of victims.

We all want to see fewer victims of rape, sexual assault, [00:36:00] violence, but. Efforts to contain and control prostitution or efforts to eradicate the oldest profession inevitably hurt people who are engaging in that work, whether they're doing that by choice, circumstance or coercion, this really isn't a problem that we can arrest our way out of.

SHEFFIELD: For people that may have some resistance to this, that, when you look at especially people who come from, impoverished backgrounds that, there, there are some jobs that That are just, there's only a few jobs that are even possible for them to do because they have no training, they have no network, they have no education, and so you're, you're, you're going to take away something that will help them not be impoverished.

That's what you're going to do to them.

BAILEY: I know. And yes, sex work has been a reliable survival strategy for millennia. It has been a way of people, able to accumulate some kind of capital. I think that sex work has funded more [00:37:00] entrepreneurs and artists than all of the grants combined. But It's interesting to me that when prostitution is turned into a symbol of prost it when prostitution is turned into a symbol of exploitation, we end up focusing all of our efforts on eradicating or suppressing prostitution, and we ignore huge swaths of exploitation.

We do have real slavery and exploited laborers in this country in our own prison system in agriculture, in mines. And so there are all kinds of jobs out there where we could really be doing more to reduce violent exploitation. But instead, all of those resources are being redirected at mostly adult consensual sex workers.

SHEFFIELD: Well, it's also that I think there's, there's a, the, the right wing has under Trump developed an ability to, masquerade as populist in some issues. [00:38:00] So like they talk about big tech and talk about, regulating these. technology companies as if they're not completely in the pocket of all big business.

And they're doing that with regard to, this sex trafficking panic that they're, that they're pushing that, they want you to focus on this, which in many cases is just vastly overhyped and exaggerated. doesn't exist to nearly the degree that they are telling you, so that you don't talk about the other exploited people, and you don't help workers that are going on strike, and you don't sympathize with them.

BAILEY: I think that's a really great example. And I think that Marriott Hotels is a classic example of exactly this phenomenon, right? So Marriott Hotels has engaged in a PR campaign to raise awareness about trafficking, right? And so, if you check into a Marriott Hotel, you'll often see something on the door or signs throughout saying, if you see something, say something, but all of the signs of. [00:39:00]

Trafficking that they list are just signs of sex work, right? They want to discriminate against women traveling alone or people who have multiple guests in the room or people who ask for multiple towels or people with acrylic nails. Meanwhile, Marriott Hotels uses third party companies in order to clean their hotel rooms.

So, there's absolutely. Trafficking that's happening at Marriott hotels, but it's not the consensual adult sex workers who are trying to work in the rooms. It's the cleaning staff whose labor rights have been undermined because they've been farmed out to an ungovernable third party.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And in many cases are sort of imported illegal immigrants are not able to advocate for themselves.

Correct. Yeah. All right. Well, and now in terms of the empowerment of sex workers that we have seen, I think one of the biggest trends that's evolved has been [00:40:00] OnlyFans. And. That has really revolutionized the pornography industry and done so in a way that seems to have overwhelmingly benefited the workers in against the studios and whatnot.

Let's, can, tell us about that.

BAILEY: Any time that you are able to directly connect fans to a performer, an artist or a content creator, that's the, that's the best situation, right? As a, as a content creator, people giving you money directly cuts out the studios. It cuts out potentially exploitative third parties, which I think is one of the reasons why we've seen so much of a reaction to OnlyFans.

If they've been through the ringer in terms of their ability to accept credit cards or the different regulations that are trying to shut them down. But this is absolutely a model that empowers individual performers at the expense of the larger studio system. And the more regulatory efforts there [00:41:00] are, the more you concentrate power into the hands of a few.

We've seen this in big tech and, pornography is no exception. The more of a regulatory burden you place, then the fewer and fewer people are able to meet that bar. And so OnlyFans I think was revolutionary and it helped a lot of people get fund again, schools, startups or just an artistic career or just their life, just the ability to eat and pay their rent.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and we certainly saw that during the pandemic when a lot of performing venues were shut down entirely.

BAILEY: Yeah, I knew a lot of folks during the pandemic that lost, their, their day gig and their night gig at the same time. The theaters were closed and also, they weren't able to work at restaurants.

And so, it makes sense that we saw a huge influx of people engaging in this work. Unfortunately, because of the reaction. You're also seeing a lot of those same performers who are now, being fired from jobs, being denied [00:42:00] spots at universities or, training for nurses. And with the surveillance technology that we have and facial recognition, we have folks that have only fans accounts that are being denied access at the border.

because they're a known sex worker, even though the sex work that they're engaged in is perfectly legal. So, there's a lot of ramifications and this is very much still happening now. Yeah. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I guess, yeah, given the, it's benefited a lot of different people and people have had contact with it much more than before.

And I think, it's, it's made people more aware of that. That there are people that they know who are doing this and that also de stigmatizes it.

BAILEY: And that I think is something that's really important, right? Your listeners probably already know and like a sex worker that lives amongst them just because they're not out about that.

I think OnlyFans made that more visible, but sex workers have [00:43:00] always been part of every community.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I guess speaking of that though, you have referred to sex workers as “we” a few times here. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? Like, what's your background with all this?

BAILEY: I mean, I think it's important to say that there, there really is no typical story. People have engaged in this work for. All kinds of reasons throughout human history, and this work looks different to everyone. I started doing full service hourly sex work in 2004, 2005. I used a message board to schedule and screen my clients.

And we met at hotels sort of in the Golden age where we had cell phones, but not smartphones no facial recognition technology yet. And then when I moved to New York to pursue standup comedy I started doing sugaring, which is a new word for a very old thing sort of courting individual patrons to [00:44:00] to support my work.

So, it was not an hourly gig, but more of a long-term commitment. But there are as many forms of sex work and as many, nuances and shades of gray of this as there are people, what it means to be a sex worker. It's like, what does it mean to be an actress? Like every career is different.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I, now what about that there is some tension, I feel like also maybe perhaps that for women who might have married up, as they say. They don't want to be thought of as a client and service provider relationship with their marriage, and that makes them uncomfortable with the idea of sex work.

BAILEY: Sure. I would say that one of the benefits of being a sex worker as opposed to a wife is the, getting paid up front and having the purchasing power of, being paid a wage or being paid for your services.

Every marriage is different. I am married to a [00:45:00] relatively high earner, but it's fundamentally different, partnership is fundamentally different, I think, than paid companionship. I also, want to push back a little bit that, yes, there are many wives out there that consider, their partner, their husband seeing a sex worker as, as cheating, but there are also wives out there that You know, think about sex workers as a paid service that their husband sometimes engages in, right?

Whether their wife is suffering from a chronic illness or, the spark has left the marriage. I personally don't believe that one person has the right to sort of. take sex away from another, another person. And I think that marriage can be complicated, it can be a relationship, it's an economic relationship, it's a, community or companionship, raising children.

So, I, I don't know if this, like, sex workers versus wives is as clear cut as, as you would like to suggest. There are a lot of married [00:46:00] sex workers, and there are a lot of wives who support that, that see sex workers, or also support their partner seeking sexual services elsewhere because paid companionship is not a threat to the marriage or union or partnership in the same way that having an emotionally messy extramarital affair might be.

SHEFFIELD: I did want to get into the. The prostitute with the heart of gold.


SHEFFIELD: Because I really hate that people in Hollywood discount that.

BAILEY: Yeah. Because I mean, sex workers have been, it's like, yeah, sorry.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Like, there's a reason that that exists.

BAILEY: Because we're often the last line of, of defense for vulnerable people. Brothels were also places where nursing happened. It's where people fleeing domestic violence situations went. It's women helping other women and sex workers helping folks that are in trouble. It's a story you hear over and over again. This is why madams settled the West.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. [00:47:00] When it's, it was also the only way for a lot of men to even have any sort of conversation about feelings or psychology and they may not have even known about those terms. And even now, who might not even know they could go to a therapist.

Well, okay. Now, what about people who might say that, I mean, and there have been some studies that indicate that, excessive use of porn can be damaging for individuals.

BAILEY: I mean, there were studies in the Victorian era that said that it led, it led to blindness and cancer, but you know, that was a different world panic.

SHEFFIELD: Well, that's what, yeah, no, like, I want you to talk about that though. Sure. People who, like, I mean, do you think that there, that people should realize there's a healthy amount of using anything?

BAILEY: I think that if we're going to crack down on anything. And I'm just, I'm continuously frustrated by this impulse that we have as a society to look around at like the [00:48:00] very real labor exploitation, right? The very real economic disparity, the very real suffering that so many people are surviving, or many are not and decide to focus our attention on people enjoying themselves.

By themselves. People have been engaging in solo sex for as long as a, I mean, this predates us as a species. Anyone who's visited a zoo can tell you that this is a thing that, that creatures engage in. And so, this impulse to pathologize something that is. So natural and so ubiquitous feels like it's a projection and reflects our inability or unwillingness to address a very real problem.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. So you would say that it's people who may have issues with excessive porn use probably also have issues in other ways. Sure. And you shouldn't [00:49:00] focus just on that.

BAILEY: People can get addicted to anything, reality television, sugar. Even drugs. And I don't think that we have a good track record of trying to criminalize or suppress that leading to good outcomes.

We didn't solve drug addiction by criminalizing drugs. We're not going to solve what you might call porn addiction or somebody wanting to change their relationship with pornography or masturbation by trying to eliminate smut from public spaces.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And especially because plenty of people have no problem with how they use it in their own lives.

BAILEY: Yes. And so, people that, people can go on their own journey and decide everyone gets to decide what their boundaries are around erotic content or participating in masturbation or sex, but these are very personal choices. And so, I think that it's important for us to recognize this pattern again, of like moral panic or.

[00:50:00] pathologizing something that can be innocuous and natural and dare I suggest helpful actually.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and there have been studies that show that like porn has been helpful for a lot of people who, because as you said, like in marriage situation for absence or physical or emotional trauma on the part of their partner that they couldn't survive in that marriage if it wasn't.

So what's kind of the final takeaway you would have people that we haven't maybe talked about?

BAILEY: I think it's important for folks to recognize across the political and ideological spectrum. We've been really wrong about the oldest profession for a really long time. I think it's important at this moment in history when we're dealing with multiple cascading crises to. Listen to sex workers.

There is nobody who is more motivated to reduce violence and exploitation within the sex trade than sex [00:51:00] workers themselves. And we have a lot of good ideas, but the first thing that we have to do is stop the arrests.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, I think that's a great, great message for sure. All right. Well, so we've been talking today with Kaytlin Bailey and she is the executive director of Old Pros and you're also on Twitter at Kaytlin Bailey. That's K-A-Y-T-L-I-N-B-A-I-L-E-Y for those who are listening.

BAILEY: Yeah. I'd also encourage if you're interested in this topic, we send out a newsletter of sex worker rights related news every Friday.

And you can sign up for that at oldprosonline. org. And you can also follow us across social media platforms at Old Pros online.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, I encourage everybody to do that. Thanks for being here.

BAILEY: Thank you again so much for having me, Matthew. I really appreciate it. Yeah, I hope that this is a conversation that your listeners enjoy, and I hope they will learn a lot.

SHEFFIELD: Alright, so that is the show [00:52:00] for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us and I encourage everybody to go to theoryofchange.show where you can get full access to all of the previous episodes and future ones, and you can subscribe on Substack or Patreon. We have free and paid subscriptions available, and I thank everybody who is a paid subscriber very much, you have complete access to all the transcripts and audio and video. Some of those things are not available to the unpaid members, so I do appreciate everybody who supports us that way.

And then also I would encourage everybody to go to flux.community. This show is part of the Flux Network, so do check that out. We've got lots more podcasts and articles about politics, religion, media, and society.

And if you've got a podcast or other show like that or you're interested in writing, please do reach out to us. We are interested in expanding our network and the number of people that we work with as well. So I encourage everybody to reach out if [00:53:00] you are so inclined, but that's it for today. I appreciate everybody for being here. See you next time.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.