Last fall, following a New York Times article documenting multiple allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against the comedian Louis C.K., Rae Sanni, also a comedian, went on Twitter to share a few thoughts.
C.K.’s habit of masturbating in front of women without their consent was not merely a fetish, Sanni argued, because making real women suffer was so central to his goal. “Guys like Louis CK,” she wrote, “could just pay a sex worker. Could even request the sex worker play like she’s uncomfortable if they likes. But they don’t want that. The pleasure is in the actual discomfort of their victims, the power to overwhelm or make them just take it. It’s horrendous.”
Sanni’s take quickly went viral, racking up thousands of retweets and likes. But just as quickly, she faced backlash from sex workers who argued that what she proposed in her tweet was akin to suggesting that sex workers sacrifice themselves to abusers for the good of other women.
Although Sanni — herself a former stripper — pushed back against this interpretation of her tweet, it’s not hard to see how people came to that reading of her words. Because the truth is that many people, including prominent economists and New York Times columnists, do see sex workers as a primary defense against abusive and violent men.
In the wake of the Toronto van attack in April, George Mason University economist Robin Hanson mused that “that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income,” and that, in the same way that income redistribution is used to remedy income inequality, a redistribution of sex might tend to the needs of the undersexed. In a column that sparked a great deal of ire, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat extrapolated on Hanson’s idea, envisioning a potential world where sex workers and sexbots are on hand to “redistribute” sex to horny, lonely men; satiating their libidos and, presumably, preventing their horniness from mutating into uncontrollable rage and mass violence, à la the Toronto van attacker and the Santa Barbara shooter.
Granted, Douthat argues that turning to sex workers to curb male violence would represent a dystopian solution, and that he would prefer a turn to the conservative values of monogamy and chastity. At no point does he question the efficacy of this proposed solution. Yet taking a deeper look at this idea of sex workers as a solution for toxic male behavior reveals what a cruel and misguided idea it is.
Incels aren’t just looking for sex
To begin with, there is no indication that paying sex workers for a consensual, negotiated encounter in any way curbs the anger that pushes many of these men to violence. As Sanni notes in her tweet about C.K., abusive men aren’t just interested in sex — they’re interested in wielding power over an unwilling victim. Even self-identified “incels” — a group of men who gather online whose identity hinges on their “involuntary” celibacy — make clear that sex workers are not the solution to their sexual struggles.
In a thread on Incels.me, a message board for men who feel completely shut out from the world of sex and dating, one poster makes the case that someone who hired a sex worker would no longer qualify as an incel. Another quickly pushes back, noting that “those woman [sic] wouldn’t have had sex with him if he didn’t pay so he is still incel.”
The kind of men who turn to violence out of sexual frustration aren’t actually interested in sexual intimacy, but instead a sense of control and domination over women. A negotiated experience with a sex worker does little to curb the rage of men who desire not sex but the total submission of the women they see as desirable.
More troublingly, the argument that sex workers should somehow save the world from angry, abusive men suggests that women in the sex industry can endure abuse in a way that other, “regular” women can’t. Working in the sex industry does not magically make women more capable of defusing violence. To the contrary, sex workers face an elevated risk of rape, abuse, and murder.
To argue that men with violent tendencies and patterns of abusive behavior should seek out the services of sex workers is to suggest that violence and abuse against sex workers is somehow less abhorrent than violence against other women. It’s a grotesque, dehumanizing stance that suggests that sex workers are a different breed of woman.
Decriminalizing sex work is important — but not to fix the problem of angry, violent men
There are many benefits to decriminalizing sex work. It enables us to fully control when and how and under what circumstances we engage in consensual sexual acts — whether that means paying for sex or accepting money for it. It offers sex workers high-paying, flexible work and a path to financial freedom, a particularly appealing prospect for people who are shut out of more mainstream industries, whether because of disability, gender identity, parental status, or some other issue entirely.
But sex work is not a panacea for the toxic mindsets that cause men to rape and abuse. Suggesting that sex workers be offered up as a form of appeasement merely enables that sense of entitlement rather than identifying it as the true source of the problem.
Men do not turn to violence and abuse out of sexual frustration or because no one will satisfy their desires in the exact way that they want. Men turn to violence and abuse because our society teaches them that these are appropriate reactions to being denied whatever (or whoever) catches their fancy.
Sex workers alone cannot dismantle that dangerous idea. That’s work that we, as a society, must come together to do collectively.
Lux Alptraum is a writer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Hustler, and more. Her first book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And The Truths They Reveal, comes out this November.