Teen Vogue's curious message to girls about sex work

If you have a teenage daughter with a subscription to Teen Vogue, you may want to take a close look at the latest edition. In addition to the usual fare they offer for young girls, the magazine recently featured an editorial from a South African doctor addressing the subject of STDs and prostitution. That normally wouldn’t be all that controversial if the piece was focused on disease prevention, but this author took a very different approach to the subject. The title of the piece was, “Sex Work is Real Work.” To say the least, it’s gotten some people rather upset. (NY Post)

Former prostitutes and anti-trafficking advocates are furious over a new Teen Vogue column that argues selling sex is a legitimate job and should be decriminalized — saying it glorifies the trade and ignores its many victims.

Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, a South African reproductive specialist, penned the controversial opinion piece titled “Sex work is real work,” arguing that her job as a doctor — which includes treating sexually-transmitted infections and providing therapy on sexual performance — is “basically sex work” and shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“I am a doctor, an expert in sexual health, but when you think about it, aren’t I a sex worker?” Mofokeng writes in the article.

Dr. Mofokeng goes on to point out that everyone engaged in any sort of work deserves safety in the workplace, fair trade and freedom of employment. This includes prostitutes, exotic dancers and anyone else in the “trade.”

I’ll have to admit that reading this article and the interviews it contains (all of which is worth a look, by the way) has really given me some things to think about. Traditionally, I’ve argued the more libertarian position, affirming that people who decide to engage in sex for money should be legally allowed to do so, as only they control what they do with their own bodies. This excludes women who are forced into the practice by others, becoming slaves in human trafficking operations. And of course, this would not include children as they are unable to give informed consent, not to mention that the idea of prostituting children out to pedophiles is an abomination that should carry the death penalty.

With that last item in mind, we come to what should be the glaring question raised by this report. Even if you happen to agree with Dr. Mofokeng’s premise, do you really think Teen Vogue was the best place to run this article???

Having gotten that off my chest, I’ll mention the other points from the article that gave me pause. Even when we’re talking about adult women, how many of them actively choose to become prostitutes if they have other, more conventional employment opportunities that could earn them a basic standard of living? I’m sure there are some out there, and the report acknowledges this. And for those women, what I said above about free choice still stands.

But one clinic worker who has treated large numbers of prostitutes describes how she asks them all the same question. Do you want to leave prostitution? And she’s never had anyone say no.

I suppose I have to agree with one former prostitute who was interviewed for the article and talked about how women wind up in the trade. Even for those who aren’t trafficked into it by someone else, they are still arguably forced into a life they have no desire for because of poverty, violence, and homelessness. Substance abuse also adds to the struggles that see some of these women working as prostitutes. The picture of many of these women as The Happy Hooker or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman just isn’t the reality for most prostitutes.

I suppose the next question is what to do about it. Imprison all sex traffickers and those who pimp out underage girls, of course. But that doesn’t do anything about the adult prostitutes who really don’t want to be doing that but don’t see any other option to keep the bills paid and live a normal life. That one is a lot tougher. I’m glad there are people out there who are at least addressing the issue and trying to help.