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Sex Work Isn’t Sex Ed: Why We Need Comprehensive, Fact-Backed, Sexual Education

Credit: Mabeline72/Shutterstock / Remix by Caterina Cox

In 2019, I was answering my phone to listen to my submissive talk about his inability to get hard. He had struggled with impotence for years. Although his wife was patient and understanding, he rang my line. This wasn’t necessarily a chat where I helped him get hard. Instead, I listened, offered advice, and gave him words of encouragement. After an hour, I hung up, and he sent me $150. 

My Experience As A Sex Worker

Throughout years of online sex work, many of my clients preferred lengthy conversations. We spoke about safe sex, sex positions, ways to please their partner, and general sex education. This, in fact, led to my own journey toward sex coaching (and eventual retirement from sex work as a whole.)

Still, my time as a sex worker showed me where and what we lack in sex education. 

Many of my clients, if not the majority, had mentioned growing up in abstinence-only homes. They don’t recall having a discussion about sex education at all. Answering questions about STIs became the norm for me while on Chaturbate—a topic many may find unsexy, but for me, was a casual and rewarding conversation. 

Sex Work, Sex Ed, and Their Intersections

“Sex workers are and always have led conversations about sex ed. Period. Full stop,” says Raquel Savage, founder of Kink Media Group and Zepp Wellness Center, therapist, and sex worker. 

She says this isn’t meant in a “glamorous way,” either. “I really mean that full-service, street-based sex workers are having conversations about negotiating the use of condoms to increase safety, for instance,” she says. 

Basic sex education for both the worker and client is as simple as asking for a condom and discussing the importance of it. Sex 101 can be taught without realizing it’s being taught. Safe sex and consent are the top tier of negotiations for many workers. 

“These are conversations about sexual health and consent. So sex workers are at the forefront of these conversations,” says Savage. 

Sex Workers and The Loss of Online Spaces

Sex workers have a vibrant online community. From Twitter to OnlyFans, many workers pay rent with the traffic and audience they curate through websites and social media. But both social media and content hosting sites have been increasingly censored. Why? 2018 policies following the federal law SESTA-FOSTA cracked down on moderating social media platforms. 

Instagram’s Sexual Solicitation Policy says that users can discuss sex workers’ rights but doesn’t allow for commercial sex work. In practice, this looks like sex workers getting banned for simply existing on the platform.

This isn’t unique to sex workers, either. Sex educators, lingerie companies, sex toy companies,  and even nonerotic OnlyFans creators have battled restrictions online. In 2021, sex educators called this an outright “ban on sex.”

If education focusing on sex and pleasure isn’t accessible to adults, what can we expect? The result is ignorance about our own bodies at best. At worst, especially in the scope of kink, comes an increased risk of harm.

Savage says, “What I would consider the most meaningful content is content that is being made by black queer folks, black fat folks, disabled folks. That content is even more shadow banned than a white sex worker or a white sex educator talking about the clitoris. So it ends up being even more difficult to access the most meaningful content.”

With sex education being censored online, how can anyone explore when much of our lives are based on social media? Many sex workers straddle the line between education and pleasure. And platforms like Instagram and TikTok are rich with engaging and positive methods of sharing information. Video content and visuals are easy for users to consume. 

Savage says, “So, the best way, in my opinion, to seek out sex ed online on social media would be to actively seek out sex workers and sex educators of color and follow them directly and directly engage and pay for their work.” 

Sex Education Is A Form of Activism

Sex education doesn’t have to look like a Powerpoint presentation in the gym. It doesn’t have to be the school’s basketball coach/health teacher/gym teacher’s job to present slides of gonorrhea and herpes. We don’t need “educators” spreading fear and misinformation due to their own lack of comprehensive sex education. 

Acalanes Union School District in Lafayette, California came under fire in 2017 after sex education instructors were found to work at sex toy shops and be “pleasure activists.” People who carry the knowledge to teach someone about sex were doing exactly that, and yet, outrage ensued. Parents at the school grew concerned and called for their dismissal, which would eventually be successful. 

Is it a preference for a gym teacher who lacks proper credentials to teach children about the birds and the bees? Or is it a clear misunderstanding of pleasure, sex, and sex work? This stems back to decades-long of misinformation about sex education. These are calls of outcry from generations of parents who didn’t receive proper sex education themselves. 

Organizing For Community Health

Traditional education spaces or not, sex workers or unapologetic sex educators will still organize and create change. Sex workers have had a long history of being HIV activists and harm reduction experts. Centering the importance of safe sex has always been a priority. 

COYOTE, or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, is a group of current and former sex workers promoting health and safety for sex workers. Created in the 1970s, the group held informational sessions and handed out condoms. Alongside this, the group helped researchers at the San Francisco Medical Center discover that sharing needles was responsible for HIV transmission in women.

Porn4Prep is another platform for porn actors to raise awareness of HIV, STIs, and the stigma that comes with them. The anti-HIV discrimination pledge, Porn Professionals for Safety Against Discrimination (PPSD) pledge, was created by sex workers to end the stigma of HIV in the adult industry. The Sonagachi Project in Kolkata, India has worked since 1992 to prevent sexually transmitted infections among sex workers. Since its inception, it has become a human rights program run by sex workers who provide sex education for the general public. 

Activism and education go hand in hand for many sex workers—whether they are teaching a client, or speaking to a larger public audience. It shouldn’t be surprising that sex workers come together to advocate for better health and safety since much of their lives require these actions without the public’s help. 

Sex Work Can Be Care Work

A study conducted by Leeds University in 2015 found that 70 percent of U.K. sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education, or charities. The study also looked at reasons for working in the industry and first-person experiences of sex workers. One worker who called herself Abbie said that much of her time as a sex worker didn’t involve sex. “Eight out of 10 of the men I see don’t actually want to have sex with me, some just want affection and someone to talk to,” she wrote in the study. 

This adds another component to sex work—emotional support. 

Alma*, a full-service sex worker in Chicago, Illinois says, “Many of my clients want to lie next to me, cuddle, and talk. I’ve spent hours explaining to my client the importance of consent and I’ve also spent time chatting about sex positions that can be beneficial for their partners. It’s a full spectrum of sex education and a mix of sex therapy.” 

Alma goes on to say that when she does have sex with clients, she uses it as a time to teach them how to properly have sex. “I know this isn’t the case for all workers, but many of my clients need some guidance and enjoy it when I guide them.”

She continues, ” I can educate them, tell them what works and what doesn’t, and they can take those skills home to their current or future partner. I feel lucky to be able to get paid to help people get better at sex.” 

But It’s Not A Sex Worker’s Job To Educate

However, not everyone agrees that it is a sex worker’s sole purpose to educate. Not every sex worker is suitable as an educator, nor do they want to be one. Someone in the adult industry may not know the ins and outs of another part of an industry—say, for example, a cam girl versus a full-service sex worker. They may have entirely different experiences and knowledge in their line of work. 

“Where I’m at right now is that I don’t believe sex work is sex education, and I think there are negative outcomes for sex workers, policy-wise, when we frame it that way,” says Lorelei Lee, a sex worker organizer, founder of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition and the Bella Project for People in the Sex Trades, and a policy analyst for Hacking//Hustling, to Cashmere Magazine.

Lee says they are frustrated with the public’s idea that sex workers can provide a “good” service, or “education,” for society, rather than just surviving. 

“That’s not a framework by which we judge other forms of work and their validity (coal mining, technological engineering, the list goes on forever of jobs that aren’t only not expected to be “good” for anyone except worker and employer, but that actually have negative externalities for most of us not in that industry),” they explain. 

Moreover, Lee says they resent the expectation that they would provide additional services than negotiated. For many folks in sex work, clients can try and push the boundaries. 

Lee says that what the country needs is better sex education, overall. They conclude, “I just think sex work should be allowed to be strictly pleasure and/or entertainment focused, and that we shouldn’t be expected to pick up the slack of a country that refuses to provide actual comprehensive sex education to its citizens.”

The Goal? Comprehensive Sex Education For All

Currently, in 2023, there are 19 states with abstinence-only sex education and 24 states that mandate sex education in the classroom. Comprehensive sex education leads to lower rates of STIs, fewer unintended pregnancies, and increased condom use. 

This type of sex education is backed by science and medicine and typically includes information on healthy emotional relationships. Abstinence-only sex education, according to extensive studies, is a complete failure within the school system. It often excludes safe sex, LGBTQ folks, and consensual sex.

The ways in which sex education can improve can be led down a path by sex workers. By leaving sex workers out of the conversation, educators are ignoring and stigmatizing the folks who are doing the work and understand a wide variety of sex. “Doctors, therapists, mental health professionals need to be a growing community and consult with sex workers directly to learn about pleasure consent, sexual health, [and] all of the things,” says Savage.

Savage concludes: “Sex ed needs to be more queer, more black, more disabled, and led by whores.” After all, who knows it best?