The Stigma of Sex Work:

Panel by the UNICEF Amsterdam and HeForShe x UvA

By Kira Guehring| June 22, 2021

Cover Illustration: Attendees of the Unicef Amsterdam Student Team and HeforShe x UvA panel / Courtesy of the organizers.


Campus Reporter Kira Guehring attended the collaborative panel on The Stigma of Sex Work hosted by HeForShe x UvA and UNICEF Amsterdam.

Sex work is one of the oldest professions in the world. However, the very idea is surrounded by stigma and negative stereotypes even in this day and age. HeforShe x UvA is a student chapter of the United Nations gender equality movement, and an officially recognised University of Amsterdam student association. In collaboration with UNICEF Amsterdam, they hosted a virtual panel titled The Stigma of Sex Word in order to raise awareness about issues concerning sex work.

 As a student living in Amsterdam – often studying a few hundred meters away from the famous Red Light District – it can feel like The Netherlands is an open and safe environment for sex work. Despite the geographical closeness, many students are unaware of the realities of this line of work.

To shed light on the taboos, stigmas and misconceptions of sex work, the student team from UNICEF Amsterdam and HeforShe x UvA held a virtual panel on May 10, 2021. Over 20 people attended and the four panelists’ unique perspectives generated an interesting discussion. 

 First of all, what is sex work? Both organizers and panelists began with a broad yet inclusive definition. Sex work is any work that creates arousal in exchange for compensation, ranging from prostitution to selling panties and a range of other jobs. Another aspect that was emphasized by the panelists is the importance of consent, as workers have varying degrees of choice and agency. 

 The speakers included Lyle Muns, a political science student and advocate for sex workers rights. One of the main stigmas he encounters is that people struggle to understand how someone would voluntarily be a sex worker. Initial responses include worries about forced work and attributing it to mental health problems.

Not only are these concerns driven by human trafficking but also general attitudes toward sexuality, as they can perpetuate stigma. In her research Marije van Stempvoort, a PhD researcher studying sex work, found that the stigmas are also embedded within the hierarchies of the industry. Student workers are often more privileged as with higher education the chance of falling within the strict criteria of ‘high-end sex worker’ rises. The distinction of ‘high-end’ not only represents an improvement in working conditions and pay but was a way for van Stempvoort’s interviewees to inadvertently reduce stigma.

 There are also country-specific patterns within the sex industry. As part of her research van Stempvoort found that, in contrast to similar studies in the US, UK and Australia, many student sex workers were choosing to continue working in the industry in some capacity. In the other countries, financial issues including the cost of studying in the US and the prospect of a low salary were what pushed students to continue. In the UK and Australia, it was attributed to overall labor insecurity.

Panelist Henk Werson, a detective and expert on human trafficking, argues that sex workers should be independent workers. At the moment, Werson stated, sex workers are not treated as regular independent workers and do not have a strong position in The Netherlands. For example, they have not received the same support packages other independent workers did throughout the pandemic. This makes it hard for workers and safe workplaces to survive. 

 Werson brought the point home that the more hidden sex work is, the more violence happens. At the same time, only having legalized work spaces is not enough to ensure safety. Sex worker and activist Yvette Luhrs explained that what is important is that the worker can afford to set boundaries. Muns emphasized how the most vulnerable workers are unable to work in the safest spaces because, for example, they are illegal immigrants. This fact can then be exploited, as there are less chances of violence being reported. Particularly in the male sex industry, which is less institutionalized, it can be hard to seek help as social work is often female-oriented.

 Ultimately, the student-organized panel shows how diverse sex work and the experiences of sex workers are. There is still a long way to go on societal and political levels to make the world’s oldest profession safer.

 Stay on top of future events organized by the UNICEF Student Team Amsterdam and HeforShe x UvA by following them on Instagram at @unicef_amsterdam and @heforshexuva.


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