Teen Vogue ’s Support of Sex Work Is Delusional and Dangerous

Teen Vogue has jumped the shark — maybe around the time it published “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know,” probably a good while before that. It started innocently enough, as a fashion and celebrity-gossip magazine intended for teenage girls. But, floundering after just over a decade in circulation, the Vogue spinoff took a sharp turn around 2016. Capitalizing on inflamed political feelings and rapidly rising interest in digital-media outlets, the tabloid transformed itself into an online hybrid of far-left political commentary and something like Cosmo-for-kids.

The political commentary has generally been harmless enough, although (or maybe because) it tends to be mind-numbingly unintelligent. In all fairness, that’s kind of the nature of the brand — the opinion pieces are interspersed among groundbreaking reports such as “Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and Lana del Rey Are Quite Possibly Releasing a Song Together” and “We Found the 12 Cutest Bathing Suits on Amazon,” and our expectations should be informed by that context.

It’s the sexual content that’s really troubling. It’s comparable to the controversial content in Cosmopolitan, which itself has come under fire from critics who claim that its unregulated distribution makes inappropriate and harmful material too readily available to underage consumers. It’s bad enough that Cosmopolitan is easily accessible to kids, but Teen Vogue is actually made for them. In this case, the availability of sexual content to minors isn’t just an accidental effect of liberal interpretations of free speech and press. It’s a deliberate act, and a despicable one.

One recent example is particularly egregious: “Reproductive rights” activist Tlaleng Mofokeng, M.D., writing in the teen-oriented publication, extols the virtues of “sex work.” Though the piece is titled “Why Sex Work is Real Work,” Mofokeng never actually presents an argument to that effect. The closest she comes is this:

I find it interesting that as a medical doctor, I exchange payment in the form of money with people to provide them with advice and treatment for sex-related problems; therapy for sexual performance, counseling and therapy for relationship problems, and treatment of sexually transmitted infection. Isn’t this basically sex work? I do not believe it is right or just that people who exchange sexual services for money are criminalized and I am not for what I do. Is a medical degree really the right measure of who is deserving of dignity, autonomy, safety in the work place, fair trade and freedom of employment? No. This should not be so. Those who engage in sex work deserve those things, too.

Mofokeng’s implicit definition of “work” as “the exchange of a service for pay,” when coupled with her apparent assumption that anything that is work is inherently good, causes some obvious problems. (We can all probably agree that, say, hitmen and crack dealers aren’t “deserving of dignity, autonomy, safety in the work place, fair trade and freedom of employment.”) Of course, most easily conceivable examples of “bad work” are bad because the worker does some harm to another person in carrying out said work. Sex work is different in that its negativity comes primarily from its effect on the worker herself. It is bad precisely because it fails to protect the dignity, autonomy, and safety that Mofokeng rightly seeks for all people. It instrumentalizes and dehumanizes people in the most extreme manner possible.

That fact won’t be changed by legalization. Proponents of legalization often argue that the measure would help curb the violence and other abuses that are now so prevalent in the industry. This argument either ignores or denies that abuse is inherent in the act of prostitution, that buying sex from vulnerable people who feel they have no other choice doesn’t suddenly become moral under a legalize-and-regulate framework. The best way to curb the abuse — a goal shared by all decent people — is to criminalize the sex industry more strictly, but to shift criminal responsibility to the abusers themselves: pimps, pornographers, clients, and anyone else who profits from or pays for sexual exploitation. Such a reform (which has been implemented with some success in Sweden) would recognize an important truth: that sex work is a moral abomination, an abomination whose worst victims are the workers themselves. This is true whether the law acknowledges it or not. It is dishonest and downright predatory to try to convince young girls otherwise.

Teen Vogue has published often enough on “sex work” that the subject has its own tag on the site. Looking through the pieces tagged “sex work,” you’ll find mostly glowing endorsements of the industry and the empowerment it supposedly grants to women. One of them is different, though — an interview with Ashlee Marie Preston, an activist and former sex worker. The interview is worth reading, if you can stomach it. Here’s one of its key moments, in which Preston describes the real experience of sex work:

My heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to rip through my ribcage. The first person that pulled up gave me this nod that I would see for the next five, six years. As I walked to the door of this car, my hands were so clammy from the anxiety. I remember pulling the handle and getting in, just paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t look him in the face, I could only look forward. He pulled off onto a side street, and I didn’t really have to do anything because he already knew what he wanted. The whole time it was happening, I just stared into the rearview mirror, trying to think about anything else, trying not to cry because I didn’t want to make him angry. I just looked into the reflection of my own eyes and prayed for it to be over. I didn’t even know how much to ask for. He paid me $40, which as I would later learn was the middle class of street economy. Some girls were out there doing the full experience for $20.

There is a disconnect in Teen Vogue’s coverage, between the gruesome reality exposed by Preston’s experience and a dangerous distortion of it substituted in Mofokeng’s proposal. That reality should break your heart, and it should make you think twice before presenting it to children, sanitized and glorified, wrapped up in some delusion of empowerment and liberation.

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