“Scratch a Communist, and find a Philistine. Of course, you must scratch the sensitive spot, their mentality as regards women.” - V. I. Lenin
In this I will be clarifying the essential nature of solidarity with sex workers to any serious leftist movement, especially in regards to migrant rights, women’s rights, queer rights and anti-racism.
I am not interested in any discussions about personal feelings in regards to the sex trade, nor do I care about any utopian conversations about a society in which sex work does not exist. The fact is that sex work does exist, and any discussion therefor must focus on ways to protect the lives, rights and dignity of sex workers right now.
I acknowledge that there are cis men who engage in prostitution, and I have no desire to erase or ignore their experiences and marginalisation. However, statistically speaking the overwhelming number of sex workers are women, particularly migrants and people of colour, and queer people, especially trans people, are over-represented. This is due to the economic marginalisation and enforced precarity of women, racialised people, and trans people who are excluded from employment, education and institutional access to social services, especially for migrants in a border regime that creates a tiered system of access to rights and criminalises entire populations based upon their location of birth.
Firstly I will address the term “sex work” itself. There is an oft propagated notion that defining sex work as work is somehow indicative of a glamorization of the sex trade, apologia for sexual violence and exploitation, or a desire to expand and increase the amount of sex work that happens. There is, at the same time, an argument that all sex work is inherently assault, and as such to term it work is to ignore the reality of the sex trade’s exploitative nature.
"Part of believing me when I say I have been raped is believing me when I say I haven’t been." - Nikita, 2017 Annual General Meeting of Amnesty International UK.
There can be no trans liberation without the abolition of capitalism!
Element community coming soon as well
Maybe I missed it through the long thread, but how will full-decriminalization of sex work stop big corporations from dominating the sex industry, who will then prevent the end of sex work? It just seems like sex work will end up like “just another job” in the capitalist market.
Not to be cheesy or smirky, but what you are basically saying is that do not throw street sex workers away (not porn industry employees) to liberals or other factions to rot?
Yes. It is essential to organize alongside sex workers and include them in socialist movements. One of the main reasons I wrote this is because I have seen a lot of organisations refuse to allow sex workers, and have seen people decry sex worker unions as being a bad thing. But of course, as socialists, the point of what we do is to uplift the most vulnerable and exploited. When people in some of the worst positions of society are organizing, then we are doing a disservice to the people in not joining with them in coalition to improve everyone’s lives.
edit: and I also wanted to make it clear that in a capitalist society, calls to criminalise sex work (or sex purchase) did nothing to help people, and served only to reinforce a narrative that society should be giving police and border security more money/power under the pretense of “protecting” people
finally read it all, very good thread 👍
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, I know it can be a very controversial subject but it is one that is near and dear to my heart and I believe it is important for us to work to uplift the most exploited. A better world is possible through our solidarity.
your work is appreciated 🙏
Thank you for the work and effort in putting together this incredible piece of informative writing. Would you possibly be interested in putting this is a txt doc for distribution or on a website? I have some comrades who would love to read this and help inform others on this topic.
Hey! I’m so glad you found this helpful. I’ve compiled this into a PDF, and took the liberty of including a reading list on abolition feminism <3
Many thanks, comrade!
Thank you for your critical contribution on this oftentimes very contentious matter.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, I really appreciate it
Holy shit the downvotes, speaking from a purely cynical point of view, ignoring the brutal exploitation for a second, all theese “communists” are alienating a somewhat huge portion of the proletariat and lumpen proletariat, they’re exploited in even more brutal conditions than other workers, most of them don’t even want to be there, ergo if we don’t include sex workers in the movement we should not include slaves.
It seems to me like the general distaste for lumpen is a blindspot in the class consciousness of some marxists, and sex work is at the forefront of that because it’s held as the symbol of moral decay in polite bourgeois society. You can dress it up all you like, but throwing lumpen into the clutches of the bourgeoisie state always harms them and makes them dependent upon it, even when it’s under the guise of liberal harm reduction. Freedom comes from solidarity that’s independent of state actors and involves the support of communities, community orgs, and unions who are meant to lay the groundwork for a revolutionary state in the long term.
Radically online leftists are defending pornography again—what a surprise!
After examining all viewpoints of all parties involved, the online leftist chose to side with the counterrevolutionary lumpen over the proletariat, i.e., the current sex worker over the former sex worker.
Between the current sex worker and the ex-sex worker, the ex-sex worker is the growing force that constitutes the majority; they are objectively more revolutionary and class conscious.
The task of the communist parties everywhere is to proletarianize the lumpen, which all socialist projects have done with guaranteed employment and employment training programs.
The party that I have worked with has also done this, using state power and party organization power to mobilize women from all levels of society and guarantee them jobs either through state-sponsored work or by providing them capital to start cooperatives.
What is the best way to protect current sex workers? - steer them as far away as possible from sex work; criminalization plays a very important role in that; criminalization alone wouldn’t be enough, but it is better than normalizing sex work by decriminalizing it and feeding young women into the rape machine that cycles through thousands of them every year. Almost 99% of porn actors quit within a year, and the 1% who stay keep their sanity with substance abuse. Many of them die from drug overdoses. This is the professional, consent-based work environment that porn consumers defend.
How can a revolutionary advocate misery of the current sex worker to continue when the former sex worker clearly demonstrates their improved material conditions and renewed revolutionary consciousness? How desperate are you to align with the lumpen against the class with more revolutionary potential?
Let’s examine what communist parties all around the world do when they have state power: they criminalize all forms of sex work, provide easy access to education and employment opportunities for women, and when that is not enough, targeted work is done especially in rural areas to free women from other forms of sexual slavery like forced marriages.
Without state power, communist parties do targeted work to rehabilitate sex workers and provide assistance to find better jobs and education. The organizational capacity of the party in all it’s strongholds areas are used to assist young women in finding dignified work and education ensuring that they don’t have to resort to prostitution.
In both cases, political capital is used to prevent sex work, not encourage or normalize it. They all want to eliminate sex work completely. Criminalization of sex work is not a hostile act toward any individual sex worker but against the class of lumpenproletariat, whose elimination is necessary for the success of socialism.
The only people advocating against this are the ones who don’t have the political capital to do any real work that impact women in their society. online leftists and western leftists who have zero leverage on bourgeois legislation and minimal support from the masses will always try to spin bourgeois victories as their own.
Are you a fed?
I don’t appreciate the tone both you and OP chose to begin this discussion in. Both are offensive, taking or inferring the position that the left is against your position and so you begin attacking as opposed to conversing. This actually does a disservice to your objective. If we were not open minded we would not be Marxists. Surely in the post “end of history” declaration you can recognize this tendency?
I don’t have a dog in this race, but I prefer us have a civilized conversation on the matter.
Well true, many self proclaimed Marxists are closed minded, ignorant, and aggressively obtuse when it comes to taking others opinions and ideas into consideration. Especially around this topic in particular.
I haven’t seen many, thankfully. If that has been your experience I wish it wasn’t.
I would read this and respond to this (even though there’s something interestingly sad about making an entire account just to respond to this one post, as though you were worried about letting us know what your main account is), but you clearly haven’t read what you are here to angrily react to.
I can tell you haven’t read it (no surprise really, no one likes to read things before getting angry) because your very first sentence is that I am “defending pornography.” If you had bothered to read this before reacting then you would see two things: firstly, that I very specifically mentioned that my essay is only about survival street sex work, as it is the most vulnerable and precarious form of work, and that other sex work isn’t included in this analysis.
Secondly you would see that my essay is literally about organizing alongside sex workers to eliminate the economic need that drives people into sex work. Since you clearly have no idea what you’re even upset about, then I doubt it’s worth my time to read your response and reply in good faith, as you’re clearly uninterested in doing the same and would likely ignore this response as well :)
It seems like we have started this conversation very antagonistically. First, let me apologize if the tone of my reply came off as snarky. I rarely participate in online debates; I’m mostly a lurker. I never had an account on this platform. But I understand why you would be skeptical of a new account.
I don’t think so; you haven’t made this clear at all. Can you show me which section you are talking about? Even though I stressed pornography, I didn’t mean to single it out; it’s just that pornography defenders are a special kind of trigger for me. I have had many fierce debates with fellow comrades because of their views on porn. Nevertheless, everything I said applies equally to all sex work and sex workers. so that shouldn’t be a problem.
This is exactly what I’m upset about: you don’t organize alongside the lumpen; you can’t organize alongside a reactionary class without any revolutionary potential.
“While sex work is a large and diverse category that spans countless different occupations, in this I am focused on survival sex work: sex work carried out on the streets or in brothels in order to earn the money needed to live. The most precarious and vulnerable sex workers deserve to be the primary consideration in this discussion; as such, throughout this essay I employ the term prostitute as well as sex worker to ensure that it is understood that this conversation is about the trade of sex for money, and not other forms of sex work such as camwork or stripping, as those experiences are different and requiring of separate analyses in order to ensure an accurate account of the material conditions therein. These varied sex work occupations may overlap, but this essay seeks only to explore the ways in which solidarity with one of the most undervalued class of workers, who live on the margins of society and often in extreme precarity legally, socially, and economically, is essential to a forward-thinking and ethical leftist movement.”
This is the part where I said I was explicitly addressing survival street work. I can’t begin to wrap my head around how outdated your thoughts about the lumpen are though. Every Third World Socialist movement has written extensively about the radical and revolutionary potential of the lumpen, as they have the least to lose as the most disenfranchised. Angela Y. Davis, Huey P. Newton, Franz Fannon, Mao Zedong all wrote about working and mobilizing alongside the lumpenproletariat. The Black Panthers specifically believed the lumpen to be foundational to their revolutionary movement. Even Castro specifically said that “lumpen well prepared, well trained can be good. I don’t want to use that word pejoratively.”
The reason being: we have a hundred years of studying prisons post-Marx. Criminalisation is a racialised process whereby human beings are assigned the status of criminal not through any inherent properties, but through the application of the bourgeois capitalist state. 2.2 million people in the US alone are currently in prison and thus have been lumpenized through the process of criminalisation. With militarized borders, a relatively new phenomenon that didn’t play a role in Marx’s original (cruel) dismissal of the lumpen, we can see that entire populations are criminalised and thus lumpenised by virtue of their place of birth. This is a gendered and racialised system of marginalisation.
In Border and Rule Harsha Walia explores the exact ways that this regime of securitised borders is leveraged to create hyper-exploitable populations by controlling the movement of people. As climate crisis worsens, we will only see an exponential increase of the criminalised migrant populations seeking to escape economic deprivation.
In another comment I see that you say “it’s not important who does the enforcing.”
This is antithetical to a leftist organizing. In the bourgeois capitalist society, to say it is “unimportant” who does the enforcing is to ignore the ways in which the law and its application are the primary sources of sexual violence and exploitation. To support the criminalisation of people in bourgeois capitalist societies is to funnel money and increased policing powers into the violent state apparatus, thus defeating your own ambitions to organise against that very state.
Anti-trafficking and anti-sex work laws increase the amount of trafficking and sex work, not to mention domestic and state violence, by increasing the powers and budgets of police and border controls.
Countries that have criminalised sex work show that there is no reduction in sex work, there is only an increase in the harm experienced by sex workers. Meanwhile in New Zealand, with access to social programmes and assistance, domestic sex workers are more quickly integrated into society and there is a trend downwards in the amount of domestic sex workers, as well as a reduction in the sexual violence they experience.
Your position is an ideological and dogmatic appeal to “values” that devalues the very lives of the exploited sex workers. To say that it doesn’t matter what state violence or what state powers are to be used to control their lives is disgustingly callous. These are real human beings. As long as the economic factors that lead people into sex work exist, to criminalise sex work serves only to create more violent and economically precarious positions for the sex workers.
By criminalization, do you mean that of the laws would target the users of sex work, or the sex workers themselves?
Even in highly policed countries with strong policing of sex work and drugs, you still have highly developed black markets. Obviously you are very much correct in that providing good jobs and opportunities to people , in conjunction with a strong social safety net and support, we could radically reduce the amount of people in sex work over a period of time.
Why would you assume that she’s “radically online”?
I don’t know if this is true, but either way, it’s your opinion, which is not objective by definition
Who would be enacting this? The police, or some other agency of a bourgeois government? I don’t see why anyone would trust them to be able to handle something like this, especially not in Amerika. Unless you’re talking about criminalizing trafficking (which I certainly agree with) and/or procuring/pimping, this sounds to me like you want to punish the victims
Please don’t take it too literally or personally; I’m only assuming that those who post incorrect walls of text like this confidently have never worked within a communist party. The position on sex work is pretty much unanimous across all major influential communist parties around the world; only certain online and western leftists have problems grasping an issue well settled in the days of Marx. The term radically online leftist is used only to contrast online presence with real-world praxis.
a sex worker is classified as lumpen-proletariat -> Not my opinion.
A former sex worker who does any other wage labor today must now be classified as proletariat -> Not my opinion
The proletariat is more revolutionary and class conscious than the lumpen-proletariat, -> Also not my opinion
It’s not important who does the enforcement; the goal of criminalization is to add an additional legal and cultural barrier to entry into such a trade so that we can reduce the number of victims. This is the material result that we should strive for: "a lower number of women in sex work’. Remember that the lumpen proletariat is a reactionary class that is helpful for the bourgeois, i.e., criminalization is against their class’s interests and ultimately favors us.
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Is this what passes for an agent in the CIA nowadays? Sheesh, they’ve really let themselves go.
Wtf are you talking about. “Muh lumpenproletariat is enemies” Bullshit. I am lumpenproletariat. I am also proletariat. You are a wrecker.
Dats true, we can’t make a revolution with only the purest of people, we would be dogmatic and adventurist at best and shot at worst, after the fall of the social democracies in the 90s, an undeniable section of the 1rst world working class started to become lumpen, they lost their house, they lost their (legal) job, and had to make due, they hate the system, they hate the current state of things that threw them under the bus, they’re extremely revolutionary, even if they may be uneducated in Marxism (n let’s face it, 99% of people are not Marxists, in all od the classes.)
Well one look at her post history disproves that notion. I make more posts in a day than she did in a month. Though this thread is full of some serious walls.
Unfortunately this is a topic that requires a lot of analysis; I promise this is a fraction of the length that I wanted to write to cover more fully all of my thoughts regarding this very complex issue.
However, is it really a socialist thread if there aren’t some deep theory text walls?
Well we do engage in a lot of shitposting here. And i mean A LOT.
Serious theory? Walls are absolutely inevitable.
“Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker” - Karl Marx
In understanding that not every act of prostitution is sexual assault, it is essential to gauge the level of bodily exploitation that goes into all categories of work in a capitalist system.
As someone without capital, you are coerced into selling your labour to live. Without selling your labour, you would die. The capitalist then, is leveraging a threat of death, leveraging your very life, for your labour. Does that make it correct to then equate all wage labour with slavery?
In the same manner, while the prostitute is coerced economically into selling sexual labour to live, that economic coercion is not inherently equitable with sexual assault. To give an example of the ways in which a body’s services can be sold: a massage therapist is paid to provide touch. That message therapist is performing a service that in other contexts may be considered intimate.
A clerk at a grocery store is asked to come into the boss’s office, where he removes his shirt, hands her oil, and asks for a massage. This is a clear case of sexual violation. Does this then mean that the massage therapist’s very livelihood is a sexual violation? Of course not, because the massage therapist has negotiated and consented to a level of touch prior to the massage.
Say then, that a client demands a massage therapist perform oral sex. This is, again, a clear case of sexual violation. Because the massage therapist consented to providing a massage, and not any other forms of intimate contact.
In sex work, a sex worker negotiates and consents to a set of intimate contacts. These are not in and of themselves assault. Another example: an actor agrees to a scene in which she is groped in a bar. A different actor is groped off-set without consent in the exact same manner.
Wouldn’t this be a better comparison if they were providing intimate massages instead of physical relief in a relaxing environment? Are we going to compare proctological exams to sex work too? 🙄
Yes, I would easily compare proctological exams to sex work. Sticking your finger up someone’s ass is sexual assault when done outside of the context of consent.
This is the point I am trying to make. Sex work is not inherently different from any other form of contact service, except in moralistic appeals to there being an innate domination, or else that sex requires some form of romantic or emotional connection, both ideas are entirely subjective and have no place in discussions about sex workers’ rights.
You might as well try to equate all sex with rape as imply that sex work is the same is proctology. 😹
You may want to rethink making assumptions about other people, and also rethink applying your experiences to everyone else’s. If you have a specific question or something about the information I’ve presented to refute, then by all means go ahead. But if you want to pretend you know anything about my life or experiences, or to speak on behalf of other people, then I’m not interested.
edit: you changed your comment after my response, but what I’m saying still stands. If you have something specific to refute, then please do, but I did not say that sex work was the same as proctology. What I said was that the context under which touch and consent are established holds true for every job, and that what may be considered sexual assault in one context is not inherently sexual assault in another.
Actually I’ll split a few hairs. This is a touchy subject, for me especially.
Decriminalization sounds good to me as there should (instead of incarceration! my god) be social organizations that intervene to help people escape sex work via actual aid. Money. Housing. Employment. The govt should provide these things to people. That’s not what I take issue with at all.
I just don’t get a lot of this though. You seem to have a problem with the assertion that all sex work is rape. It’s dumb, and I’d compare it to the “not enough resistance” type arguments. The payment is coercive, coercive sex is not consensual. This isn’t hard to understand. Even if there’s no touching at all, not even a lapdance, it’s coercive sexual assault. It’s especially stupid to discount the opinions of people who escaped the fucked up psychology you develop to endure those interactions and try to make them palatable.
I would compare prostitution to preemptive hush money paid by an abuser. It’s terrible. People don’t need to be compelled to work or have sex, it’s human nature. I want to do away with all forms of coercion. Clearly landlords need to be coerced to work in order to do away with the class, but I digress. You hopefully get where I’m going. It’s my day off and I’m still tired.
I’m willing to respond to you because this is an important topic to me, but I want to make it very clear that as moderator of the trans community, if I ever see a user call another user a “moron” they will be banned, no questions asked. This is not an acceptable way to talk to people here.
From what I gather, you agree with my conclusions, but you seem to have taken umbrage only with the fact that I stated that current street sex workers should be centred in conversations about street sex work, as they are the ones who will be materially impacted by any movements/legislation regarding street sex work. Is that fair to say?
You admit yourself that you are a former sex worker, and that you never did street sex work, thus proving the very point I made (and that is a point that is well-repeated in sex worker organising, and is taken directly from the book Revolting Prostitutes written by street sex workers, Molly Smith and Juno Mac. You are allowed to disagree, but that disagreement will be irreconcilable for us, because I will always maintain that the people currently selling sex on the street, who will be directly materially impacted by any legislation and organisation about sex work, should lead that conversation). As someone who does not sell sex on the street, you will not be materially impacted by legislation and organising regarding street sex work, so you should not lead the conversation or take precedence over current street sex workers. That isn’t to say that your voice should be ignored or dismissed or that you should have no place in any such organising, it is simply to say that you cannot apply your thoughts and experiences as a broad metric by which to evaluate the thoughts and experiences of other sex workers, nor should you be given the space to speak over them.
You also seem to disagree with my assertion that not all sex work is sexual assault. Maybe my examples didn’t strike a chord with you (that’s fine, though several of the examples I used were also taken from Smith and Mac), but I won’t change my stance on this. As someone intimately familiar with both sex work and sexual assault, I am firmly committed to an understanding that to equate sex work and sexual assault is to deny sex workers the agency to distinguish when they have been assaulted and when they haven’t.
Sex work, like all work under capitalism, is exploitation. I don’t deny that. Nor do I wish to grow or expand the sex trade, as can be seen in my argument that we must ultimately empower people to leave the sex trade by eliminating the socio-economic factors that lead into sex work.
However to say that sex work is always sexual assault is to rob sex workers of the right to point to specific instances of sexual assault.
Let me explain it this way: sex work is exploitative, but to call every instance of sex work sexual assault would be akin to saying that non sex work is exploitative and therefor every instance of non sex work is assault. That eliminates the worker’s ability to point to the real sources of the exploitation (capitalism) and to real instances of assault.
Finally, you have doubled down on assuming that as a former sex worker (one admittedly who did not engage in street work) that you are more intimately familiar with this topic than me, thus continuing to assume that you have any insight into my life, my experiences, or my material conditions. The overwhelming majority of the information and arguments provided in this essay are not my own, they are sourced from other academics and street sex workers, however that doesn’t change that I am in fact intimately familiar with this topic, and don’t appreciate your assumptions, nor your insults, over a topic that ultimately it seems we agree on the conclusions to.
Bullshit! Sex crimes can have varying levels of severity, they can also overlap. You don’t think in a straight line. Plus, you talk too much. I just got off work. I’m not even going to bother to the rest rn, except with “lol”
Also, you’re very arrogant to argue that the perspectives of former sex workers should be discounted if you haven’t had to partake in the practice at all. So, no, I’m not going to rethink how I make assumptions about people. Which is really specific and contextual.
I edited my comment because I remembered you specifically wanted to talk about streetwalkers, and my experience with sex work is actually the cushiest, top of the pyramid scheme type, very different. It’s not really that important to the conversation.
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The reason there are delineations between what is acceptable and unacceptable sexual or intimate contact is that they occur under different contexts and with negotiations of consent. Many people struggle with understanding this in regards to sex work, because they believe two things:
that every act of sex/penetration is inherently an act of domination. This is a chauvinistic and moralistic feeling that is socially reproduced in many societies, but that holds no objective truth.
that sex workers are selling their bodies/consent. They are not. They are not selling their bodies any more than another worker sells theirs. They are selling their labour. And they are certainly not selling their consent. An integral part of sex work and providing safe conditions for sex workers is allowing negotiation of the boundaries of consent.
This is crucial: by conflating all acts of sex work as sexual violence, you ignore a sex worker’s ability to negotiate the boundaries between what is consensual activity and what is assault. If all acts of sex work are considered sexual violence, then there is no recourse for sex workers to declare when they have been assaulted.
Every sex worker deserves the ability to determine for themself the lines of consent, and to be believed when they say that something is assault. In order to be believed when they name something as assault, they must then be believed when they assert certain acts are not assault.
In Revolting Prostitutes, Molly Smith and Juno Mac cite Silvia Federici, who has long maintained the link between women’s subjugation to men through housework and “wifely duties” and sex work, whereby a woman’s sexual and intimate labours are commodified and sex is work. To Federici, the only difference between a housewife and a sex worker is that a sex worker gets paid.
While organizing for Wages for Housework, in 1975 Federici wrote: “to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it. It means precisely the opposite. To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it.”
Mac and Smith make the argument that this extends to other aspects of work that is traditionally not considered work: by first having work accepted as such, the workers may then more easily struggle to resist or reorder such work.
In such a way, acknowledging that sex work is work is the first step in a larger struggle to restructuring society’s relations to sex work, and ultimately, to ending sex work. Asserting that sex work is work is not to say that it is good work, or harmless work, or that it has fundamental value. It is to establish that the workers engaged in the work need rights and protections as workers.
In Invisible Lives, Viviane K. Namaste shows the way that transsexual street workers are unable to access necessary hormones because the gender identity clinics don’t recognize their work as prostitutes to be real work. By refusing to acknowledge sex work as work, street workers are denied access to social services and medical institutions essential to their lives.
“The International Black Women for Wages for Housework campaign specifically linked unwaged housework to reparations for slavery and imperialism, drawing links between the subsidization of capitalism by factory wages and unwaged labor in the home and on plantations, strengthened through immigration controls and laws criminalizing sex work” (Walia, Border and Rule).
Yuly Perez, of the sex workers’ union National Organisation for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution—which was part of a 35 000 worker strike across Bolivia in protest of the closure of brothels and an increase of violent policing of prostitutes—says that “people think the point of our organisation is to expand prostitution in Bolivia. In fact, we want the opposite. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business.”
Sex worker organization is concerned with creating the conditions under which sex workers can work safely—as Mac and Smith argue, “People should not have to demonstrate that their work has intrinsic value to society to deserve safety at work. Moving towards a better society—one in which people’s work does have wider value, one in which resources are shared on the basis of need—cannot come about through criminalisation. Nor can it come about through treating marginalised people’s material needs and survival strategies as trivial.”
While sex work is a large and diverse category that spans countless different occupations, in this I am focused on survival sex work: sex work carried out on the streets or in brothels in order to earn the money needed to live. The most precarious and vulnerable sex workers deserve to be the primary consideration in this discussion; as such, throughout this essay I employ the term prostitute as well as sex worker to ensure that it is understood that this conversation is about the trade of sex for money, and not other forms of sex work such as camwork or stripping, as those experiences are different and requiring of separate analyses in order to ensure an accurate account of the material conditions therein. These varied sex work occupations may overlap, but this essay seeks only to explore the ways in which solidarity with one of the most undervalued class of workers, who live on the margins of society and often in extreme precarity legally, socially, and economically, is essential to a forward-thinking and ethical leftist movement.
As radical feminism distanced itself from sex workers and within the 80s and 90s began to argue for the censorship of porn, anti-prostitution became firmly ensconced in the movement, with writers such as Janice Raymond making assertions that “prostitution is rape that’s paid for.” At the same time many pro-sex feminists began to argue on behalf of the “empowerment” offered through sex work; neither approach is helpful to understanding the lives of sex workers. They both focus on the idea of “sex as symbol,” with middle class (mostly white) women creating entire bodies of literature arguing for or against sex work as either empowering or a reinforcement and representation of the patriarchy’s domination over women. What they had in common, however, was the absence of sex workers’ voices, and a disregard for the very real circumstances faced by people on the street every day.
The debate led to the emergence of two main tropes in prostitution discourse: the Shameful Prostitute and the Happy Hooker.
The Shameful Prostitute is the carrier of society’s worst aspects. As Shulamith Firestone describes in The Dialectic of Sex, in a patriarchal society man is conditioned to associate love, affection and care with the Mother. Through the incest taboo, that form of relationship is divorced from sexuality. This can be seen as early as medieval European literature, in which knightly figures professed their loves for pure, chaste women, devoid of sexuality. The sexuality requires another outlet: this is the Prostitute. Viviane K. Namaste describes in Sex Change/Social Change the elevation of the middle class white woman during industrialisation and the early formation of the nuclear family to a place of private life: property of the husband, to take care of the house and raise the children, and removed from spheres of public life and isolated from communal relations.
The underclass however, with no property and the women working alongside of the men, represented the public woman. The private woman was the property of a single man, the public woman was the property of all. Turning back to Firestone, we see the dilemma that gave rise to the public woman. The man would choose the Mother to be his wife, to clean the house and cook the food and raise the children and provide all of the affection and care that the Mother provides. However, the man may respect the Mother, but he could not associate the Mother with feelings of “vulgar” and “base” sexuality without first degrading her. And thus the Prostitute, the public woman, became an essential outlet for this repressed sexuality. By virtue of her socio-economic status, to the man, the Prostitute was always-already degraded, and thus an object of sexual desire.
This deeply capitalist and hierarchical series of relationships is represented through the Shameful Prostitute, which to anti-prostitute feminists is the ultimate symbol of patriarchal degradation. Reducing prostitutes to a figural concept, a symbol, however, erases the possibility of their literal existence. Whatever a prostitute symbolizes to anti-prostitute feminists is unrelated to the needs that she faces in living her daily life, and to label her and constrain her with all of the baggage of patriarchal subjugation of woman is to deny her agency. By demonizing and stigmatising the symbolic Prostitute, the real prostitute is further marginalised, making her susceptible to elevated violence both systemically and interpersonally.
The Happy Hooker, symbol of “empowerment” through sexual liberation, is the other side of the same coin. Symbolically prefigured, the Happy Hooker denies the literal human underneath. Sex work is not liberating or empowering in and of itself, and portrayals of such threaten to erase the very real danger, exploitation and discrimination that sex workers face. The “empowerment” that comes through sex work is economic empowerment, which would not be necessary in a society that guaranteed economic stability to all. By seeking to counter the arguments of anti-prostitute feminists, pro-prostitute feminists can fall into the same trap of ignoring the very real concerns of sex workers: for this reason it is essential for sex workers to be centred in discussions regarding sex work, and to be at the forefront of actions and organization designed to help sex workers.
This is where I think it is essential to stress that when sex workers are centred, that must be sex workers who currently sell sex. There is a trend for anti-prostitute feminists to platform and centre former sex workers as a way to lend weight to their arguments; it’s important to remember, however, that former sex workers no longer economically rely on selling sex, and so any potential changes to how society organises or relates to sex work necessarily does not impact them as it would a current sex worker.
Mac and Smith contend that the archetype of the Exited Woman becomes “the ultimate symbol of female woundedness, with the criminalisation of clients as feminist justice.” The Exited Woman shares her stories—usually focusing on visceral and uncomfortable details, especially of sexual violence and exploitation—to elicit powerful emotional responses to mobilize other non sex-workers into action in regards to sex work.
The very real violence and danger, exploitation and sexual violation faced by former sex workers should not be dismissed. However, Exited Women leveraging those stories to impact the lives of women currently still involved in sex work, to either criminalise them or to make the conditions by which they are able to sell sex and thus survive become more hostile, is not the answer. Not everyone’s experience of sex work is the same, and no stories of victimisation can be painted over sex workers as a whole, nor can people who no longer rely on the sale of sex be the forefront of discussions regarding the conditions of the sale of sex in the here and now.
There are two main currents of feminism within sex work discussions: carceral feminism and anti-carceral feminism. Carceral feminism is that which relies on police and the state to protect women, and anti-carceral feminism is that which seeks to transform society to address harms without police. These two currents are at direct odds, not only in regards to sex work, but also to a myriad of other problems that women face, such as domestic and intimate partner violence.
Carceral feminists present two possible models of addressing sex work: the full criminalisation model, and the Nordic model.
Anti-carceral feminists also present two possible models of addressing sex work: regulation, and decriminalisation.
Before we go farther, I will give a brief explanation of the four models, however, the bulk of the focus will be on the Nordic model, as this is the model most often championed by the left.
Full Criminalisation is exactly what it sounds like: under this model, all participation in the sex trade is illegal, subject to police intervention. This is the model that is most common globally, including for most of the United States (with some exceptions in Nevada). With full criminalisation, sex workers, clients, and all third parties are in direct violation of the law, resulting in exposure to arrest, police violence, jailing, court fines, and criminal records. This model is punitive, and drives the sex trade underground, which makes it much more dangerous. For anyone who takes the stance that sex workers are the victims of exploitation, it should be obvious that this system punishes the victims for that very exploitation and blames them for their circumstances.
Expanding and empowering policing and prisons, criminalising more people, driving the precarious even further into precarity: there are no redeeming qualities to the full criminalisation model, and studies show that it has no impact in reducing the sex trade, but has a massive impact in how much violence sex workers face both from the state and from those involved in the sex trade.
Regulation (or full legalisation), is sometimes presented as an ethical alternative. Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and some places in Nevada all use this model. In regulation, sex work is legal, and regulated by the state. In the words of Mac and Smith, this creates a “charmed circle.” This means that any sex work that happens outside of the regulated industry is fully criminalised, which pushes the most precarious sex workers into the same model that we just so readily dismissed as punitive.
Why would some sex workers do sex work outside of the regulated industry? By regulating sex work, the state gives power to managers, who choose how many people to hire, what wages they make, how long they must work. Sex workers know they are competing for employment, and so they can be pressured into accepting work conditions that they otherwise would not.
Trans sex workers, especially those that don’t pass, are widely excluded from regulated sex work. For instance, in Turkey they are banned from all state brothels. Migrant sex workers are by law excluded from regulated sex work. Migrants, especially undocumented migrants, make up a large portion of the sex industry. In regulation models, all migrants are still subjected to deportation, thus making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
People with disabilities, mad people, addicts, seropositive sex workers are all also excluded in regulated sex work, and are thus in this model still living under full criminalisation. There are sex workers who may live too far from a regulated zone or brothel.
Regulation can serve only to create a two-tiered system where all sex workers outside of the charmed circle are criminalised, and those sex workers within the circle are easily exploited as to lose employment would result in having to engage in illegal sex work.
Regulation also gives the state the power to create a capitalist institution out of sex work, thus cementing it as a social inevitability, a supposed necessity that must always be done. Under regulatory models, sex workers can not work to eventually undo the very existence of sex work.
It’s clear, and I’m sure most reading this now will agree, that full criminalisation and full regulation are both deeply flawed models that punish sex workers and have no power to transform the very nature of sex work.