Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (Verso).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful. Some workers are lucky enough to have good pay, meaningful work, and autonomy, but most of us feel the sharp edge of exploitation in some way.
People often think that selling sex must be a horrible job, and many sex workers would agree. However, these sex workers may locate the problem not in sex but in work.
We begin with this because, as sex workers ourselves who advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, we have noted a significant problem with the terms of the public debate: in the struggle over whether sex work should be legal, both sides usually start with the assumption that work is fundamentally good; they differ only on whether sex work is good work. Both sides position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work. “It’s not work, it’s exploitation” is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, “Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.” Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work. We find it more productive, however, to start from a different place: it is not reasonable to assume that any kind of work—including sex work—is generally good. Outsiders often think that selling sex must be a horrible job, and many sex workers would agree. However, these sex workers may locate the problem not in sex but in work.
Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we were not being paid. Work is thus re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free. Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in much anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. Equality Now, a multimillion-dollar anti-prostitution organization, instructs applicants that their internships will be unpaid (adding that “we are unable to arrange housing or visas”). Ruhama advertises numerous volunteer roles that could easily be paid jobs. In 2013 Turn Off the Red Light, an Irish anti-prostitution NGO consortium, advertised for an intern who would not be paid the minimum wage. The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector—campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution—are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London. In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
Anti-prostitution feminists frequently lack sophisticated or self-aware in their critiques. One prominent UK feminist joked, “Ever thought about having multiple penises shoved up you as a career? . . . The longer you do it the more your earning potential decreases, but they say there’s a fetish for everything!” The joke is that sex workers “mistakenly” think that what they do is work, even when that work can be sexist and ageist. Of course, if being subject to sexist and ageist discrimination at work excluded someone from the category of worker, most older women workers would be excluded: the gender pay gap increases with age. If the only “real” worker is one who suffers no workplace oppression or exploitation, then all organizing for workers’ rights becomes superfluous.
Feminists and policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we were not being paid. Work is thus re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
To the list of failed would-be allies, one can also add most government representatives. Some time ago, we joined a small group of sex workers in a meeting with a Scottish government minister who claimed to wish to understand why we had entered prostitution. A single mother with several children explained that she got into sex work to support her family; another woman said that, as an undocumented migrant, sex work was one of the few jobs available to her; a third explained that when she came out as trans and started her transition, she lost her mainstream job. A man talked about the homophobia he had experienced in other workplaces. The minister was not impressed. She observed that we all seemed to have started selling sex in order to get money, in a tone suggesting not only that she was incredulous, but that selling sex in order to earn an income seemed terribly mercenary to her.
People sell sex to get money. This simple fact is often missed, forgotten, or overlooked. To many it seems inconceivable that people could do something considered so strange and terrible for the same mundane, relatable reasons that govern everybody else’s everyday lives. Sometimes the centrality of money is more deliberately hidden because to do so serves a political purpose. If a right-wing politician downplays the extent to which sex work is about generating a decent income and instead emphasizes the extent to which it is driven by a “criminal underworld,” he can sidestep awkward questions about the connections between prostitution, poverty, and government policy—and align anti-prostitution measures with populist “tough-on-crime” approaches. For example, Texas has some of the most extensive laws in the United States when it comes to criminalizing pimps, traffickers, and criminal gangs—but the state legislature has repeatedly failed to fund services for sex trafficking victims, let alone fund programs that would meaningfully address poverty and failures in the child-welfare system.
Pathologizing sex workers as unable to make “good” decisions, rather than seeing them as people largely motivated by familiar, mundane needs, can lead to disastrous consequences. In 2013 a Swedish family court ruled that a young mother named Jasmine did not know what was best for herself; the court saw her sex work not as a flexible job that gave her a livable income whilst caring full-time for her children, but as a form of self-harm. The judge ruled that, as she was engaged in self-harm, she was unable to care for her children, and disregarded her warnings that her ex-partner was violent. Her ex was awarded child custody. When she met him in order to see the children, he stabbed her to death. Dismissing Jasmine’s prosaic, material reasons for doing sex work was key to the state’s fatally inadequate response to her needs. The belief that sex workers are not making—and cannot make—good decisions leads us not to a feminist utopia, but to coercive, punitive modes of “reform.”
Downplaying the practical and economic dimensions of prostitution also does some ideological heavy lifting for anti-prostitution feminists. For example, Catherine MacKinnon writes, “If there were no buyers, there would be no sellers, namely traffickers.” MacKinnon’s conflation of “people who sell sex” with “traffickers” erases the fact that people who sell sex might be driven by economic need—a need which will not be solved by attempting to eradicate prostitution through criminal law. After all, if we forget for a second that people go to the streets because they need money, we need not grapple with what will replace the income they lose—or what the implications will be for their safety when they desperately try to recoup that income.
People sell sex to get money. This simple fact is often missed. To many it seems inconceivable that people do something considered so terrible for the same mundane reasons that govern everybody else’s everyday lives.
Remove money from the conversation and sex workers seem bizarre or broken. The sex worker, it is stated or implied, is not capable of understanding her own best interests and is instead acting out her childhood trauma. Anti-prostitution campaigner Kat Banyard, for example, argues that assuming a history of childhood sexual violence among sex workers “makes sense” because “common consequences of childhood sexual abuse include difficulty asserting boundaries.” Sex-working survivors have pushed back on this attempt to pathologize their lives. As Lori Adorable writes, “It’s not because of some kind of permanent ‘damage’ or trauma-reenactment compulsion. It’s because CSA [childhood sexual abuse] survivors often lack family support.” In other words, people who have fled an abusive family home have a compelling need to avoid returning to it and may sell sex as a strategy to avoid such a return. This is a material need, not a pathology.
“Economic necessity is the main imperative for women becoming involved in prostitution,” according to UK Home Office researchers. Academic Julia Laite writes, “Several late-nineteenth-century studies found that up to half of the women selling sex in Britain had been domestic servants, and that many had hated it so much they had willingly left service.” Laite quotes a 1920s sex worker asking an arresting police officer, “What will you give me if I do give this up? A job in a laundry at two pounds a week—when I can make twenty easily?” Writing in the 1980s, sex worker Nickie Roberts echoes these perspectives:
Working in crummy factories for disgusting pay was the most degrading and exploitative work I ever did in my life. . . . I think there should be another word for the kind of work working class people do; something to differentiate it from the work middle class people do; the ones who have careers. All I can think of is drudgery. It’s rotten and hopeless; not even half a life. It’s immoral. Yet as I say, it’s expected of working class women that they deny themselves everything. . . . Why should I have to put up with a middle class feminist asking me why I didn’t ‘do anything—scrub toilets, even?’ than become a stripper? What’s so liberating about cleaning up other people’s shit?
Through the lens of economic need, people’s reasons for engaging in sex work reappear not as aberrant or abject, but as a rational survival strategy in an often shitty world.
Women are especially prone to face economic abjection, in the face of which prostitution may seem more like a reasonable option. Race and disability are also key factors in sex-work demographics. Pluma Sumaq writes that, for many people of color, “prostitution is not what you do when you hit rock bottom. Prostitution is what you do to stay afloat, to swim rather than sink, to defy rather than disappear.” An anonymous Māori mother writes: “My body isn’t capable of working a 40-hour week, nor allowing me to become qualified at something that pays well. I’m disabled from working, and I’m part of a society that doesn’t take care of people like me.”
If a politician downplays the extent to which sex work is about generating a decent income, he can sidestep awkward questions about the connections between prostitution, poverty, and government policy.
LGBTQ people are also overrepresented in sex work. Discrimination, rejection, and abuse—both at home and in wider communities—increase their precarity and vulnerability, leaving prostitution as one of the remaining viable routes out of destitution. Trans women in particular often find that formal employment is out of reach. Increased school drop-out rates, lack of family support, and lack of access to adequate health care (including the means to finance gender-affirming treatment) leave them exposed to poverty, illness, and homelessness.
Criminal law cannot really prevent anyone from selling sex. Criminalization can and does make it more dangerous to do so, but there is little the state can do to physically curtail a person’s capacity to sell or trade sex. Thus, prostitution is an abiding strategy for survival for those who have nothing. There are almost no prerequisites for heading out to the streets and waiting for a client. Survival sex work may be dangerous and frightening—but for people whose other options are worse (starvation, homelessness, drug withdrawal), it is there as a last resort: the “safety net” onto which almost any destitute person can fall. This explains the indomitable resilience of sex work.
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For some anti-prostitution campaigners, concerns about the sex industry stand in place of a wider critique of capitalism. “Why is the left in favour of the free market only when it is women’s bodies being bought and sold?” asks Julie Bindel. This question either misunderstands or misrepresents the argument: what the left actually favors is labor rights, to redress the balance of power between employers and workers. In a capitalist society, when you criminalize something, capitalism still happens in that market. When we are asked, in a capitalist society, to choose between criminalizing or decriminalizing commercial sex, we are not offered an option for the “free market” to not govern the proceedings. In fact, capitalism is in many ways at its most intense in criminalized markets. With commercial sex criminalized, there can be no workers’ rights, whereas with commercial sex decriminalized, people who sell sex can access labor law and other kinds of protection afforded on legal job sites.
To say that prostitution is work is not to say that it is good work. But neither are most of the jobs available to people who fall on sex work.
To say that prostitution is work is not to say that it is good work. But neither are most of the jobs available to people who fall on sex work. People who sell or trade sex are amongst the world’s least powerful people, the people forced to do the worst jobs. But that is precisely why anti-prostitution campaigners should take seriously the fact that sex work is a way people get the resources they need. Instead, this is airily dismissed—losing a bad job, we are told, is no big deal. Losing jobs is how we achieve social change, we are told. Anti-prostitution feminist Meghan Murphy writes: “I suppose we shouldn’t try to stop the oil industry because people will lose jobs? It isn’t suuuper progressive . . . to defend harmful practices lest people lose jobs.” Those who make these arguments imagine “changing society” through taking something away. But people with relatively little are right to be fearful when their means of survival is taken away. British miners in the 1980s did not strike on the basis that mining was the most wonderful job—they were simply correct in their belief that, once mining was taken from them, Margaret Thatcher’s government would abandon their communities to desperate poverty. Likewise, few sex workers would object if you sought to abolish the sex industry by ensuring that they got the resources they need without having to sell sex.
The aim in decriminalizing sex work is therefore not, as it is often misconstrued, to advocate for something like a “right” for men to pay for sex. In fact, as the Wages for Housework movement articulated in the 1970s, naming something as work is a crucial first step in refusing to do it—on your own terms. Marxist-feminist theorist Silvia Federici wrote in 1975: “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.” Naming work as work has been a key feminist strategy beyond Wages for Housework: from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s term “emotional labor,” to journalist Susan Maushart’s term “wifework,” to Sophie Lewis’s theorizing around surrogacy and “gestational labor,” naming otherwise invisible or “natural” structures of gendered labor is central to beginning to think about how to resist or reorder such work.
The aim in decriminalizing sex work is not to advocate for a “right” for men to pay for sex. On the contrary, naming something as work is a crucial first step in refusing to do it.
Just because a job is bad does not mean it is not a “real job.” When sex workers assert that sex work is work, we are saying that we need rights. We are not saying that work is good or fun, or even harmless, nor that it has fundamental value. Likewise, situating what we do within a workers’-rights framework does not constitute an unconditional endorsement of work itself. It is not an endorsement of capitalism or of a bigger, more profitable sex industry. “People think the point of our organization [the National Organization for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution] is [to] expand prostitution in Bolivia,” says activist Yuly Perez. “In fact, we want the opposite. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business.”
It is not the task of sex workers to apologize for what prostitution is. Sex workers should not have to defend the sex industry to argue that we deserve the ability to earn a living without punishment. People should not have to demonstrate that their work has intrinsic value to society to deserve safety at work. Moving toward a better society—one in which more people’s work does have wider value, one in which resources are shared on the basis of need—cannot come about through criminalization. Nor can it come about through treating marginalized people’s material needs and survival strategies as trivial. Sex workers ask to be credited with the capacity to struggle with work—even hate it—and still be considered workers. You don’t have to like your job to want to keep it.