“I wish that people who are very committed to abolition could hear that there might be sex workers who would support you in that project, but their priorities are making it through this week. Their priorities right now are what they need to do to survive, and are you also listening to those needs that they have?”
- Melissa Gira Grant, “Thinking of Sex Work as Work,” The Atlantic
The assumption here is that abolitionists don’t understand the seriousness of the violence against sex workers, that they don’t understand those wages are connected to survival – that there is some sort of conspiracy among abolitionists to prevent sex workers from surviving day to day. The mainstream discourse that frames sex work as merely work assumes that any disagreement with that framework is accusing sex workers of colluding with the patriarchy. Melissa further goes on to state:
“It’s incredibly difficult for people to protect their rights as human beings and workers, to ensure that their civil rights are respected, when you’re working in an environment that says, “Well, this isn’t actually a job, you kind of get what you deserve. And even more so, you might be a criminal. Now the new tendency is to call you a victim of the sex industry. So, the problem is not that you’ve experienced victimization in the sex industry, the problem you have is “the sex industry,” and the way we’re going to resolve that problem is to remove you from it.”
I don’t know any abolitionist who believes that sex workers are criminals and need to be locked up. Nor do we believe it is completely realistic to remove sex workers from the industry immediately without providing other means of work. And yes, we believe many are victims – but in a power structure in which men and male sexual desire is prioritized over the welfare of women and girls, all women become victims at some point in their lives. Does this mean they don’t have power or the ability to change their circumstances? No. Does this mean we see them as pathetic people in need of rescue? No. The words “victim” and “victimization” do not need to reduce humans to one-dimensional non-entities. These words are a way in which abolitionists use feminist framework to recognize “the structural oppression of women within a patriarchal system, and advocates decriminalizing the prostitute, while targeting the pimps, johns, and traffickers who create a demand for and benefit from the sex trade.”*
The ironic thing is, sex workers want people to talk about sex work as “work” within an industry. Yet, sex workers such as Grant and Mock and their allies are demanding that, by not allowing for any discourse related to the oppressive structures of the sex industry, sex work and sex workers be treated delicately with kid gloves. If in fact they believe this is necessary because there are different ramifications for sex work, so it shouldn’t be approached like any other industry – then they have just contradicted themselves that sex work is just another form of wage work.
Coal mining, oil drilling, and fracking are industries constantly under criticism – along with the lifestyles that lead to the demand of fossil fuel. Yet in discourse of sex work as work, no where is the demand side addressed in any meaningful way. The fossil fuel industry is constantly critiqued as an industry benefiting the developed world at the expense of the developing world. Yet in discussions of sex work as work, there is no critique of it as an industry that benefits men at the expense of mainly women. Furthermore, individual workers involved in the fossil fuel industry are not held responsible for the criminal disregard of the world by the companies who run these industries – so indeed you can talk about the patriarchal underpinnings of sex work without demonizing the sex worker.
The same goes for Monsanto, an industry profiting from the basic human requirement of human sustenance. Their chemicals are also among the largest pollutants in agriculture. And yet, I have never held my father in collusion with Monsanto because he had to work for them as a contractor for lack of other employment. And he is a victim of Monsanto, too – we ALL have bodies filled with pollutants that originate with Monsanto – some more than others, of course. It is the same with coal mining. We are all victims of the pollution and environmental degradation attributed to coal. Similarly, and without judgement, all women are victims of the patriarchal system of male sexual dominance, upheld by the sex work industry’s appeasement of male sexual demand and dominance. Some more than others, of course. Like the communities in which direct pollutants are dumped and like the coal miners with black lung, sex workers are the victims hit hardest by the sex work industry. No one, even if they refuse to call themselves a victim, lives outside of the structures controlling out society.
Now, I want to digress for a moment. I am referring to sex workers as “women.” I understand there are male sex workers, and gender queer and trans sex workers, and they, too, are victims. But sex work is overwhelmingly female, and the buyers are overwhelming male, and the mechanism of demand which keeps the sex work thriving is overwhelmingly hetero-male sexual desire for females. As O’Brien succinctly puts it, “Heteropatriarchy encourages a viewpoint of masculinity that endorses men’s domination over and entitlement to women’s bodies, and certain groups of women fare worse due to race or other factors.”
Sex work is not just overwhelmingly poor. It is overwhelmingly women of color and overwhelmingly women of developing nations. For example, women from the developing countries of Romania and Eastern Europe are trafficked into Amsterdam and Germany. Indeed, legalization did not decrease trafficking but INCREASED it as supply and demand rose within a capitalized and now globalized industry. Sex tourism has become an essential aspect of developing countries’ economies. As O’Brien puts it, “globalization’s effects on economies, such as Thailand….contribute to a feminization of poverty and gendered division of labor.” It is the women of the developing world who are most impacted by this globalized feminization of poverty.
Thailand is an extreme example of this, with Western men flocking to Thailand for sex. In America, “massage parlor” has become a euphemism brothels, particularly specializing in Asian women. Both the sex industry of Thailand and the brothels serving Western men from developed countries serve to categorize Asian women as “other” hypersexualized, submissive objects for Western men to consume – upholding the traditional structure of the colonized world, that of “West” versus “other.”
So where does that place the sex worker who isn’t trafficked, or who is an “independent contractor?” It places her in the same industry upholding male sexual privilege and neo-colonialism. Does this mean we are placing the brunt of the blame on her? Of course not. But no one lives and works in a vacuum. Narratives alone do not constitute policy or the place of an industry in the world. We are not deciding the fate of the fossil fuel industry based on individual narratives – or even whether or not people will have jobs. We literally know people will be losing their means of livelihoods, yet we have decided that COLLECTIVELY, the world is a better place without the fossil fuel industry – although I am not suggesting we follow a similar path in abolishing sex work.
What I am suggesting is that the world is a better place without sex work. I also do not believe sex work is an inevitable part of a society. MANY societies did not have sex work before the imposition of colonialism. In fact, I haven’t even touched upon the subject of Naive American and First Nations women because I plan to save this for an entirely different blog – along with the influence of environmental degradation in developing countries.
I am suggesting that when we talk about sex work, we cannot separate the work from the system which the work is built to uphold – a heteropatriarchal norm within a globalized, neo-colonized world. Sex work has not been and is not apart of every culture; we do not need to accept its continued existence. In fact, the prostitution centers of Vietnam and Thailand first developed with the Vietnam War – militarization often demands women’s bodies to appease the male sexual needs of the occupying forces. Similarly, sex trafficking and “sex work” proliferated in Bosnia (Bosnian Civil War) and Korea (WWII/ Korean War) by militarization – and, like Vietnam and Thailand, was largely due to Western occupying forces. Thailand’s red light district was further enlarged by the feminization of poverty caused by the environmental degradation of neoliberal economic policies favoring developing nations. Thousands of women migrated to Bangkok to sell themselves as they lost their land and thus means of livelihood to the rise of rubber plantations – at the encouragement of the World Bank and IMF.
So, my main point stands – we cannot talk about the sex industry without discussing the pressures and realities it exerts on the citizens of the world. If you are truly interested in overthrowing patriarchy along with systems of neo-colonialism, you simply cannot support the prolonged existence of the sex industry.
(An introduction to how the sex industry impacts indigenous women and works as a colonial power in North America: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/real-change-for-aboriginal-women-begins-with-the-end-of-prostitution/article22442349/)
*“An Analysis of Global Sex Trafficking,” Cheryl O’Brien (Purdue University), Indiana Journal of Political Science, Winter 2008/2009. http://www.indianapsa.org/2008/article2.pdf