Sex work is now a labor movement. Working in the sex industry is now referred to as working in the “sex trade.” See the euphemism there? The term “sex industry” sounds so impersonal and capitalistic, so let’s create a term with the charm of a “trade,” like some sort of socialist labor guild. And when talking about sex work, never, ever refer to it as anything other than a labor issue. Otherwise you are a prude who wishes harm against sex workers and are aligned with the Radical Right’s fear of loose morals.
So, I decided to talk about sex work as simply “work.” Not that there is an actual discussion happening. Generally these only happen in comment sections of online articles, the majority of which have begun normalizing sex work as labor. And framing it as a women’s rights issue of exploitation was “moralistic,” even “prudish.” So, finally, I decided to just talk about sex work as labor.
The point of the sex worker’s rights movement is to provide safer conditions, and I guess better wages? That generally is a huge goal of labor movements. So, let’s talk about safety and wages. I do believe it is of the utmost importance to stop violence against sex workers. There is a reason so many serial killers kill sex workers – nobody cares. So the first thing to do is to get rid of the stigma and treat sex workers as human beings. I am for decriminalization of sex workers but punishment of the pimps, johns and brothel owners. But according to mainstream Feminism, this still is “whorephobic” and the correct way to do this is to fight for better working conditions within the sex trade.
Traditionally in any labor movement, that means negotiations with employers. For some sex workers, they are self-employed. So the key here is to convince men (and given most sex workers are men buying women, I will refer to men as the buyers and women as the sellers) to pay more for their services. In an ideal world, the buyers would respect the services of sex workers and pay her a fair wage.
Except she is the service. She is the product. You can be all euphemistic and say they are paying for her services, but the problem is because her services are directly linked to her body, you cannot separate the two. And what does one do with products and services for which they feel they have been cheated? They return it for their money back. As one john was quoted in An Analysis of Global Sex Trafficking by Cheryl O’Brien (Purdue University), “See, I am going to buy something. If I am satisfied with what I am buying, then why should I be violent? I will be violent when I am cheated, when I am offered a substandard service.”
It seems the problem is that johns need to be taught that sex workers are human beings that do not deserve to be “returned or treated like objects” and deserve decent wages, regardless of how their johns feel about the service. Except the problem here is that sex workers ARE the objects. No matter how many Janet Mocks there are out there waxing poetic about how empowering their experience of sex work was, it doesn’t change the fact that the people buying and dealing directly in the trade – the johns, the pimps, the brothel owners – want to spend as little money as possible and want to maximize their profits. You cannot talk about labor in any industry without actually talking about the industry itself.
I am imagining sex workers at formal negotiations with their pimps and brothel managers. Yes, some are proud and independent sex workers, but many, many are not. And it is not in the best financial interest of the “employers” to suddenly start treating their “employees” like human beings. In every single industry, products are sold at competitive prices to maximize products. If sex work is work and labor just like any other industry, why would pimps and brothel owners not sell the wares at cheaper prices than the competition? Of course they will – which means the ever cheapening, devaluing, and thus dehumanization of women’s bodies. Including, as that one john put it, violence in retaliation for substandard services. This means that a sex worker, so as not to be “returned” and lose wages, must always be sure to do whatever pleases her john, INCLUDING violence she may otherwise not be into – thus a relationship in which the john is almost always the power player. In light of this conclusion, can we ever actually stop violence against sex workers? I say no. Violence is necessary to be successful employers in the industry, to maximize profits at the expense of human lives. Can there ever be dignity in sex work? Maybe for a few, but otherwise dignity runs completely counter to the business plans of many “employers” of sex workers. This is especially true because, once again quoting Cheryl O’Brien’s article, “heteropatriarchal demand for the sex industry requires an increasing supply of women and girls.” In other words, we can’t talk about labor without talking about supply and demand. And given there is a growing demand for that supply as prostitution is legalized (O’Brien’s article is among many studies that confirm this), pimps and johns aren’t interested in the dignity of their employees, because their employees ARE the supply being demanded – at ever cheaper costs, because that is basically how capitalism works.
Now, maybe I am being “moralistic” and have gone into dangerous territory. I must reel the discussion back into labor. But here is the thing. We ALWAYS talk about industries in moralistic terms! Take the fossil fuel industry. Everyone except die-hard conservatives and climate change deniers believe it is a pretty evil industry. It strips the environment of natural resources, causes dangerous pollutants to build up in communities, and is basically responsible for the disaster of climate change. Yet, have we ever considered individual oil workers’ experiences of good profits and fascinating work to keep the overall industry alive? No, because it is bigger than the oil drillers who were lucky enough NOT to be on Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, killing eleven and causing a horrific man-made disaster. It is the same with coal mining. Create new jobs, not keep old ones harmful to society that cause individuals who come down with black lung.
Therefore, I can conclude that including a “moralistic” evaluation of the toll of the sex industry on society is not “prudish” or in collusion with the Right. Janet Mock may have experienced sex work as something that made her and other trans women feel”desired as women,” but to put it bluntly – who cares? From what I recall of the testimonies of women exiting sex work through an organization at which I was applying for a job, they pretty much despised their johns and were more than ready to get out of the “objectifying male gaze” as Janet Mock so neutrally put it.
That “objectifying male gaze” is what keeps the supply of sex workers in demand, by the way. Janet Mock may have seemed to appreciate it, but that male gaze, or as O’Brien would more accurately describe it, “a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies,” is what is driving the explosion of human trafficking around the world. You say tomatoes, I say systematic patriarchal repression of women as commodities in a male-dominated globalized world system. And yes, you can put that responsibility on the neo-colonialism of the developed world. For while many johns in the United States may be buying local “labor,” you cannot divorce sex work from sex trafficking. Supply and demand is the same everywhere, and legalizing sex work and normalizing it does nothing to quench the demand for sex workers nor the reason for that demand – male sexual entitlement. Poverty may be a reason why women turn to sex work. But if everything were equal labor on an equal playing field, men would be trafficked at the same rate as women into sex work. But they are not. Because there is very little demand. And if your goal in Feminism is to eradicate the patriarchy, this must include the male sexual privilege that keeps it in place. The question then becomes “can you really get rid of male sexual privilege with sex work as normalized labor?” My answer is “no.” Can you really separate legalized sex work from trafficking? As Amsterdam (see link below, one among many) has proven, “no.” Can you really get rid of neo-colonialism and eradicate the feminization of poverty with sex work normalized here and abroad?
Oh hell no.
“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