The problem with the phrase “sex work is work”

I wanted to write a quick note about my issues with the phrase “sex work is work.” It is one of the most common rhetorical devices used by sex trade expansionists. I’m increasingly seeing people responding to any critical take on the sex trade by blurting out “sex work is work!” It’s as if that one single phrase, if taken to be true, is supposed to absolve any criticism of the sex industry. It’s supposed to automatically convey a whole set of policies we should adopt. Debunking these empty platitudes and slogans are critical to building a proletarian feminist stance on the sex trade.

Theoretical baggage

Terminology is often fused to a theoretical position so that adopting the term means adopting the political theory behind it. Oftentimes, activists strategically do this. “Sex work is work” is one of those terms. It’s not simply stating that sex work is work, but endorsing a specific theory and calling for an entire political program based off of that theory.

The question often frames the possibility of the answer. The question of whether sex work is work was framed to fuse the interests of the sex worker with the industry. The problem, of course, is that this fusion is entirely superficial because the prostitute’s interests are diametrically opposed to that of the pimp and the buyer. “Sex work is work” then becomes more about protecting the interests of the sex industry and less about protecting women forced and coerced into prostitution.

I argue that it largely does not matter whether prostitution is work and that the better question to ask is “what is the commodity bought and sold and what effect does this commodification have on women and LGBT people in our class?” I then argue that the “workplace hazards,” aka male violence such as rape and beating, are normal and inherent to the sex trade. Because of the crises of capitalism, the danger and frequency of violence cannot be reformed out of the sex trade. The phrase “sex work is work” is meant to fuse the interests of the prostitute with the pimp, the buyer, and the capitalist in order to expand the market. I end with a brief note on reproductive labor and explain why I believe the phrase, and the question that precluded it, is largely irrelevant.

What is work? And does it matter?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue in Revolting Prostitutes that sex work is work because “people sell sex to get money.” Their arguments centered around the moral subjectivity of the prostitute, and not on the industry as a whole. Throughout their entire chapter on work, their argument was premised on one thing: we should embrace the sex industry because capitalism forces people to sell their labor power and those that can’t sell their labor power sell sex. Far from arguing for the sex trade, they identify the reason we should oppose it: Oppressed women cannot sell their labor power on the market so they have to sell their body and its component parts in the sex trade.

Is prison labor work? And does it matter whether or not it’s work? I once spoke with a California policymaker about the State’s use of prison labor to fight fires. She responded that the inmates chose this job and enjoyed the work. Reporters verify that “many inmates also say the work is fulfilling.” One inmate firefighter even stated that “it makes you feel good inside.” Is this an excuse to use prison labor to fight fires? No. Just because something generates money doesn’t mean we should embrace it.

The proletarian prostitute can leave an individual client but cannot leave the class of prostituted women. If she attempts to exit, she loses her means of sustenance. In this way, the institution of prostitution does not only trap those within a class of workers selling their labor power but within a specific sub-class of prostitutes.

Just because something exists as work, and because some of those workers claim to enjoy it, doesn’t mean we should defend the industry. And when we are deciding whether to endorse a violent industry which by and large is constituted by women who are coerced into it, the choice is clear. Fight the industry, support the worker.

Workplace hazards or male violence?

Radical feminists have long been berated for emphasizing the workplace hazards in prostitution. The liberal counter-argument is always that there are hazards in every industry. Why single out the sex trade? Mac and Smith argue that rape is no more a condition of prostitution than it is for a massage therapist. They say we only think so because of “how deep the belief goes that women who sell sex give up all bodily boundaries.” This is a fundamental error in understanding of the sex trade. As I explained prior, the contradiction between the buyer and the bought necessitates a struggle of boundaries. There is no need to moralize about this: it is a fact of the trade.

Mac and Smith ask the following question along the same lines which I will attempt to answer.

“After all, if boundaries become meaningless after money changes hands, why do these adverts and reviews bother to convey — in sex-industry jargon created specifically to communicate these details — that Mia sells oral sex with a condom while Jade offers ‘oral without’? Mia or Jade’s specifications around condom use would become irrelevant if their consent had actually been ‘purchased’.”

The idea that the risk of rape is not a condition of the sex trade has always come off so absurd to me. I used to organize food service workers. It wasn’t controversial to acknowledge that the line cook was at a higher risk of getting burned than the hostess. The line cook has a higher risk of getting burned, not because of some moral condemnation of his work, but because proximity to hot oil or a hot pan is a normal part of the job. Regulation and labor law can reduce the risk of burning slightly, but never completely. I was in one of the most powerful unions and despite all the protection of the union and worker organization, the line cooks still got burned. And the lower class the restaurant and workers, the less regulation and protection they’ll have.

What does this have to do with prostitution? Activists often argue that rape is not a normal risk of the job, that it’s due only to criminalization, and that consent reigns supreme over coercion. They argue that buying and pimping should be decriminalized so that labor law can reform away the risk of rape and violence. This is a misunderstanding of the industry.

  1. Firstly, the industry avoids formal recognition. Clients want to stay anonymous, pimps want to stay underground, and many prostitutes want to remain under the radar. Formal recognition is a necessary prerequisite for regulation and labor law.
  2. Secondly, prostitution is a struggle between the prostitute and the client, with the power struggle playing itself out over and in her body, and during sex, making the violation of her boundaries a constant risk.
  3. Lastly, sex on the market means that the competitive market determines consent far more than the individual will of the sex worker. A prostitute who doesn’t offer the services offered in the market will fall out of competition and be unable to survive.

Power is determined by class. Women in prostitution belong to the lower strata of the proletariat as some of the most oppressed in our class. The client is always in the higher class, whether he is the waged-laborer, the petty-bourgeoisie, or the bourgeoisie. The client, therefore, will always retain the upper hand in the relationship.

Let’s take a step back here and realize that the dominant line around the sex trade is to accept that women will be coerced into survival sex and that we somehow need to recognize that as no different from any other work. That is truly the manifestation of rape culture. Revisionists often default to rape culture to defend the sex trade.

A member of Twin Cities DSA argued the assertion “that the sex trade is inherently exploitative” doesn’t “engage with something we hold to be true as socialists: that the nature of work as we know it is exploitative.” Such a complete misunderstanding of the industry is the result of a flattening of distinctions between all work and a misunderstanding of Marxist theory. Wage labor is exploitative because of the surplus value extracted from the workers' labor. Prostitution is sexual exploitation because it feeds off of extreme vulnerability to maintain a class of prostitutes, coerces sex through money and power, and exposes those women to high amounts of rape and violence. Not all work involves coercive sex, not all work comes with the high risk of rape and male violence in whatever legal context it operates under. Not all work puts the body and it’s component parts on the market to be bought, sold, and rented at will to the highest bidder.

We shouldn’t ask for labor rights for forced sexual labor. In an industry that evades formal recognition, labor rights aren’t even a tenable solution. The human rights of the woman don’t start after she’s been recruited into forced sexual labor but is violated when she is denied the right to make a living without having to engage in survival (coerced) sex.

Sex trade expansionists want to extend these labor rights to both capitalists and pimps, who they sanitize with the term “third parties” or “management.” AF3IRM put it best when they said:

“The corporatized advocates of legalization of the sex trade present prostitution as work for the prostituted even as they demand that such ‘worker’s rights’ be extended to those who are ‘management’ and ‘capitalists.’ Such an ahistorical concept of ‘work’ is by itself an insult to the working class, which has had to conduct a continuous battle against management and Capital, to even secure a just wage, much less safe working conditions.”

Crises of capitalism or lack of labor protection?

As economist David Harvey said, “crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism.” While other workers feel increased economic strain during these moments, prostitutes experience that along with higher amounts of rape, condom coercion, and violence.

Mac and Smith’s earlier argument that condom use is evidence of consent is debunked by capitalist crises, such as COVID-19. Their boundaries around condoms do indeed become irrelevant during crises of capitalism, such as COVID-19, where condom coercion is intensified. Even the pro-sex trade Open Society Foundations states that,

“Driven by financial need, sex workers are more likely to agree to meet with clients they do not feel comfortable with or negotiate safety measures, such as condom use. Sex workers have also reported that clients are more likely to bargain over prices or push for services to be performed without condoms since COVID-19 measures were adopted in their countries.”

Crises of capitalism necessitate more violent conditions for women in prostitution. This is especially true for those on the lower end of the strata. Mac and Smith cite an example with a prostitute who said: “If I haven’t been paid in weeks, I need to accept clients who sound more dangerous than I’d usually be willing to risk.” The crises of capitalism will always induce these moments, where prostitutes will be forced into accepting more dangerous clients to survive.

Capitalist markets are inherently unstable and subject to upswings and downswings. The downswings bring a higher incidence of violence and unsafe practices, as witnessed during COVID-19. Decriminalizing pimps and buyers cannot stop the crises, which is why such a policy proposal is the epitome of neoliberalism. Intense individualism and freedom of the market masked in a populist slogan.

“Sex work is work” fuses the interests of the proletariat with the interests of the industry

In what other industry do the interests of the industry get depicted as the interests of the worker? Fossil fuel industries, for one, have been great at telling workers that their very livelihood is wrapped up in the success of the industry. The abolition of the fossil fuel industry, workers are told, will mean an end to their sustenance. Just transition plans are framed as torturous evils that must be avoided at all costs. There are obvious differences between the fossil fuel industry and the sex trade. But they both achieved the conflation between the worker and the industry as a defensive reflex to protect the interests of the industry.

Straight men, of course, can get behind this because their interests align with the sex industry as well. When men get to stay richer than women, get to have a reserve army of women at their beck and call, they can buy access to sex, power, and women whenever they want. Why would they oppose their interests?

Leftist men who are too lazy to work on improving the material conditions for women can instead opt to support the sex industry. It’s where women who have no other choice belong and we should accept that. So let’s throw all the buzz words around to sound radical: destigmatize, decarcerate, decriminalize, center, solidarity. Yet they can never actually explain where the stigma or violence comes from. And they never explain why their version of “solidarity with sex workers” always aligns with the interests of pimps and buyers. They sound radical while remaining comfortably within the boundaries of male supremacist culture. Their objectification of women remains unchecked.

“Solidarity with sex workers” has been engineered to mean only one thing: normalize, legitimize, expand, and sanitize the sex industry. The other options, by virtue of the slogan’s intended purpose, are intentionally side-lined. Everything else is framed as anti-sex work, which they argue is anti-sex-worker: Guaranteeing the right to not be prostituted, the right to exit, the right to subsist without survival sex, the right for Indigenous women to end prostitution on their land, the right for third world women to not be forced to serve imperialist men. The revolutionary feminist left needs to fight to redefine the meaning of “solidarity with sex workers” as pro-worker, anti-industry.

The fossil fuel industries deny their industry is destroying the environment. The tobacco industry denies that its industry is destroying people’s health. The sex industry denies that they harm women by exposing them to continuous rape and violence. And too many people believe them, not understanding that pro-industry can never be pro-worker.

Remuneration for reproductive labor?

Much can be said on this and I intend to address this deeper in another post. In the meantime, I will say this. Prostitution is no more “getting paid for what people normally do for free” than a housekeeper being paid to clean other people’s rooms but still cleaning her own for free. If prostitution was remuneration for sexual labor, the woman would not need to have extra sex to get paid, she would already have her needs met through the normal course of her day.

Capitalism is marked in part by the division between production and reproduction. Some claim that this division can be resolved via the expansion of domestic and sexual markets. Yet this contradiction cannot get resolved via domestic or sex markets, because those markets only create another form of the dual-exploitation of the woman. The commodification of her sexuality is not payment for work she already does, but the addition of a site of exploitation.

Relevancy of the question

The question of whether prostitution is work is largely irrelevant to the proletarian or socialist feminist. Whether or not it’s work doesn’t guarantee our enthusiastic approval. “Work” is not a Marxist term, “labor” is. And labor, productive or reproductive, can exist under different levels of coercion and violence. The logic of “sex work is work” makes no sense because we shouldn’t uncritically endorse an industry simply because it fits under the broad, colloquial understanding of “work.” Especially when that industry has proven to be unable to separate coercion and violence from its standard operating procedure.

Activists such as Mac and Smith, along with their book deals, offer a theory of the sex trade that is disconnected from reality and invoke empty platitudes to garner support for a political position that is pro-industry more than it is pro-worker. The first step in any campaign that truly cares about women and LGBT people in the sex trade must be to separate the industry from the person and understand the difference and opposing class interests.

We shouldn’t just ask “is this labor” but “what is the commodity bought, sold, and rented on the market,” “is this industry overwhelmingly coercive and violent,” “is this industry socially necessary to justify it,” and “what is the effect of this industry on our class?” In answering these questions we come to a far different conclusion on what is to be done.

Member of AF3IRM. Anti-imperialist, scientific socialist, and transnational proletarian feminist.