Fighting exploitation in the sex industry

Everyone is against exploitation in the sex industry, but opinions vary on the means to adopt to fight against it.

First of all, not everyone has the same understanding of what exploitation is. Anti-sex work activists consider that sex work is inherently exploitative and everything should be done to prevent its existence itself by all the repressive means necessary. To be fair, the feminist and progressive trend of this movement doesn’t want sex workers themselves to be criminalised, but by criminalising many parts of the sex industry they commit the mistake to worsen our exploitation.

Within the sex workers’ movement, there are generally two trends. Some activists consider that it is the conditions in which sex work is exercised such as repressive laws, violence and the whore-stigma that make sex work exploitative, while others agree with the prohibitionist campaigners’ idea that sex work is inherently exploitative, but only because they see all work as exploitation. On the contrary, the prohibitionists will make a distinction between work and prostitution and therefore refuse to define prostitution as sex work.

In this idea that sex work can’t be work, I understand that work is opposed to exploitation. My opinion is rather that sex work is exploitative both because all work is exploitation and because bad conditions can make sex work more exploitative than other jobs.

By defining sex work as work, sex workers don’t deny the existence of exploitation; we try to take advantage of the tools created by the Labour movement before us to fight against it. Indeed, being recognised as a worker allows me to join a trade union and to be part of a broader workers movement as an equal, and to benefit of the same labour rights our ancestors fought for.

The impact of prohibition is in fact counterproductive. It is a real gift for exploiters because the sex industry is totally unregulated with no protection from the state for the workers. Sex workers can’t denounce their exploitative working conditions because any intervention from the state would currently make them lose their job and put at risk their livelihood. In practice, many sex workers will actually show solidarity with their employers because they are the ones who take the legal risks to allow them to work by keeping a brothel, a club or an agency.

Laws against brothel keeping or pimping don’t make a distinction between exploitation and the organisation of sex work. To work in safer conditions it is better to work indoors with other workers. The problem is when you don’t own the place where you work, when you don’t own the means of production, you need to work for a third party and thus take the risk to be exploited.

All employers are pimps whatever the industry we work in. If I wish a world without bosses, I don’t think criminalising them is the right answer since it harms the workers as well. I don’t think we need specific laws against exploitation in the sex industry because they situate us out of the legal system and when we don’t benefit from the common law, we don’t have the same protection as other workers do in other industries. The victim status doesn’t offer us any right, while being a worker does. Therefore, although I am against pimps as employers and profiteers of our work, I am against the criminalisation of pimping.

Whatever the industry, I believe that there is no such thing as a fair employer. But to get rid of employers, it would be more efficient to allow sex workers to work for instance in cooperative brothels which implies that we must repeal the current laws on brothel keeping.

At last, instead of repression and prohibition, the best way to help us not to do sex work and to feel exploited is to provide us with better economic options. Suppress tuition fees for students; provide good incomes for single mothers; deliver controlled drugs to people suffering an addiction, regularise undocumented migrants, provide free housing, give minorities rights, fight poverty, so we don’t need to work.

Of course, it’s more difficult to realise. For the moment, to further criminalisation seems easier in order to pretend to be feminist and progressive.


About Thierry Schaffauser

Queer, sex worker, drugs user, student in Gender History, GMB trade unionist, migrant, wants to change the world, etc
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