What kind of sex industry do we want?

(This text is written in my personnal capacity on my personnal blog)

Once upon a time we were all fighting for the total decriminalisation of sex work. Workers, bosses, clients, academics, service providers, supporters, we were all together on the same side. This situation in fact is not the past. This is what we live now, but for how long?

Among all the people who are part of the sex workers’ rights movement, we don’t all have the same interests. Sometimes our interests are actually in opposition in terms of wages and working conditions and the changes we want are not the same.

In the UK, selling sex officially is legal and hopefully soliciting, procuring, kerb-crawling and brothel keeping will be soon decriminalised too. We all agree on that. However, as a sex worker activist and trade unionist, my ambition for the movement is not just to work in a legal context. Legality avoids innocent people being jailed and improves safety, but it’s not enough to combat exploitation and organise the workers.

Solidarity is a word rarely used in the English language. In the sex industry, I often see people who offer their help to sex workers and what they call helping means actually most of the time charging us money in exchange of a service:

I can give you my clients’ contact but I will take a commission. I can create your own escort website for £400. I can let you advertise in my magazine or my website for £100 a month. I can let you use my flat to accommodate your clients in a safe place but you give me 30%. Many people who may often happen to be themselves still sex workers or former sex workers try to make money on us, and in a prohibitionist context they have a good excuse: “I am the one who takes the legal risk”.

Nonetheless, I doubt that once all the parts of the sex industry will be decriminalised, we will have automatically less to pay. They will find new excuses and they already tell us: “If you want to make more clients, it is in your interest to advertise more and make good investments”.

When I started sex work everything was free. I just put myself on a sidewalk and met my clients directly. One guy proposed me once his “protection” but I just had to decline. Now, most sex workers don’t have other choice than to give part of their money to work and no coercion is necessary. Everything is normal in the capitalist system.

The irony for sex workers is that the people who are the most ready to fight against our exploitation are the same who promote prohibitionist policies that make it easier, and we end up having to ally ourselves with people who are our exploiters.

The reason why the sex workers’ movement globally prefers to campaign for decriminalisation rather than legalisation is because of the over control from the State which often reduces our freedom, gives more power to the employers than the workers and continues to criminalise soliciting that penalise the most vulnerable sex workers.

Many sex workers choose to do sex work because it is a job that can give you the chance to work for yourself without a boss. Sex work could easily be practiced without any intermediaries if the meeting between us and our clients was not so politically controversial. We should be allowed and supported in our self-organisation so we can avoid having to pay other people who will arrange the work for us.

We could set up cooperatives, create our own media to advertise and communicate, and have our own safe spaces. The government could help us to achieve that as the best way to work safely and without exploitation from a third party. Meanwhile, the law and the lack of money prevent us to do it. Moreover, criminalisation and stigma are not helping sex workers to trust each other and to organise together in solidarity.


About Thierry Schaffauser

Queer, sex worker, drugs user, student in Gender History, GMB trade unionist, migrant, wants to change the world, etc
This entry was posted in Sex work. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What kind of sex industry do we want?

  1. lumpnboy says:

    In my experience, ‘representative’ or public advocacy sex-worker organisations tend to spend a lot of time arguing for the ‘legitimacy’ of ‘the industry’, based on it being ‘really work’ (and hence ‘legitimate’). Implicit or explicit in this discourse is an assertion of versions of freedom and choice which dovetail nicely with an essentially neo-liberal discourse, founded on the legitimacy of contract and exchange. Freedom is our ability to take the commodity of our labour-power to market; ultimate liberation is being ‘self-employed’, being a petty independent producer, or perhaps being in a cooperative enterprise doing the same thing i.e. self-managing our integration into economy, channeling the imperatives of capitalism, internalising what my marxist friends would call ‘the law of value’.

    A worker without an employer, ‘self-employed’, is not directly productive of capital, and no employer appropriates surplus value as part of a dynamic of the self-expansion of value. Rather, such a worker is a petty independent producer indeed bringing a commodity to market – the key fantasy-figure of neoliberal discourses which would have us all become petty entrepreneurs of our own persons, whose economic freedom must not be infringed upon: “my body – my business”.

    Whether sex-worker self-organisation manifests in public as an actual or quasi-trade unionist discourse, or as a straight neoliberal assertion of labour market freedom, exchange of commodities, etcetera, the assumption of the legitimacy of contract is retained. Sex-workers are good workers because we reocnigise and abide by the legitimacy of contacts entered into with clients (and possibly employers).

    In other words, the public discourse of much self-worker ‘representation’ not merely renders many of the daily struggle of people in sex-work economies invisible – such discourse actually renders such struggles illegitimate. Where I am, in Australia, it disappears from history the struggles around control which ended in significantly successful efforts of owners to re-impose labour discipline over a workforce which previously could not be relied upon precisely to abide by such contracts.

    The re-assertion of labour discipline in parts of sex-work was part of a larger defeat of people at the precarious end of the proletariat and neo-lumpen proletariat – truly part of the struggle which defined the restructuring of capitalist social relations.

    The ideal sex-industry you discuss certanly sounds preferable in some ways to the status quo, but I would suggest it has a contradictory and fairly complicated relatrion to the immediate interests and struggle of people within sex-work economies, and the wider classes of which we are parts.

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