Sex work and anti-capitalism

During the last Sex Worker Open University[1], there was a workshop about how to include our struggles as sex workers within the larger anti-capitalist movement. Most of the workshop was spent rather on how to react to attacks from the abolitionists that we are accomplice of capitalism by working in and campaigning for the decriminalisation of an industry which inherently exploits women and the most vulnerable. This question becomes even more a concern when it is asked by people who are also part of anti-capitalist struggles and it happened again recently at the last London Anarchist bookfair.[2]

When I face this critic I answer with the following points:

1)      I return the question: What is anti-capitalist about the abolition of sex work movement?

Some abolitionists are indeed anti-capitalist but most are not. This political movement was born from Victorian philanthropists who wanted to rescue “fallen women”. The prohibition of sex work by sending us the cops (or to our clients) is reinforcing state control and police power over the working class. Current campaigns to abolish sex work have for only impact to reduce our incomes, make our workplaces more dangerous, and take away our livelihood. The abolitionist movement allies itself sometimes with Christian fundamentalists who are homophobic and anti-abortion. The anti-trafficking panic based on inflated figures reinforces a world with borders instead of getting rid of them. This movement doesn’t give (more) choice to sex workers but send many sex workers, sometimes by force, to rehabilitation programmes.[3]

2)      We don’t accuse other workers of complicity with capitalism

Many trade unions are not anti-capitalist but most anti-capitalist people would recognise workers’ right to organise collectively in trade unions and attempts to improve their working conditions or to maintain their jobs threatened by the closure of their workplace. Decriminalisation of sex work and labour rights for sex workers is not in contradiction with trying to fight capitalism. We don’t ask other workers to apologise about their work, to justify themselves about their political beliefs and if they like or chose their job before showing them solidarity. I don’t know if sex work would still exist in a perfect society but even if it won’t, we still need to have rights and legal protection now. Labour rights are often a first step that allows the workers to question their position in the capitalist system and then further their analysis to change it. We won’t stop working just because we are told to.

3)      The (lack of) choice

Anti-capitalist people are right to say that under capitalism we don’t really have the choice to work. But I wonder why many say that only about and to sex workers. Work is not a choice for most, if not all, working class people. Sex work is the economic resource we found in our life and we don’t need to be told that we should do another job when we already did before and felt more exploited doing them, or when we can’t access the better jobs we would like to do. Those who want to criminalise our clients actually don’t give us more choice. They are trying to make us stop working which can push us into worse poverty, especially in a liberal country like the UK, which does not have the same welfare system like in Sweden.

4)      Sex workers are at the intersection of different oppressions

It is true that sex workers can be people who belong to the most unprivileged categories: women, queers, single mothers, working class, black and ethnic minorities, migrants, drug users, HIV+, etc. However, I challenge the conception that sex workers are desperate and powerless because of their discriminated position in society. I think most sex workers are very brave, because we take the risk to do a job which is stigmatised and criminalised. We take the risk to be arrested by the police. We can take the risk to cross the lines or the borders. I prefer to see the teenage prostitutes often portrayed as victims of paedophilia, as heroes who took the risk to run away from the family, sometimes to escape abuse and to become independent. Instead of seeing us as hopeless victims who need to be rescued, we should be acknowledged as people whose experiences are crucial to understand multiple oppressions and with the capacity to adapt and resist to the capitalist system.

How do we fight exploitation?

The prohibition of sex work has an impact on our exploitation. Some abolitionist people can accuse us to legitimate sexual exploitation instead of eliminating it. They confuse our demand for decriminalisation with the legitimating of exploitation. They don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) that prohibition doesn’t fight exploitation but does the opposite. Prohibition means that we have no rights, no means to defend ourselves, no possibility to call the police against the crimes we suffer. Prohibition is in fact liberalism. It is the law of the strongest. Bosses can do whatever they want, especially when the police are easy to corrupt and arrest workers and migrants in priority instead of the real exploiters. Most cases for brothel keeping are targeting in fact workers who share a premise for their own safety. The law makes solidarity among workers a crime.

There is a lot to do to fight exploitation within the sex industries. There are many places where sex workers are pressured to accept unsafe sex, to accept practices they don’t necessarily want to do, have to pay fees to the owner of their workplace, are victims of bullying and violence, are taken high commission on their wages, etc. All this is in fact very similar to what happen in many industries where workers have no rights and are not unionised. We can stop all these bad practices, but we won’t by making us more criminalised and without rights. Anti-capitalism is about changing a system, not the prohibition of only one industry.


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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4 Responses to Sex work and anti-capitalism

  1. Wendy Lyon says:

    Great stuff Thierry.

  2. Such good points here, Thierry. Seemingly common sense, but utterly lost on those who’s simplistic rhetoric claims any defense of sex work automatically makes one a right-wing libertarian.

    I take small issue with this point:

    “Prohibition is in fact liberalism.”

    I wouldn’t even dignify prohibitionism by calling it liberal. It is outright conservative and reactionary, and a holdover or return to the worst kind of paternalistic use of state power.

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