Republished from Socialist Alliance members' discussion
The article by Lisa MacDonald, Pat Brewer & Pip Hinman asking “Is sex work just a job like any other?”
asks an unhelpful question, and by a circuitous route reinforces some
of the messages of the conservative backlash against sex workers'
The article proclaims at the outset that “This contribution is not
taking a moral stance on any sexual practices or on sex work”. It
condemns the conservative social stigma placed on sex workers, and in
fact (as far as I can tell) supports all the current policies of the
Socialist Alliance, which supports sex workers' rights.
Moralism creeps into the article however, most clearly when it refers
to “increasing commodification of sex and sexuality as the capitalist
marketplace forces its way into the most intimate aspects of our lives”
(emphasis added – BC). This is reflected in other statements such as
that “No matter how well a sex worker believes they are “handling it”
psychologically, in an unequal and misogynist social structure, choosing
to be a sexual commodity will have an impact”. They talk of “the sense
of loss of ownership of their bodies that sex workers experience in the
course of receiving money for sexually gratifying another.”
But the article is confused. It states on the other hand that “Sexual
relations that take place outside a framework of “love” or domestic
companionship are no less valid than sex within relationships. There
isn’t anything inherently “immoral” (across all societal forms) in the
employment of an individual to provide sexual gratification for another.
In an historical sense, any type of sexual relation contains potentially
empowering, oppressive and morally neutral meanings, and any analysis
of sex work has to ask historically contextual questions such as who
becomes a sex worker and why, etc.” It also acknowledges that “Sex work –
wherever it occurs – cannot be understood by generalising from some
individuals’ personal experiences and views.”
Certainly, sex itself is one of the sacred hypocrisies of our
society, and plays a part in the power dynamics of sexism and women's
oppression. But if “generalising from some individuals' personal
experiences” can't determine an understanding of sex or sex work, it
cuts both ways: that should include generalisations like the article's
sweeping statement about individuals' “sense of loss of ownership of
If the notion that sex is intrinsically special and sacred, or
fundamentally one of “the most intimate aspects of our lives” is
rejected, as it should be (because not everyone sees it that way, and
should not be required to) then in most if not all respects sex work is
(or should be), in fact, just like any other job.
The article claims to renounce the social stigma founded in
conservative ideology that reinforces the lack of rights for sex
workers, and I imagine the authors intend it that way. But at the same
time the article replicates or reinforces that stigma regardless. Lest
we forget the stigma that even relatively unjudgemental people often put
on sex work, unconsciously even, it's worth considering what sex
workers themselves have to say about it. See this, for example.
Unfortunately, an outspoken current of “radical feminists” and
liberals have made sex work (and by implication the rights of sex
workers) their enemy, using ostensibly feminist arguments to support
conservative laws such as criminalising sex work, or the “Nordic”
Model. The “Nordic” or “Swedish” model penalises the customers, and
often others such as drivers, security guards and landlords, even
reportedly having children taken from sex workers (see here (PDF) for a summary of the negative impacts of this policy).
While declaring they care for the victims, most of these moralists
(liberal-conservative, or radical-feminist) infantilise sex workers by
denying that they are morally or intellectually capable to decide to do
sex work, as something that is supposedly intrinsically harmful to
themselves and society as a whole. The whole narrative is usually about
sex workers as victims who need to leave the industry, not people who
can organise themselves and make up their own mind.
The article in Alliance Voices replicates this, in less
explicit form. “No matter how well a sex worker believes they are
“handling it” psychologically, in an unequal and misogynist social
structure, choosing to be a sexual commodity will have an impact.”
It's worth remembering here that all workers (more precisely their
“labour-power”) are commodities in capitalism. The authors are working
on the assumption that sex work commodifies the worker's body, not their
labour power. The article also perpetuates the unfortunate and harmful
myth that sex work involves women surrendering ownership of their body
to clients: “the customer has ownership, for whatever period of time, of
the woman herself”. The whole point of sex workers having rights is
that this is not what actually happens. It is a description of some kind
of slavery, not sex work.
The article spends a great deal of time quoting statistics and
studies – but many of these are for other countries, or for the world
overall, and not necessarily reliable.
The article implies a moral or political position that women should
not be sex workers: “under capitalism all women are constantly exposed
to ideas and practices that denigrate them and objectify their
sexuality. However, the degree of impact of these constant assaults on
individual women’s sense of self-worth is significantly influenced by whether or not they accept or resist their
treatment as sex objects”, it states. Implied in this is that by
choosing sex work, sex workers are choosing to denigrate themselves, and
by extension all women.
It may not have been the authors' attempt, but this undoubtedly
reinforces social stigma against sex workers: on top of old-fashioned
conservative moral stigma, a liberal/radical-feminist argument that sex
workers are somehow partly responsible for sexism and women's
oppression. One of the techniques of argument used for some anti-sexwork
polemics is a kind of “shock tactic” version of this, that makes the
argument centre on rape, trauma and often on the illegal trafficking in
women. Accounts of the most violent and terrifying slavery, which are
asserted to be intrinsic to the industry, are used to argue that
defending women's right to choose to work in the industry is defending
slavery and rape (“trafficking”). The argument is for the whole industry
to be shut down. It doesn't matter whether the lurid tales are
representative of the experience of most sex workers (or even true, in
some cases). It doesn't matter that shutting down the industry would not
help workers in any way.
We should also note, violent or extortionate practices like
trafficking are not at all restricted to the sex industry, being rife in
areas like construction and agriculture and domestic labour, for
The article in Alliance Voices does not directly make this extreme
version of the argument, but some of the references cited appear, in
particular the studies by Melissa Farley. Academic sounding studies that
do not disclose their methodology, or go to peer review, are not a
credible source. Don't just take my word for it; a Canadian judge also
found Farley to be an unreliable source. See here, and a response to Farley's research from a sex worker activist here. This use of less than credible sources should call into question the whole article for any critical reader.
Quoting studies and statistics about how bad many women find the work
may not seem like news. But in context, it reinforces the conservative
message, implied in the article, that women should not be sex workers if
they can help it; in other (unsaid) words, those that choose to do it
are bad. But bad conditions and unhappy workers are to be expected in a
socially stigmatised occupation with little or no legal protection, and
people still choose unpleasant jobs for all sorts of rational reasons.
We hear that “66% of street sex workers in Sydney reported that they
found sex work very stressful and just under half met the criteria for
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The article in Alliance Voices
does not mention whether the trauma is pre-existing or caused by the
job, and whether it is related to street work in particular or equally
to all sex work, but the article invites readers to make assumptions –
all too easy in such a stigmatised field.
The moralism and stigmatising the article promotes is inconsistent
with its recommendations that “Supporting the decriminalisation of sex
work and advocating for sex workers' rights is a powerful expression of
opposition to society’s stigmatisation of sex workers, and can assist in
It would certainly be better to treat sex work as work just like any
other (and sex workers as workers just like any other), and break down
the stigma. Sex workers should be supported to overcome the many
barriers to safety, dignity, equality and so on in their work, just like
workers in any other industry.
The harder the authors argue that women in sex work are engaged in
something that is not “just a job”, the more they advocate measures that
would “normalise” it as just that: the rights of the workers in the
industry. Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of this
article, if not furious agreement with a policy that is already in
place? Despite its clear (and unhelpful) implication that all sex work
is harmful and should be discouraged, the article argues essentially to
normalise it in labour relations.
The backlash against sex worker rights exemplified in the Nordic
Model is supported by many liberals, some feminists, and some on the
left such as (for example) the Scottish Socialist Party and prominent
Victorian Greens activist Kathleen Maltzahn. Amnesty International
branches recently voted against the organisation's international policy
critical of the Swedish Model, apparently due to lobbying and protests
by anti-sexwork feminist activists. See this article by a conservative
Christian activist, with a one-time Socialist Alliance candidate listed
as the media contact for the “Nordic Model Australia Coalition”.
Ending women's oppression, including any sexism that may be inherent
in or embodied in or just present in the sex industry, is not the
special responsibility of sex workers. It is not the responsibility of a
policy relating to sex workers and their rights. It is the
responsibility of all of us.
Socialist Alliance has a policy about the rights of sex workers, but
the article I'm arguing against is primarily concerned with the history,
context and nature of sex work. The article feeds the explicit and
implicit stigmatisation of sex workers, regardless of the authors'
intentions. It also feeds (or concedes ground to) a negative and
reactionary backlash campaign against sex workers rights that is being
waged in otherwise left and progressive circles (and elsewhere).
Is sex work is just like any other job? In one aspect it is: sex
workers themselves are in the best position to change the nature of sex
work, and supporting their rights is the best way to let that happen.
Let's make that the focus of our policy, and support them against the