Sunday, June 21, 2015

Policy debate on sex workers' rights

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' rights.

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 their bodies”.

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 womens 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 example.
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 reducing it.”
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 current backlash.

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