The Problem With (Sex) Work

March 27th, 2012  |  Published in Feminism, Politics, Work  |  8 Comments

As I said in an earlier post, my essay in the forthcoming Jacobin is structured around a review of political theorist Kathi Weeks’ new book The Problem With Work. It’s a timely and interesting book that effectively ties together a number of my preoccupations: the critique of wage labor, the deconstruction of the work ethic, the demand for shorter hours, universal basic income, the politics of the non-reformist reform. More than most other writers on these topics, however, Weeks connects all of these issues to feminism.

One of the benefits of making this link, which I wasn’t able to cover in my essay, is that it gives you the analytical tools to understand sex work correctly. I’m continually enervated and depressed by the way Leftists will unthinkingly throw around stuff like this:

Or, to take another example, there was the incident where some right-wing nut called Elizabeth Warren a “socialist whore” a few months ago. People whose politics I respect mostly treated that phrase as a bit of laughable word salad. But I’ve actually known a few socialist whores in my life, and they’re good comrades! And as I noted recently, the right-wing connection between the threat of socialism and the threat of loose sexual morality is not an arbitrary one.

I was talking recently to an old friend and former editor at the late, lamented $pread Magazine, and she noted that many sex worker rights activists have little experience even interacting with the traditional Left, so reluctant are most leftists to come anywhere near their issues. She also lamented the unfortunate state of the debate over sex work, which tends to be reduced to two equally inadequate positions: a patriarchal moralizing that treats sex work as a uniquely awful form of exploitation in which women can only ever be regarded as victims, and a panglossian libertarianism that revels in sex work as a source of independence and self-expression while glossing over its less glamorous aspects.

The first perspective produces legislative atrocities like the proposed New York City bill that would have penalized taxi drivers for transporting prostitutes. The second perspective can neglect the coercive and violent parts of the sex industry, which are real even if they tend to be misrepresented as the entirety of sex work. But the real problem with a lot of the more exuberant pro-sex work arguments and their anti-sex work counterparts is a bit more subtle: the issue with sex work is not the sex, it’s the work. As Canadian writer and sex worker Sarah M. puts it in an article at the website:

[T]o call sex work degrading, as if that’s news, is to deny that all jobs are degrading . . . Conversely, that these jobs are degrading doesn’t automatically make sex work empowering. It just makes it unexceptional. “Jobs” are degrading because capitalism is degrading, because waged work is degrading. . . . Sex workers don’t want to make prostitution “a job like any other.” It’s already our job. As long as welfare and minimum wage work, which are neither consistent nor sustainable, are the only other options, we will continue to do sex work — legally or illegally, in the open or hidden, safely or in dangerous places, depending on the other factors that determine how we do our work. Because work is about money.

The basic problem that afflicts many pro- and anti-sex work arguments is that they take for granted the desirability and legitimacy of wage labor in general. They are caught up in an ideology that says that work is supposed to be a source of meaning and dignity in life. They are therefore committed to either stigmatizing sex work as an illegitimate and particularly dehumanizing kind of work (if they oppose it) or endorsing it as being just as dignified and fulfilling as any other job (if they support it). Weeks sums this up perfectly in this passage from The Problem With Work:

Feminist analyses of sex work offer an illustrative example of the limitations of certain efforts to claim the title of work when that also involves making use of the legitimacy conferred by its dominant ethic. Introduced originally as a way to intervene in the feminist sex wars, the label “sex work” sought to alter the terms of feminist debate about sexual labor (Leigh 1997). For example, as a replacement for the label “prostitution,” the category helps to shift the terms of discussion from the dilemmas posed by a social problem to questions of economic practice; rather than a character flaw that produces a moral crisis, sex work is reconceived as an employment option that can generate income and provide opportunity. Within the terms of the feminist debate about prostitution, for example, the vocabulary has been particularly important as a way to counter the aggressive sexual moralizing of some in the prohibitionist camp, as well as their disavowal of sex workers’ agency and insistent reliance on the language and logics of victimization. The other side, however, has produced some comparably problematic representations of work as a site of voluntary choice and of the employment contract as a model of equitable exchange and individual agency. More relevant to our topic here, it is important to recognize how much of the rhetorical utility of the label “sex work” stems from its association with conventional work values. For those involved in sex worker advocacy, the term can serve not only as a way to foreground the economic dimensions of such labor practices, but as a way to insist on their essential worth, dignity, and legitimacy, as—in the formulation of one advocacy group—“service work that should be respected and protected” (quoted in Jenness 1993, 67). I do not mean to deny the vital importance of these efforts, only to point out that they often tend to echo uncritically the traditional work-ethic discourse. Thus the prostitutes’ rights group COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) may succeed in calling off one of our old tired ethics, but in the process of doing so, taps into and reproduces another. The approach usefully demoralizes the debates about the nature, value, and legitimacy of sex for wages in one way, but it often does so by problematically remoralizing it in another; it shifts the discussion from one moral terrain to another, from that of a suspect sexual practice to that of a respectable employment relation.

I’m in favor of legalizing all forms of sex work for adults—not because I think it’s necessarily such great work, but because I think being a legal worker is better than being an illegal worker. The sex work “abolitionist” position makes about as much sense to me as reacting to Foxconn by calling on China to ban factory work. But perhaps it’s the troublesome “remoralizing” of work that Weeks identifies which is at the root of the uneasiness that pro-sex worker positions provoke in some Leftists. A lot of left-wing critiques of sex work, particularly in private conversations, strike me as the bad conscience of reflexively upholding the work ethic, rather than a coherent account of sex work in particular.

Not only does sex work destabilize the work ideology, it also conflicts with a bourgeois ideal of private, monogamous sexuality that also remains widespread on the left. If you want to oppose sex work without opposing work in general, you’re forced to fall back on some normative claim about what counts as normal, natural sexual relationships. This is closely related to the tendency to fall back on a naturalized conception of “the family” as the subject of society and politics, as in one of my least favorite names for a progressive political party ever, the “Working Families Party”.

Laura Agustin has an interesting discussion of the status of sex work in an essay for The Commoner. She notes that much discussion of contemporary sex work assumes that the most natural form of sexual relation is one that is mediated only by love or passion rather than by money or any other form of instrumentality. She then observes that no sexual relationship is ever so simple, and that the imbrication of sex with money and exchange has a long history. This is hardly foreign to American culture, as anyone who’s familiar with “The Millionaire Matchmaker” is aware. But Agustin observes that “[i]n societies where matchmaking and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional, the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalised, while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange entering into what they believe should be ‘ pure’ relationships.” Against those who would lament the corruption of such “pure relationships”, she says that:

I see no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards happier families and juster societies, and that neoliberalism is destroying that. But historical research shows that before the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were common in both upper and working-class cultures (Agustín 2004). In the long run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois ‘family values’ were a blip on the screen in human history.

She goes on to say:

For some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force—this commodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually sold off in the commercial sex exchange.

While I agree that no good can come of treating the commodification of sex as though it’s qualitatively different from the commodification of other aspects of human relations, I can’t be quite so sanguine on the implications of commodification in general. I am, after all, on record expressing my doubts about the indefinite expansion of both wage labor and commodification. However, the problem I would identify does not have to do with the exchange of money itself, but with the power relations within which it is embedded. I’m inclined to return once again to Erik Olin Wright’s concept of “capitalism between consenting adults”, which he invokes as part of his case for a Universal Basic Income:

When Marx analyzed the process of “proletarianization of labor” he emphasized the “double separation” of “free wage labor”: workers were separated from the means of production, and by virtue of this were separated from the means of subsistence. The conjoining of these two separations is what forced workers to sell their labor power on a labor market in order to obtain subsistence. In this sense, proletarianized labor is fundamentally unfree. Unconditional, universal basic income breaks this identity of separations: workers remain separated from the means of production (these are still owned by capitalists), but they are no longer separated from the means of subsistence (this is provided through the redistributive basic income grant). The decision to work for a wage, therefore, becomes much more voluntary. Capitalism between consenting adults is much less objectionable than capitalism between employers and workers with little choice but to work for wages. By increasing the capacity of workers to refuse employment, basic income generates a much more egalitarian distribution of real freedom than ordinary capitalism.

It’s undeniably true that many sex workers, if they had access to another source of income, would either leave the sex industry or demand better conditions for themselves. But the same could be said of supermarket checkers or factory workers. And that, ultimately, is the only argument against sex work that I think holds up: it’s work, and work is often terrible.


  1. Thierry Schaffauser says:

    April 2nd, 2012 at 3:38 pm (#)

    I think you caricature the sex workers’ movement. There are many sex worker activists who are part of the anti-capitalist Left, involved in trade unions and in the struggles of the broader working class who don’t analyse work as empowering and who refuse to be seen as victims like the prohibitionist want us to be. We are workers.

  2. Thierry Schaffauser says:

    April 2nd, 2012 at 3:39 pm (#)

  3. Sexworker Marc says:

    April 2nd, 2012 at 9:56 pm (#)

    There are many more complication with sex work as work:

    1 Sex work is not only work it is at the same time sole actor/owner entrepreneurship. No sex worker gets workers benefits and most will never receive written contracts, neither from brothel owners nor clients. Some sex workers hire co-workers and bigger working space to become manager and possibly industrialists or late capitalist (cf. Helen Ward).

    2 Not only sex is stigmatized or taboo but money is too. Money in its ability to qualify and being an universal quantifier or equalizer can be very degrading to in-quantifiable, incomparable products or human relations. However these problems with money are typically hidden or suppressed in mainstream economy or society and only seen or even projected onto prostitution (scapegoat).

    3 The sex worker is worker (owner) and product at the same time (“selling one’s body”). He is marketing himself as an object, creating a product, fantasy or even brand using his body while being this body (USP). Whereas manufactured sold products can be easily standardised and reproduced (industrialisation), the ageing body of a worker can not (sex workers are not allowed to amortize their production facilities;). This time effect of productivity creates a typical prostitution trap.

    4 Therefore many workers are regularly expelled early from the sex market (fresh flesh demand). Not so much brain power, experience, wisdom or human resources is then left for union building, which relays on experienced people, which are quite more seldom in sex work than other professions not so youth centred.

    5 The framing and taboo of sex and then sex work creates self reinforcing cycles (self fulfilling prophecies) of unqualified sex work with not so much whore culture. Since there is no sex work academy and research centre etc. not so much cultivation or quality is passed on over generations in comparison to highly regarded disciplines.

    6 Sex work is framed about being and not about knowing. Most clients expect a person and fantasise about a lover not a skilled or trained journeyman performing skills on him. Knowledge is most of the time not a product or service value.

    7 Money can be understood or treated based on the concept of gold coins or paper bills. The first is real value for exchange economy (flow of monetary units), the latter is public convention based on trust and credit economy (distributed booking system). Only solvent people can pay upfront with real values as gold or money, whereas many poor (sex) workers ask for credit and promise to repay later with earnings from work in the future. That is the root cause for complications with pimping or trafficking contracts. The criminalisation has one root within the monetary system explained by money theory.

    8 Sex work is exceptionally hard to define as work, as marriage or dating for compensation can be seen as sex work and deal making too (Lena Edlund e.a.). This in-terminability or field without borders (private, drugs, migration), transgressing all categories from private to public to politics gives reason for some to stigmatize the whole field when all regulatory attempts seem to fail.

    9 The moral hazel within the debates seems to be a framing or focus problem: Either one defines the core human act of sex as root cause or problem generator if payment or promiscuity is involved (prohibitionists, moral discourses), or the structural societal outer boundary conditions against sex work as main reason to why sex work is so bad when it is bad (human rights approach, sex work movement).

    10 Only few sex workers identify as workers. Some see it as mere survival (activity of last resort), some as identity or hobby (to explore identity e.g. transsexuality or live and control promiscuity). Some work fully dependent, professionally and full time, but many only as side job or part time activity. Many will split off the activity completely from the rest of their life and identity and never talk about sex work to others in their private social family friends live.

  4. CarolLeigh says:

    April 3rd, 2012 at 1:09 pm (#)

    Marc, I find this very interesting.

    I am not sure about 10…my impression is that most I have spoken to (besides those in the movement) basically regard this as work.

    But one issue for me is that I always felt that it was problematic to regard the sex worker ONLY as a worker. It’s like the job of parenting. It’s a role also, but it is work. So, for some it’s a sort of a role, an identity.

    Number 1 always comes up…defining the relationship of someone who shares their flat and also works. For Number 3, I am never sure about the issue of aging for women. It seems to me that this is one of the rare kinds of work one can do into ones elder years…with long term individual clients. But the laws and stigma mean that it’s difficult to develop one’s business in that way… and much of what you describe above like number 4, is very tied to the status of sex work in various societies, not necessarily intrinsic. But I guess that’s your point in some of these.

    Number 9 is the core relating to Peter’s discourse…but I don’t quite understand what you are saying.

  5. CarolLeigh says:

    April 2nd, 2012 at 10:06 pm (#)

    I agree with Thierry below. Peter, you used this description of a conversation with a friend to establish this old (and insulting) stereotype of the sex workers rights movement. Besides the provocative ‘straw whore,’ your theories about sex work and labor are interesting…and familiar (from WITHIN the sex workers movement)–clearly part of any discourse on sex work within the context of labor theory.

  6. anonymous says:

    April 7th, 2012 at 3:17 am (#)

    Interesting discussion. A couple of years ago, I was asked what I thought about sex work, and I replied, somewhat cowardly, that I was against it because it was work, and I was against work. Since then, I have read a book that is quickly moving towards becoming the standard leftist work on the topic here in Sweden called »Varat och varan« (»being and the commodity«, a pun on »Being and Time«). Basically (and now I’m over-simplifying it), its main argument is similar to Marc’s # 3, and to a somewhat lesser degree #6, that is: you can’t sell sex in abstract, since it’s always sex with a person. Therefore, when someone sell sex, they’re forced to dissociate with themselves. The client, however, doesn’t want to buy abstract sex, so he/she will try to ruin the dissociation, and thus you have a very marxian conflict. This doesn’t, however, say that sex work should neccesary be illegal, just that it’s slightly different from many other kinds of work.

    However, I’d say this argument also applies to many other lines of work, though perhaps to a lesser degree. For example, nurses are expected to sell their ability to show compassion for their patients, which requires some level of dissociation/alienation from their own ability to show compassion.

    Also, Sweden has a different model concerning sex work. Selling sex is perfectly legal, specifically to not stigmatize sex workers, but buying isn’t. I’d say this is a reasonable compromise, and I think something similar should be implemented for work in general.

  7. George Balanchine says:

    April 19th, 2012 at 12:08 am (#)

    “…we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force…”

    I thought this was a very astute comment. I’ve often wondered why psychotherapy(for me, and I suspect many others) was so useless. Even ignoring that, in general, psychotherapy is only slightly better than a placebo, and the conflicting models of the mind held by all the different psychological or psychiatric schools which of course can’t all be correct, I suspect that since one has to PAY to see a therapist, in what should be something like a friendship, that this exchange of money inevitably affects, to the bad, any healing that might occur. I’ve come to believe that psychotherapy is pointless for the most part(90%), even without the problem of money, but the PAYING for therapy may be the real cause of this ineffectiveness.

    Sincerely, George Balanchine

  8. Linden says:

    May 8th, 2012 at 11:39 am (#)

    Your analysis is incomplete without a discussion of how “sex work” serves to reinforce women’s designation at birth as members of the “sex class,” which is the primary inequality on which all other inequalities are based. Prostitution can never be neutral work similar to other kinds of work because it serves to legitimize women’s oppression.

    For example, in high school I worked at McDonald’s, which I imagine is the very sort of work you would consider dehumanizing and without dignity. And it wasn’t great work — it was work for a paycheck, nothing more. But no one was able to beat me or urinate on me as a condition of my work. No one could withhold my paycheck, or verbally abuse me, or impregnate me, or expose me to a deadly venereal disease. No one could force me to kneel (or at least purchase the illusion of my being forced to kneel) and revel in their domination over me. No one had to trick me into working at McDonald’s, or traffic me from another country with the false promise of work as a domestic servant. No one could set their price on me based on my youth, status as a virgin, race, or sexual appeal to customers. No one could kill me, and probably not even draw much police scrutiny until several other additional bodies piled up. But, but, but, you might say — all these problems would go away if prostitution was legal! And I submit to you that they would not, for the simple reason that this is what prostitution is — men paying women (or sometimes other men, but very rarely women paying men) to be treated like what they are designated — members of the sex class. These acts are not neutral acts, or the hazards of a job similar to the hazards experienced on other jobs.

    That women somewhere can be bought for a price means that in their minds, men can rest easy in the assumption that any woman anywhere can be bought for a price — she’s just setting her price higher. Many a misogynist has soothed his angry soul with the image of a powerful woman with her pretentions to equality quite literally stripped away along with her clothes. And by their position on the lowest rung of society, prostitutes serve as a cautionary example to women everywhere of what is in store for them if they stray outside of society’s strictures, and reinforce women’s mainstream position as the (respectable) suppliers to men of unpaid sexuality, childbearing, and childrearing.

    Which is not to say that I blame individual women for accommodating themselves to the system — quite the opposite. Individuals strike the best bargains they can in their lives, given their circumstances. But let’s not pretend that this sort of work is devoid of political or social context, or is the same as other work.

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