An ongoing debate is taking place in anarchist and feminist circles on the legitimacy of sex work and the rights of sex workers. The two main schools of thought are almost at polar opposites of each other. On the one side you have the abolitionist approach led by feminists, such as Melissa Farley who maintains that sex work is a form of violence against women. Farley has said that “If we view prostitution as violence against women, it makes no sense to legalize or decriminalize prostitution.” On the other side you have sex worker rights activists who view sex work as being much closer to work in general than most realize, who believe that the best way forward for sex workers is in the fight for workers’ rights and social acceptance and for activists to listen to what sex workers have to say. In this article I will discuss why the abolitionist approach discriminates against sex workers and takes advantage of their marginalized status, while the rights approach offer the opportunity to make solid differences in the labor rights and human rights of sex workers.
An example of the kind of arguments put forward by advocates of abolitionism runs as follows:
“The concept of women’s ‘choice’ to sell sex is constructed in line with neoliberal and free-market thinking; the same school of thinking that purports that workers have real ‘choices’ and control over their work. It suggests that women choose to sell sex and we should therefore focus on issues to do with sex workers’ safety, ability to earn money, and persecution by the state. Whilst women’s safety and women’s rights are paramount, the argument for state-regulated brothels and unionization is reformist at best, naive and regressive at worst. Even the proposal for ‘collective brothels’ ignores the gendered nature of prostitution, and its function in supporting male domination.
“An anarchist response should demand the eradication of all exploitative practices and not suggest they can be made safer or better.” (Taken from a leaflet handed out by abolitionists at the sex work workshop at the 2011 London Anarchist Bookfair.)
A Wobbly approach does call for the eradication of all exploitative practices, not just those that benefit the one advocating for change or that one finds particularly distasteful. Work under capitalism is exploitive, you are either exploited or live off the exploitation of others—most of us do both. Sex under capitalism and patriarchy is all too often commodified and used as a means of exploitation. Work and sex in and of themselves are none of these things. Fighting sex work instead of fighting capitalism and patriarchy does not address the exploitation in its entirety. To focus on the gendered nature of sex work will not change the gendered society we live in; if anything it reinforces the myth that the gender divide is a natural part of life that must be worked around. It also silences the sex workers who do not fit the gendered notions of the female sex worker, a group who are all too conveniently ignored whenever they challenge the abolitionist discourse on sex work.
Abolitionists have accused any approach other than theirs’ as being fundamentally reformist and thus not in line with the principles of anarchism. However, isn’t trying to end an industry because the overarching capitalist, patriarchal system of our times feeds into it, rather than fighting for the emancipation of all workers, in itself reformist?
The anthropologist Laura Agustin contends that the abolitionist movement took up strength at a time when the theories of welfarism were gaining popularity among the middle class who felt they had a duty to better the working class (without addressing the legitimacy of the class system as a whole). Middle-class women, in particular, found an outlet from their own gender oppression, by positioning themselves as the “benevolent saviors” of the “fallen,” thus gaining positions and recognition in the male-dominated public sphere that they never previously could have attained.
There are more than a few remnants of the middle class, almost missionary, desire to “save” by implanting one’s own moral outlook on the “fallen” in today’s abolitionist movement. Not only does it give people a way to feel as if they are rescuing those most in need, but it does so without requiring them (in most instances) to question their own actions and privileges. The sight of someone dressed in sweatshop-manufactured garments with an iPhone, iPad and countless other gadgets made in appalling conditions calling for the abolition of the sex industry never ceases to confound me. It must be one of the few industries that people are calling for the destruction of because of the worst elements within it. They may recognize that the treatment of workers in Apple factories amounts to slavery, and that the instances of rape and sexual assault of garment makers in some factories amount to sexual slavery, but they contend that abolition of either industry is not desirable, that mass-produced clothing and technology, unlike sex, are essentials to our modern lives. Essential to whom I may ask? To the workers making such products? They do not use the products that they slave away producing, they do not benefit from their employment anymore than a sex worker in their country does theirs. It seems the essentiality of a product is judged through the lens of the consumer, not the worker, despite this being something the abolitionist accuses only opponents of abolition of doing. Calling for the abolition of sex work remains, largely, a way for people to position themselves in a seemingly selfless role without having to do the hard work of questioning their own social privilege. This is a fundamentally welfarist and reformist position to take.
Is sex (or the ability to engage in it if you so wish) not as essential to life or at least to happiness and health as any of the above are? Sex is a big part of life, a part that people should be free to take pleasure in and engage in, not a part that is viewed as being bad and dirty and shameful. I am not saying that anyone should be obligated to provide sex for someone else unless they want to, but pointing out that trying to justify abolishing the sex industry with the argument that sex isn’t essential when there are so many industries that produce things we don’t need is incredibly weak. It also, again, focuses more on the consumer than the worker. Instead of focusing on what the sex worker thinks about their work, how important it is, how it makes them feel, we are told to focus on the fact that they consumer doesn’t really need it. The worker is reduced to no more than an object, an object that needs saving whether they want it or not.
Can no worker take pleasure in aspects of their work despite capitalism? Can no woman take pleasure in sex despite patriarchy? If the answer is that they can, then why is it so hard to believe that there are sex workers who choose and/or take pleasure in their work despite capitalism and patriarchy, not because of them? I have been told by abolitionists that this is not possible within the sex industry, that any worker who enjoys their job, or even those who do not enjoy but see it as a better opportunity than anything else available to them, only does so out of internalized misogyny. That if they were freed from this, by adopting an abolitionist mindset (any other stance is accused of being founded on internalized misogyny and therefore invalid) they would see the truth. It sounds an awful lot like religious dogma and is often treated with as much zeal. The abolitionist approach refuses to value or even acknowledge the intelligence, agency, experiences and knowledge of sex workers. This is discrimination posing as feminism. If you want equality for women then you need to listen to all women, not just the ones who say what you want to hear.
Abolitionists seem to view sex workers who do not agree with them as being too brainwashed by patriarchy to advocate for themselves, or that these specific sex workers are not representative of the experiences of the majority of sex workers. As an anarchist I view all work under capitalism to be exploitative, and that sex work is no exception. I do not believe however that work that involves sex is necessarily more exploitative or damaging than other forms of wage slavery. This is not to say that there are not terrible violations of workers’ rights within the sex industry; there are and they are violations I want to fight to overcome. (By acknowledging these violations I am not saying that there are not wonderful experiences between workers and between workers and clients as well.)
If one is serious about respecting and advocating for the rights of sex workers then we have to look at what methods work. We do not live in some anarchist utopia where no one is forced to work in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise do in order to get by, so I do not see the point in spending energy debating whether sex work would exist in an anarchist society and what it would look like, if it starts to cut in to energy that could be spent advocating for the rights of sex workers in the here and now.
Abolitionists have often complained of rights activists using language to legitimize the industry by using terms like “client” instead of “john” and “worker” instead of “prostitute.” Sex workers and rights activists have moved away from the old terms as they are terms that have often been used to disempower and discriminate against workers, whereas “client” and “sex worker” are much more value neutral. Abolitionists are not innocent of using language to further their agenda. Often the term “prostitute” is used to describe sex workers. This positions the worker as an agency-less victim. Once you have positioned someone as being without agency it becomes easier to ignore their voice, to believe that you know what is in their best interest and that you are doing, or advocating, for them.
Another accusation made against rights activists is that they put the client’s wants before the needs and safety of the worker, or that they attempt to legitimize commercial sexual exchanges (something that is not considered a legitimate service by abolitionists). I have not found this to be the case—the majority of rights activists are or have been sex workers, or have close ties to sex workers, and their primary focus is on the rights, needs and safety of sex workers. For instance, Scarlet Alliance, the national sex worker advocacy body, is made up of current and former sex workers. People who would have an interest in worker exploitation, such as employers, are not eligible to join.
That they do not focus on labeling clients (the clientele are too diverse to paint with the one label anyway) is no reflection on how important the needs and safety of sex workers are. In fact it is because they are paramount to the rights movement that the focus is not on making moral judgments on the clients and is instead on labor organizing and worker advocacy. To ignore the vast amounts of change that can be made by workers organizing and advocating together in favor of moralizing over the reasons why the industry exists and whether it is an essential service is to sacrifice the rights and well-being of workers for theoretical gains.
At the end of the day the abolitionist is using their power and social privilege to take advantage of sex workers’ marginalized position, something that they accuse clients of doing. The difference is that they are not seeking sexual but moral gratification. The abolitionist approach does not help sex workers, nor does it empower them. Rather, this approach gives them a role, and penalizes them if they refuse to play it. The sex worker rights approach works in the same way that all workers rights and anti-discrimination movements have worked by empowerment, support and solidarity.
There is no anti-capitalist blueprint as to how to best eradicate exploitation, but rather several schools of thought, often their own internal schools, as to how to reach a free society. I believe that when it comes to eradicating exploitation in the workplace, syndicalism is the approach that best suits the fight at hand. When the workplace is that of a brothel, strip club, street corner, motel room, etc., the fundamentals of the fight are no different from that of other wage slaves. Sex workers need to be able to unionize, as yet there is no sex workers union. While I would love for there to be a sex workers union, I also think the belief that all workers are equal, that we are all wage slaves, that we are all in this fight together and that it is the bosses who are the enemy, make the IWW an ideal union for the marginalized workers who fall through the cracks of the existing trade unions. That said it really is the ideal union for all workers. Actions such as joining the IWW and using the strength of a union, rather than just one’s lone voice, to advocate for change is one way in which sex workers can fight their battle. Another is joining Scarlet Alliance, the national, peak sex worker organization in Australia. Like the IWW, bosses are not able to join, meaning that the interests of Scarlet Alliance are solely the interests of the workers, not those of the bosses or the abolitionists. It is actions like this, actions that empower sex workers, that we need to fight the discrimination and marginalization that exists.
If activists are truly serious about the rights of sex workers they will listen to us even if what we have to say is difficult to hear and they will support us even if they don’t like what we do. It is only when all workers join together that we have the power fight capitalism and the bosses. We do not ask for salvation but for solidarity.