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The Limits of Sex Work Radicalism

Back from a brief vacation with a long post that will probably annoy some people, but is the result of a long-standing annoyance...

By now I am getting extremely annoyed with a certain discourse around sex work that has become popular amongst some sectors of the North American (and occasionally European) left.  Originally a discourse that was limited to lifestyle [and predominantly male] anarchists, as well as a few hippy sex fetishists, the political assertion that sex work is liberating, and that the liberating potential of sex work should be treated as part of a radically progressive politics, is now being embraced by the broader left-wing population and gaining the support of so-called feminists, socialists and communists who should know better.  Indeed, the unqualified pro-prostitution position is being treated by some as a litmus test for numerous radical commitments as it is now attached to, and turned into a falsely essential component of, feminism, queer and trans liberation, and other anti-oppressive political positions.

Before going any further I want to emphasize that I believe that sex workers should have the right to unionize and that prostitution should be decriminalized.  The normative status of sex work, the so-called "oldest profession", in capitalist society is clearly a result of patriarchal hypocrisy that preaches sexual puritanism on one hand and then reinforces this puritanism by, on the other hand, allowing sex to proliferate on the black market and in especial sites.  If we believe that sex work is a form of labour (though I would argue along with every radical feminist and socialist feminist who has contributed significantly to human liberation that it is structurally a more oppressive form of labour), then we should struggle for unionization and decriminalization just as we do for other workers.  Nor should we treat sex workers in the way that they're treated by puritanical activists––as victims who need to be rescued from a "sinful" existence––for the same reason we should not treat, for example, migrant workers as ignorant and lacking agency.

But to accept that there is a need for sex workers to unionize and be afforded the same legal rights as other workers is not what this popular discourse around sex work requires of us.  Rather, we are meant to believe that unionization and decriminalization is not liberatory enough and that we have to endorse, as the only "radical" option, the idea that sex work in itself is not-oppressive or exploitative.  We are supposed to accept that sex work is synonymous with human agency––especially feminist, queer, and trans agency.  

There are supposedly "socialist" writers who have even argued that it is not enough to decriminalize sex work and unionize sex workers; the truly "radical" option is to legalize the entire industry, including pimps, and to argue otherwise is not progressive.  This argument is usually levelled at those, like myself, who believe that the workers should be afforded rights whereas the pimps, those who buy and sell women, should be targeted.  Apparently it is now "socialist" to argue that it is radical to embrace management.

In general, the arguments for the sex-work-equals-liberation position break down to some notion of workers self-management.  The idea is that sex work itself is not the problem, but the constraints in which it takes place.  So if we change those constraints, and pursue sex work as a viable site of human agency, then the entire industry can become radically free––the pimps and johns, those men who believe they have the right to exchange women as commodities, also transformed.  Like mondragon cooperatives, institutions of sex work will suddenly become utopian sex kingdoms where the oppressive relationships (specifically relationships of gender and sexuality) that govern the larger society will magically evaporate.  Even better, as the hippies used to argue about the 1960s "sexual revolution", perhaps this approach to sex work will lead to a progressive transformation of society itself.

But those of us who are socialists, who are communists, should know by now that this type of argument, applied in every context of work, is petty bourgeois radicalism.  As the Chinese Communist Party under Mao wrote about Tito's revisionism around this very question: "[t]heoretically speaking, anyone with a slight knowledge of Marxism knows that slogans like 'workers' self-government' and 'factories to the workers' have never been Marxist slogans but slogans advanced by anarchist syndicalists, bourgeois socialists and old-line opportunists and revisionists." (The Great Debate, 117-118)  The Mondragons did not lead to an overthrow of capitalism and, even today, can happily persist alongside capitalism; the anarchists of the Spanish Revolution failed to strike a significant blow against capitalism with their cooperatives––even Durutti eventually realized that the call for workers self-management was failing to accomplish anything more than demonstrate the important but limited fact that while capitalists need workers, workers don't need capitalists.  

Capitalism is more than its factories: it is a state and the seizing of political power is far more important than transforming the relationships in factories and institutions under capitalism.  Union struggles, for example, did not cause capitalism to fall even though the ruling classes were forced, against their wishes, to unionize workers.  Workers self-management, though radical in form, is not by itself capable of being truly radical and anti-capitalist.  There are mondragons in Spain, after all, and they exist within the confines of Spanish capitalism.  Workers self-management does not end the commodity relationship, is not about transforming human relationships, cannot harm capitalism anymore than union struggles can harm capitalism.

Returning to the topic of sex work as essentially liberatory, the point I am trying to make is that even if we accept that sex work is synonymous with every other type of alienated labour, we cannot accept that it is somehow essentially radical because we also cannot accept that alienated labour of any type is essentially radical.  Those of us who are communists believe in a society that is not based on exchange-value, that rejects surplus-value, and does not worship the commodity.  Although it may seem silly to make this point (and I do feel rather silly for having to make it), the fact is that people who endorse sex work as a radical position that produces human agency actually believe, contrary to any historical materialist analysis, that sex work exists in a category separate from other alienated labour… a point with which past generations of radical feminists would agree but, unlike the radical feminists of yesterday, the people who take the sex-work-equals-liberation position are arguing that this especial category is one that is more radical than other forms of work.

This is why it is now in fashion for a strata of privileged academics, who are quite taken with this supposedly "transgressive" idea that sex work is intrinsic to radical politics, to dabble in prostitution in their spare time.  This is the sexual equivalent of kids from rich families who dumpster dive, or pan-handle now and then, because of some asinine belief that the activities of those classes who do not have any other option but pan-handling or dumpster diving are somehow intrinsically radical.  Of course these kids can usually stop dumpster diving and pan-handling whenever they wish and perform these activities according to their own boundaries and limits.  The same goes for the so-called radical dabbling in sex work: they choose their clients, practice when they wish to practice, and imagine that they are somehow similar to the vast populations of women who have no other option.  The practice is only transgressive because sex in this puritan society is still treated as transgressive, and being transgressive is not political.

The argument against the accusation of privileged tourism, however, is simply to fall back on some idealist nonsense about workers self-management, that I demystified above, and a claim that all sex workers should have the right to pick their own clients.  Well, as much as I agree with that point by itself (though not the fundamental political position), it dodges the deeper questions that the historical materialist asks: why is it that the vast majority of sex workers (not just nationally but globally) do not have the right to pick their own clients, why do the vast majority of sex workers not have the privilege to engage in prostitution as a transgressive activity on the side, why are the vast majority of sex workers even sex workers in the first place, and what are the material structures upon which sex work exists?

Those who support sex work as an essential activity of radicalism, as synonymous with human agency, generally fail to ask these questions; if they do, they provide the wrong answers.  Inversely, when they argue for workers self-management and sex workers unions they are, to paraphrase Althusser, providing the right answers for the wrong questions.  The point being: there is a general lack of political rigour, a failure to understand structural oppression, behind a position that treats sex work as radical in and of itself.  This position is related to the current fad of treating polyamory as intrinsically radical, though far more offensive because it ends up supporting the maintenance of real world oppression.

So the absence of concrete theoretical rigour around this issue is truly offensive, especially when some radical sex work theorists provide possible world scenarios that are utterly ignorant of history and society.  Imagine that we live in a society where prostitutes are treated like intellectuals, one academic sex work dabbler has argued, where prostitutes are treated as academics are treated now and vice versa.  Then she proceeds to build her entire argument upon this notion of inclusion/exclusion, of transgression/taboo, without ever truly investigating the concrete circumstances behind the existence of sex work.  Nor does she realize that her possible world scenario is utterly ludicrous.  In the philosophy of politics, the appeal to a possible world scenario should be performed in an entirely logical manner: we ask questions about whether x would be different if y was changed, but the only way these questions can ever lead to a rigorous understanding of society is if we work hard to keep the x and y within the confines of possibility.  What if capitalism originated in China instead of Europe is a fruitful question because we ask it to discover the social relations that define capitalism.  What if the Yeti developed capitalism before humans is a ludicrous question, except for maybe a science fiction novel, because the terms are so outside the realm of possibility that they will tell us nothing useful.  The same can be said about a possible world where the role prostitutes and intellectuals, a possible world that is ahistorical and idealist because it ignores the division between manual and mental labour, and the privileging of the latter, that was necessary to produce a society where there is such a thing as prostitution.  To imagine a social reversal of intellectuals and prostitutes should lead our possible world theorist, if there was any investigation about the material relations that found what she or he was speaking about in the first place, to accept that prostitution as it is presently understood would not exist.

All of this is to say that there are reasons, exploitative and oppressive reasons, behind the emergence of prostitution as a form of alienated labour––reasons outlined by every marxist-feminist who has attempted to investigate the relationship between capitalism and sex work, as well as the historical roots of sex work, but reasons that I will not discuss in much detail here because I am more concerned with examining the present discourse's logical problems than reiterating what used to be part of a strong leftist and feminist analysis for the past few decades.  

I am also concerned with how this over-valorization of sex work is a specifically North American and eurocentric phenomenon.  If we want to truly look at the sex industry, we need to look at its existence as a global industry.  Just as gains for the working class here are economically possible because of imperialism, so would the gains for sex workers here be economically and patriarchally possible through the super-exploitation of third world women.  The sex trade is an issue of global misogyny, not some provincial quibble at the centres of capitalism, and has led to a massive death toll and innumerable unmarked graves of women.  And just as the brutal practices of exported capital are the intrinsic telos of capitalism when it is left to its own devices without pesky labour laws that get in the way (exploiting workers, especially those deemed racially inferior, as cheaply and for as long as possible is the logic of surplus value), exchanging women as disposable sex receptacles is the logic of the sex industry, the logic of misogynist-capital, that emerged as an industry due to the ontological assumption that women, because they were lesser than human, could be treated like property.  

And the argument that there are male prostitutes does not negate the fact that women (and I include in this category transwomen) form the overwhelming majority of the global sex industry and are the motive force behind its existence.  Prostitution first emerged as a patriarchal practice and is still, as much as some people want to ignore the structural facts of history and society, a patriarchal institution where female workers are the rule and not the exception, the primary justification and not an aberration.

The failure to grasp this global and historical point has led to some sex worker radicals making the most offensive arguments in the presence of third world women.  Around a year ago, at a Women United Against Imperialism conference in Montreal, a paper about sex work being intrinsic to human liberation was presented in a room filled with former prostitutes, some of them former prostitutes from third world settings.  The paper was not well received by these women who had experienced the true logic of prostitution, and yet the presenter failed to comprehend the true reasons for the denunciation aside from responding with a denunciation of her own: the women in the audience must have "conservative" notions about sex work if they couldn't grasp that it was radical––because, after all, if it is becoming normative amongst the eurocentric left to assert that sex work is synonymous with radically, then to assert otherwise is, based on the flawed and initial definition, "anti-radical."

But what is the yardstick of our radically?  How to we measure progressive politics?  Well, if we are socialists and communists we should ask: in a socialist society would politics x persist?  By looking at a possible society based on human needs, a society aimed at transcending surplus value and commodification, we can often gauge whether a political or social practice is progressive or reactionary, or if such a practice can be transformed from the latter to the former.  When it comes to the politics of prostitution, however, I would argue that its persistence under socialism is impossible without undermining socialism.  And since I believe we should base possible world scenarios on what his historically and materially possible, not on supernatural or mythical concepts, then we should also examine the practice of prostitution by looking at actual socialist precedents that still, despite (and also because of) their eventual failures, have so much to teach us.

During the Chinese Revolution, for example, prostitution withered away.  This was not because the revolutionaries banned prostitution but because: a) they banned pimps and brothels; b) they provided women with property rights; c) they pursued an agenda of womens equality that, regardless of some of its failures, was still far ahead of anything else in the world at that time and even today.  And because of these practices, women eventually no longer wanted to be prostitutes because the necessity of prostitution––the necessity to exchange one's body for money––no longer existed.  Interestingly enough, prostitution (just like drug addiction) began to return when China slid back into capitalism.

The argument that sex work needs to persist because, if it doesn't, some people will never be able to have a sexual experience (an argument I have heard time and time again) is a pitiful dodge.  Not only does it ignore the fact that in actual historical examples of socialism sex work has withered away, but it ascribes a logic to sexuality that contradicts the very claims made by radical sex work ideologues.  For do they not make the argument that properly radical sex work will happen when the sex worker has the freedom to define her own clientele?  And do they not also imagine the legal institutionalization of sex work resulting in a situation where the hegemonic mores of puritan sexuality––those mores that define what is desirable and what bodies should be exchanged––will supposedly disintegrate?  But the actually existing sex industry happens at the intersection of normative desire, where even what is judged unique and different is only desirable because it is a fetish, and where the control of bodies is defined by a market logic of choice between commodities.  

And the larger point, of course, is that when a structure of gender equality is being developed, when the necessity of selling your own body is removed as a profitable option and that bare survival is guaranteed, then prostitution evaporates as a social convention.  To tell those women who have stopped selling themselves because they possess a larger social agency that they should engage in prostitution because some of the men in their society might not get laid otherwise is ridiculous.  It is far more progressive to force the men to realize that they do not have the right to buy sex, that female bodies are not theirs to own and exchange.  It is even more progressive to pursue the type of society where sex is not a central focus because of puritan taboo, where it becomes as banal and mundane as other human needs and so lacks the aura that allows for the mystification of desire.  (Again, it is worth reflecting on Michel Foucault's comments regarding the false liberation produced by the discourse of the sexual revolution that is still locked in the fetish of sexuality, the product of a society where sex is still taboo.)

None of this is to say, mind you, that unions for sex workers and a climate of decriminalization is much preferable to the current state of affairs, just that to imagine that sex work is by itself liberatory––that it is somehow more radical than other forms of alienation when the opposite is clearly (when judged against the historical and material facts of sex work) the case––is not the case.  Those of us who are dedicated to the horizon of socialism should never believe that reforms within capitalist social relations are synonymous with liberation.  We pursue radical reforms when they are tactically necessary; we do not make them our guiding political principle.  And when it comes to sex work, which has a far older and patriarchal history that even now results in the worldwide maintenance of misogynist-capital, it is petty bourgeois lifestyle politics to pretend that the commodification of sex, which most often means the commodification of women, is essentially radical.


  1. Great article. I've dabbled in a few feminist discussion groups lately and unfortunately it seems like the liberal tendency you describe is becoming a kind of "common wisdom" among third wavers. Implicit in the assumption that "real sexual freedom" includes the "freedom" to sell and be sold is a rejection of radical worldviews that envision something fundamentally different (and better!) than the current horrible capitalist present. It assumes that well, if this is all we can ever hope to have, might as well pursue some wishy-washy liberal ideal of "freedom" that leaves the underlying institutions of male supremacy untouched, and even legitimized. I usually just end up throwing some Dworkin or Mackinnon quotes at these people, so thank you for situating the argument in a Maoist-ish framework.

  2. Bravo! An absolutely brilliant post.

  3. Thanks for the praise, Clarissa... And Eli M-H, throwing up Dworkin or MacKinnon is always useful, but there's also a good communist-feminist history behind this discussion. If I hadn't written this article when I was on vacation, and thus away from the internet and my books, I probably would have quoted someone like Kollontai who had a lot of insightful and historically grounded articles on prostitution.

  4. Agreed, completely. It's nice to see this subject taken up through a socialist framework again. Even the best internet feminists and allies seem to forget about materialist analysis from time to time. Coming from a radical transnational feminist perspective, it's always frustratingly obvious when pro-sex-industry advocates lack--or choose to ignore--any understanding of sex commodification on a global level. The conversation continues to be about what's desired by the relatively few geographically, economically, and usually racially privileged (and any attempt to center Global South activist work against trafficking, sex tourism, etc. is dismissed as a red herring and entirely irrelevant). The sex commodification industry is globally interconnected and inherently linked to socioeconomic issues. Trying to pretend otherwise isn't convincing and does nothing to support those who can't just get up and leave it.

  5. I'm glad that your comment, along with others, agrees with this post - I'm still waiting for the hate mail (that is, the hate mail that comes from self-proclaimed leftists and not the usual "feminists are stoopid" crap I delete).

    The pro-sex-industry discourse is getting pretty strong amongst sectors of the [movementist] left, at least where I live and work, to the point where one of my comrades was called "oppressive" simply because of her unwillingness to accept that sex work was inherently radical. And, as I mentioned in the article, even self-proclaimed "socialists" who draw on a marxist tradition have been drawn into adopting this idiocy. If you don't buy it, you're drummed out for being "oppressive" (for no reason aside from the fact it doesn't fit the lifestyle politics) or a puritan (despite the fact that the argument has nothing to do with an anti-sex line and actually quite the opposite)... Like you indicated, they tend to choose to ignore what you're saying.

    I like the terminology "sex commodification industry" that you used above: it gets to what I was trying to say. I may use it in an argument with people in the real world at some point in the future.

  6. Let phony leftists and wannabe Communists show their true colors by coming out in favor of "sex work" and the commodification of women. Better they expose themselves than hide in our ranks.

    Prostitution will never be anything other than subjugation and commodification of women. It does not improve living conditions in economically stricken areas, and it also is a form of ethnic exploitation as well. Women from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe are exploited and stereotyped as "deserving" their situation, or people act as though they can't do anything else in life.

    Those of us who are real Marxists remember the words in the Manifesto about the abolition of prostitution, both public and private.

  7. Very good. We should remember that most academics are intellectual prostitutes in the literal meaning of the term (to offer for sale) - even the 'lefties'.

  8. Very awesome!!! When I seek for this I found this website at the top of all blogs in search engine.
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