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On Privileged Engagements with the Sex Industry

Recently I learned of yet another "leftist" in my region who, convinced that prostitution is an essentially liberating vocation, has decided to dabble in being a call girl in order to demonstrate her politics in practice.  Perhaps she feels that this experience will give her the necessary clout––the anecdotes, the street cred––to argue her prostitution-equals-feminism position in future arguments with those feminists who maintain that prostitution is an essential pillar of patriarchy.

Since I have already written a long post about the stupidity of the "feminist" position that conflates sex work with feminist agency, I won't bother rehashing in my arguments in significant detail.  Rather, I am interested in the class position that produces not only the prostitution-equals-feminist-agency political commitment––the position that leads certain privileged individuals (like the one mentioned above) to dabble in prostitution in order to declare the practice liberating.

By-and-large, those who argue for the essential liberating aspects of sex work––and thus that sex work is not part of patriarchy––are either people who have never experienced sex work, or people who possess the class agency to dabble in sex work without any of the repercussions experienced by the vast majority of global sex workers.  This is the equivalent of suburb kids roughing it on the streets, anarcho-punks from privileged families who think that dumpster diving is a political practice: unlike the people who did not choose to live in poverty, and thus who are actually impoverished, "slumming it" is a crude simulacrum of the actual experience of homelessness.  People whose class positions are such that they can go home, can afford to properly feed themselves, cannot experience what it actually means to be poor––this is a life that was not chosen by the great majority of the world's masses and a life that they do not want.

Thus, someone who owns property and has a secure job cannot actually experience what it means to be a sex-worker because hir prime vocation is not one where s/he is forced to sell her body as an economic necessity.  Sex labour in a context of class privilege is an activity, a game, where one's material reality produces a different set of options: you can always stop, you have a far greater margin of choice (your clientelle are more like dating options on Craigslist but with reimbursement attached), and by-and-large you are not a sex-worker because this is simply compensated dating––it is not the material institution of prostitution defined by labourers who have no other choice but to sell their labour in this institution.  You are not part of this institution's army of labour; you are not part of its reserve army of labour when you aren't working.

Really, I have no moral problem with people who demand monetary reimbursement for casual dating and casual sex.  I do have a political problem, however, with these people assuming: a) they are engaged in the real world of sex-work; b) they are practicing radical, anti-oppressive politics when they are simply slumming and, in this slumming, endorsing extremely alienated wage-slavery.  I never considered the story of Pretty Woman to be "feminist", so I'm not going to consider call-girl slumming an act of radical politics.

And yet, whenever feminist arguments against the prostitution-is-liberating political line are made, those who are committed to sex-work as feminist agency get very angry and self-righteous.  When my above cited post was reblogged and reposted on various sites, for example, there were numerous dismissive comments about how I was "straw-personing" the pro-prostitution feminist line.  Except I wasn't straw-personing anything, and this was proved by the fact that all of those who made this claim could not explain where, how, or why the straw-person fallacy existed and functioned.  (I have complained before about how internet commenters like to name fallacies but are unable to actually understand the meaning of these fallacies and, in naming them, actually produce fallacious arguments [i.e. the red herring fallacy].)  My initial arguments regarding the "sex labour is inherently radical feminism" political line often employed reductio ad absurdem arguments, or reductions to the political essence and logical conclusions of the line I was critiquing––clarifying often politically confused positions to reveal inherent contradictions is not "straw-personing", it is how philosophically sound arguments function.  In any case, there is generally an irony in this employment of the straw-person charge because the people who make it are the same people who actually straw-person those who are committed to the abolition of prostitution as part of the abolition of patriarchy.

Take, for example, the fact that whenever those of us who argue that the global sex trade is an essential part of patriarchy, the response is that we are "anti-sex" and "anti-prostitute."  While it is true that there are puritan moralists whose conservative notions of sex and prostitution is worthy of such a charge, the people who are attacked by this straw-person argument are most often people who are: a) invested in the unionization of sex-workers as necessary (but who want johns and pimps targeted); b) who don't think that prostitution is not essentially defined by the act of sex [this is its formal quality] but by the commodification and control of womens' bodies.  This accusation of "anti-sex" and "anti-prostitute" is akin to accusing all anti-capitalists of being feudalists.  Clearly there are some "anti-capitalists" who are raving reactionaries––who want to go back to the "good old days" where morals were morals (Christian fundamentalists, for example)––and who feel that the market is bad for morality, industrialism terrible for the soul (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is precisely this sort of "anti-capitalism"), but it would be ludicrous to argue that the progressive commitment to an anti-capitalist politics is marred by the same conservative dogma.  And yet this straw-person conceptualization of the "abolitionist" position lingers and, with this fallacy, the fallacy of bifurcation: either you are for the institution of prostitution or you are against sex and prostitutes.

Those of us who feel that the global sex trade industry is oppressive begin by asking structural questions: who controls the means of production, who by-and-large consumes the commodity, and who profits from the surplus value generated.  These are the same questions that we must ask about any labour institution under capitalism and they are not questions that should lead critical leftists into idiotic dismissals of workers rights or condemnations of people who are forced to sell their labour.  Rejecting the labour process under capitalism does not mean rejecting fights for unions or labour reforms, but a revolutionary position has always been one that judges reforms as ultimately limited.  A unionized factory under capitalism is still a factory under capitalism: it is not a site of liberated labour.

But those who imagine that the practice of alienated labour can somehow be liberating are those whose politics lurk at the level of individuality and the level of the formal appearance of this labour.  When they attempt to make arguments about structure they are reduced to making silly comparisons between sex-work and academic work, arguing that we live in a society where the latter is privileged at expense of the former.  They never question the structural meaning behind the division of labour between mental and manual, nor do they question the fact that their entire analysis emerges from a position of academic privilege.  In the end, their politics is a politics of privilege, of the autonomy that comes from petty bourgeois privilege, radical in form and anti-radical in essence.

And when they cannot develop arguments that actually engage with the arguments of abolitionists, these "feminists" lapse into unprincipled behaviour by targeting feminists involved in on-the-ground work with prostitutes and against the sex industry.  There was an open letter circulated by abolitionist feminists, for example, discussing their treatment at the hands of these pro-prostitution ideologues.  The fact that many of these abolitionists were former sex-workers (and not the type who possessed the privilege to play at sex work like a game), some experienced with the global third world aspect of the sex industry, apparently didn't matter: and so the pro-prostitution feminists ended up targeting a population who had real experience in the industry, just not the experience they wanted to hear.  Really, if this political line didn't exist, it would be necessary for the pimps and pornographers––indeed for the patriarchy itself––to invent it.


  1. Thanks for this post, it is really important to nuance the whole pro-sex/anti-sex dichotomy within feminism. I consider myself to be sex-positive, and I consider myself feminist. I also consider sex work to be feminist and liberating for some specific individual women but overall, a tool of patriarchy that is incredibly oppressive to women as a whole - not inherently so, but mostly for reasons that can be linked back to a Marxist analysis of alienation.

    Like the arguments supporting the slutwalk, the arguments supporting the idea that sex work is feminist and liberating lack a racialized or class-based analysis and thereby apply mostly to white, well-educated women with access to money.

  2. As ever, thanks for the comments. For me, as I argued in my previous post on this topic, the issue isn't the act of sex (which reduces the argument to a moralistic one, and descends into the pro/anti sex dichotomy), but about the labour process which is always a process riven with patriarchy and racism. We wouldn't argue that it is liberating to become sweat shop workers; we would argue for the end of alienated labour under capitalism while, at the same time, supporting workers rights. So why do some people do so for sex work? I have always found it rather odd...

  3. Nice post. Of course, the fact that certain privileged individuals think they experience "liberation" doing "sex work" doesn't change the fact that prostitution and ALL sexual relations in our society exist in the context of institutional male supremacy and the exploitation of women. Prostitution, or the exchange of women as sexual commodities, is only the most visceral and openly festering manifestation of that. It's a concrete, material SYSTEM of exploitation and oppression, the oldest of it's kind in human history. So when I hear liberal or po-mo feminists tell me about how their personal experiences "prove" being prostituted can be "liberatory", I just want to rip my hair out. Can anyone imagine self-styled "abolitionists" in the 1800's telling African slaves in the Americas that their goal should be to find "empowerment" in their subjugation?

    Po-mo "sex-positive" feminism is, at it's heart, and ideology based on apologism for male supremacy. And considering how grotesquely oppressive, exploitive, and inhumane the vast majority of what passes for "sex" in our society is, if someone decided to tar me as "sex-negative", I wouldn't sprint too fast to defend myself against that charge.

  4. Sounds like someone has been reading Dworkin's Intercourse... Which, of course, is always a good thing. Especially chapter seven. Not that I would ever call Intercourse "sex negative", regardless of how it's been painted by people who haven't read it.

  5. Haha, is it that obvious? I do find Dworkin's view of sex as laid out in Intercourse to be the most convincing and compelling I've ever encountered. No metaphysical speculation on the "true" nature of sex, but a sober and materialist analysis of sexual relations as they actually exist at this historical moment. Which obviously isn't a very rosy picture! So yeah, of course, the sex-pos/sex-neg binary is total idealist moralist bullshit, but if our goal as communists is to alter all previously existing social and economic relations, that has to include tearing down all previously existing sexual relations (existing in the context of male supremacy) as well. And I don't think you can do that by clinging to ANY kind of notion of "sex-positivity", at least right now. We need to NEGATE!

    Indulgent off topic personal note: I'm really excited to have dinner with you on Saturday!

  6. Well it was kind of obvious. And yes, I agree that Intercourse is very convincing and compelling – always disappointed when it is [intentionally] misinterpreted... I do think, though, that there is a strong element of sex positivity in Intercourse. I mean, by chapter seven she argues that the inequality in the sex act is only a manifestation of the material reality of patriarchy. Which is why she would say, in an interview with Michael Moorcock [who, btw, is one of my favourite sci-fi authors], that "I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality." Really, the broader point is that all pleasure [sexual or otherwise] is distorted by capitalist social relations – but this doesn't mean we can't find things pleasurable in this society, only that things will be more pleasurable after oppression has been done away with.

    Yes, it will be exciting to have dinner with you this upcoming weekend.

  7. Nice post. I also know a lot of pro-prostitution "feminists" and have had this very same argument over and over again. As you point out, it lacks a necessary understanding of the oppressive power structures immanent to not just sex work, but any type of commodified labour.

    On a slightly different note, I also find notions of "liberation" dubious since they always refer back to that which it is liberated from (ie To put it briefly, woman is always qualified with "liberated" to denote that she is not the subject of patriarchy, yet it's self-defeating because she could not exists just as "woman". The term "liberated woman" doesn't make sense without patriarchy as the referent.)

  8. But if notions of "liberation" are dubious, what does that mean for liberation struggles? Unless you mean the way the term is used parochially [i.e. the example you gave of "liberated woman"], I think it is quite dangerous to dispose of notions of liberation or liberatory projects: this would also mean disposing of every resistance on the part of the masses, every revolution, that possesses historical resonance. Indeed, to speak of liberation means to refer to systems of oppression but these systems of oppression exist and must be named. Similarly, the concept "anti-oppression" is non-sensical if there is no such thing as "oppression" for which to be "anti", but since oppression is real it has to be opposed.

    Of course, I'm probably misunderstanding what you mean here. Is it the notion of "liberation" entirely you object to or the way that the political line I critiqued in this article judges sex activity as essentially liberating (which I would argue is false liberation).

  9. Yes, sorry for the ambiguity; that is the kind of liberation I meant. That's why I kept putting it in quotation marks....And also why I used the word dubious instead of saying "I don't believe in liberation".

  10. My reading skills at the moment are woefully inadequate.

  11. I don't accept that sex work is inherently liberating or inherently degrading because I don't think these things can be considered without their context (which JMP's article does a really good job of laying out) BUT what's the call here? It's really on the question of policy that the (semi-false) dichotomy between sex positive and abolitionism break down. My BIG problem with abolitionism is that it opposes the decriminalization of prostitution. To put it crudely, prohibition of sex work = more dead sex workers. If people opposed to sex work want to provide services encouraging people not to enter the sex trade as well as support for people who want to transfer to regular forms of employment then all well and good, but let's face facts: prohibition of sex work has been just as much a disaster as prohibition of alcohol or drugs and the number one casualties have been the sex workers themselves. As long as the social approach to sex work is attempting to stamp it out sex workers will be unable to organize or defend themselves. As long as there is money and people willing to/economically forced to exchange sex for that money the entire concept of abolition is a non-starter.

  12. Great post - I happen to be watching something right now that is talking about a big rise in an at-home porn industry in the U.S. (an elsewhere, I'm sure).

    The people featured have a certain amount of privilege in terms of race and their class position (which is not surprising).

    In this context seems to be criticized from a moral standpoint (ie. one woman has a husband, one couple has a child who sleeps upstairs while they perform, etc.)

    This whole idea of sex work as a game or as an act of liberation (especially when you have the privilege to literally remove yourself with a webcam acting as a mediator) is very troubling to me.

  13. JD Benjamin: I agree that sex work needs to be decriminalized, and said so in this article and the previous one I wrote on this issue. In fact, most of the abolitionists I've met would agree that sex workers need labour rights and that their activities should be decriminalized – the focus is on dealing with pimps and johns, not the women. Indeed, the organization that was targeted and that I cited has precisely that position.

    Xtina: Of course the program would take the typically moralistic position, which I always find extremely annoying [and conservative], but your point that the people depicted are working from a position of privilege is interesting.

  14. But you could say the same thing about any job, anything in the world. I have never commented on this blog before because I have never disagreed with anything I read before but if your problem with sex work is not about sex if a man you knew claimed to enjoy his job or find it liberating would you write a blog post accusing him of not being a proletarian and point out that his job satisfaction doesn't liberate the 3rd world from imperialism? Maybe you would, I don't know.

    Maybe other commenters know the person this blog-post is about, I don't know anybody who would claim sex work would over throw capitalism. I think it is exactly like middle class feminists who wanted to enter the work force in the 1960s, most women in the world didn't have any choice about working but it still is a good thing that middle class women were able to choose to work and make their own money to become independent from men. Even if their work exploited other women in some ways and never over-threw capitalism.

    Also this "pimps and johns" stuff sounds like a hollywood movie not reality.

  15. The argument is generally about someone performing sex work from a position of privilege and being able to determine job satisfaction due to that privilege. Nor is my judgment about sex work about individual "job satisfaction" - this is not what I'm arguing (and I intentionally linked to my previous post on this issue to explain that I am arguing against a very specific political line) – but about the structure of sex work in general. I care little about complaining about someone's enjoyment or lack of enjoyment in their job, but about what a communist and *feminist* response to labour in general and sex labour specifically should be.

    And there is a political line that claims sex work is essentially radical and liberating and that feminists who see prostitution as part of patriarchy as antiquated, even though that this is generally a third world anti-imperialist feminist line.

    Yes, it is important that women are able to be independent in their labour: this is why I support decriminalization (as I have argued here and elsewhere) of sex work, unionization of sex workers, and the same rights afforded to prostitutes that are afforded to every worker. The argument is simply that these rights are not essentially radical, that prostitution is still a prop of global patriarchy, and that it is as offensive for petty-bourgeois to "slum" at being prostitutes as it is for suburb kids to dumpster dive.

    Finally, there are pimps and johns. Not in the hollywood sense but in the real world sense; this is a language still used by feminists, still used by sex workers, and still used by revolutionaries fighting against the global-imperialist sex industry in their countries.

    And if a man I knew was weekending at some brutal unionized job and acting as if this made him more radical and that he was having a "real" experience of being a proletarian – even though he was a property owner who had another well-paying job and could go back to his home or take awesome vacations each year – then I damn well would attack his ideology. The point of this article, again, is about precisely this.

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  17. I'd like to raise a few issues with JD Benjamin's post. First of all they say:

    "I don't accept that sex work is inherently liberating or inherently degrading because I don't think these things can be considered without their context"

    Context is always important, but the fact is, "sex work" (why don't we call it what it really is, the exchange of women as sexual commodities) currently exists in, and has ONLY ever existed within the context of institutional male supremacy. I find it rather pointless and obfuscating when leftists feel the need to preface any discussion of prostitution with a disclaimer about how "sex work" isn't "inherently" anything; it dodges having to do an actual materialist analysis of the nature of prostitution as an economic and social relation as it actually exists. JD's statement strikes me as the equivalent of someone beginning an analysis of Reconstruction era sharecropping by noting that there's nothing "inherently degrading" about essentially selling one's personhood. Wouldn't we all find that ridiculous? There ARE "inherent natures" to roles established by man-made (and I use that phrase deliberately) socio-economic systems. In a capitalist society, it's determined by one's relation to the means of production. In a male supremacist society, it's determined by one's biological sex. Prostitution, as an economic and social relation, currently exists in the context of both of those things and IS inherently exploitive and oppressive, as it actually exists.

    And secondly, I know of no one on the radfem "abolitionist" side who supports criminal punishment for prostituted women. Not one. Their position as I understand it is that the traffickers and purchasers of women should be prosecuted, not the women themselves. So my question then is, what do you support being "decriminalized" here? Are you talking Amsterdam, where prostituted women have "labor rights" in theory, but in reality has become one of the world's biggest hubs for sexual trafficking and slavery? I think the best currently existing model is Sweden's "Sexköpslagen" law that makes pimping and solicitation a crime but provides no punishment for the prostituted women themselves. It's reportedly been effective at slowing and reversing the growth of the industry in the country, but of course is only a temporary harm reduction measure that doesn't begin to address the real root causes of the issue, male supremacy and capitalism.

  18. Okay...say a banker sees the light, gives up his banking job, and becomes a hotel cleaner, joins a union and pickets for worker rights. You would discount his voice on account of his so called 'class'? This strict reinforcement of what certain classes can and can't do, or think, seems kinda conservative to me.

  19. I think, T, that you really have no notion of what I mean by "class" in this context. Doing work for the rights of sex-workers is very different from just playing at the job by thinking that the job itself, by its performance, is radical. Slumming is not the same as class war: do try to understand the concepts, and must at least an ounce of critical thinking, before making these asinine comments.

  20. I also want to add, for anyone else who is planning on commenting on this entry, that please try reading the actual argument I am making rather than ascribing arguments I did not make to this post. For example, T's post and the Anonymous post above make this mistake by reconceptualizing the actual argument (which is about insultingly slumming and thinking that the experience of slumming, not the politics surrounding the abolition of oppression [and sex work is oppressive, yes I am a feminist, but no I don't think prostitutes shouldn't be unionized]) into something it is not. These are, as I complained in the article, precise examples of what is known as the straw-person fallacy. If you take issue with this post, take the time to read its actual argument and respond to what it is actually saying.

  21. Eli, I think your response to JD is bang-on. Yes, context is important (for a materialist analysis), and sex work exists in the context of male supremacy.

    For T - I think your analogy is absurd (for the reasons JMP has pointed out). In my view, there is nothing revolutionary about quitting your job and playing at being working class. Rather, I think the more revolutionary act might in fact be remaining a banker and working to dismantle/sabotage that system from within (from an Italian operaisto [workerist] position). Just a thought.

    Also, sex work and being a hotel cleaner are two different things (even though I think both forms of work have a gendered connotation).

  22. Great post and thanks so much for writing it. I have a question about your comment (the second one from the top) that this issue isn't about "sex." Does the actual sexual nature of the work not seem relevant to you? I'm wondering two things specifically. First, does the fact that sex workers have objects inserted into the orifices of their bodies make it a different kind of work than, say, working in a factory?

    Second, there is the difference between male and female anatomy to consider. It's unlikely that a man could work in a brothel and have PIV intercourse with 25 women in one day. However, a woman could have 25 men penetrate her in one day. I wouldn't call this "sex" - rather, the woman's vagina is being used as a receptacle, an orifice for the penis. Isn't this what a lot of "sex work" is about? Women not having "sex" with men, but offering their bodies in this more passive way? In this light, isn't the actual act itself relevant, in addition to the labour analysis?

    I'm rambling here. If any of this makes sense, I'd love to know your thoughts.

  23. I also want to add, for anyone else who is planning on commenting on this entry, that please try reading the actual argument I am making rather than ascribing arguments I did not make to this post. For example, T's post and the Anonymous post above make this mistake by reconceptualizing the actual argument (which is about insultingly slumming and thinking that the experience of slumming, not the politics surrounding the abolition of oppression [and sex work is oppressive, yes I am a feminist, but no I don't think prostitutes shouldn't be unionized]) into something it is not. These are, as I complained in the article, precise examples of what is known as the straw-person fallacy. If you take issue with this post, take the time to read its actual argument and respond to what it is actually saying.

    OK sorry if I misunderstood your point. I guess that is all true. I did think you meant sex-workers > non-sex workers but I agree that rich kids who think slumming is radical are annoying.

    And there is a political line that claims sex work is essentially radical and liberating and that feminists who see prostitution as part of patriarchy as antiquated, even though that this is generally a third world anti-imperialist feminist line.

    I hadn't heard of this line before. Isn't this the same as liberal feminists who say women CEOs or government ministers will liberate women within the system? They only mean middle-class women, it doesn't make any difference to me but good for them

    @Eli M-H I think it should be like any other legal industry, still in every other legal industry there are problems with illegal workers, class differences, 3rd world exploitation etc. they should be dealt with the same way. In other words, I agree with the post, if I have understood it proprly this time! The Swedish model does punish women by punishing men. It makes it illegal to benefit from the profits of sex workers, that means landlords who rent property to sex workers, members of your family even your own adult children can be arrested for living off the labour of sex workers. It forces women out of regulated brothels in to the street or underground where they are in more danger. It discourages women from going to the authorities for help for the above reasons and because you would lose your job if you do. Also the reason to criminalize "johns" and decriminalize sex-workers is because they regard women as a product so arresting the sex-worker would be like arresting the drug instead of the drug-user, I don't want sex-workers to be arrested but that argument against it is pretty insulting.

  24. YM: My argument about "sex" was mainly about how I am not arguing about the moralism surrounding the act of sex. There is obviously a conservative anti-prostitute position that is anti-prostitution purely because of the morality surrounding the practice of sex. Your second point somewhat connects to what I'm saying, and I'm generally in agreement with your position: sex-work is an industry that is still intensely connected to the patriarchy.

    And Anonymous, I agree that there are clearly issues with the Swedish model in the way that, despite some of the aspects that I think are laudable, it does end up producing a context where prostitutes are targeted. At the same time, though, I think both Eli M-H and YM are correct in reasserting the extremely patriarchal context that surrounds sex work. There is a reason that the most liberatory movements have, in their attempts to abolish the context in which prostitution thrives, ended up discovering (in the limited periods and contexts [i.e. China during the height of the revolution, Nepal during the height of the PPW]) that women did not want to be prostitutes and that the industry, as soon as the predominantly and very male-based demand and control was eliminated, pretty much vanished... But these are points I discussed in my previous article on this issue, not this one.

  25. Eli: Thanks for the response. You raise some very strong points. I agree that the context in this case is one marked my male supremacy, however it's a bit of a mechanical form of materialism to assume that that dictates everyone's experience with sex work, or that this erases all human agency. Also, not all sex workers are women. Not all sex workers even have what most people would define as "sex" with their clients. Overall though, I agree with the main point that the context is gender oppression.

    Your second point though, not so much. Yes, a lot of abolitionists will say they don't want to legally punish sex workers... but then they support all kinds of legal restrictions on sex work that winds up doing exactly that. I would add to Anonymous' examples above that if a sex worker hires security that person could be charged under anti-pimping laws because they are "living off the avails of prostitution." Laws against bordellos prevent sex workers from working collectively, etc. There really is no way to deal with the "pimps and johns" as JMP put it without interfering with sex workers rights, except by enforcing the same laws when sex workers are victimized as with other people. eg. do we really need anti-pimp laws when there are already laws against kidnapping, rape, assault, etc.?

    JMP: I think the point on removal of economic compulsion is a key one. Although the social and cultural context in an imperialist country is obviously quite different from China and Nepal I would expect that with the abolition of the context most sex work would vanish but perhaps not all. It also depends on what kind of sex work you're talking about. A huge problem the porn industry is facing is that with the spread of cheap digital media production more and more exhibitionist couples are making their own porn and putting it online for free. Even though there is no commodity exchange it's still being produced purely for use value.

  26. JD Benjamin: thanks for factoring back into the debate. It's great to see how this discussion is happening within a context where most of the discussants begin by granting the context of gender oppression, the problem with the political line of some of the so-called "sex positive" feminism... Within this context, though, there is obviously a lot of nuance.

    The first point I would like to make, though, is that I don't think it's necessarily "mechanical materialism" to note how the material context generally overdetermines a specific site of labour. Obviously there are complexities, but historical materialism is about abstracting the complexities in order to uncover the fundamental logic at work: it is only mechanical if this is all we note, and we draw one-to-one conclusions, but it is necessary to begin with this logic. Clearly capitalism does not look identical to the pure mode of production described in Marx's Capital, but it was necessary for Marx to deal with capital as a pure mode of production in order to uncover certain scientific principles. Indeed, this is intrinsic to scientific methodology: everyone's anatomy is not precisely the same, nor appears mechanically identical to what is in Grey's Anatomy, but medical science requires the basic and abstract principles of anatomy in order to even deal with these complexities.

    With this in mind, I would argue that complexities aside, sex-work is predominantly (and massively predominantly) a feminized institution. And I mean, of course, that both cis-women and trans-women are the prime commodities exchanged in this institution. Yes there are always exceptions, and there are a lot of male (both cis- and trans-) sex-workers, but if you look at it globally these are exceptions. Sex-work is primarily defined, globally, by the sale of female bodies. So we have to begin by asking questions about how this is the current logic of that sort of labour

    Secondly, although there are already laws that deal with kidnapping, rape, assault, etc., the point of a decriminalization law that allows for prostitutes to have fundamental labour rights would be to also view people whose actions are those of a pimp to be seen as kidnappers, rapists, etc. This is not to say, of course, that anti-pimp laws could end up being far too broad and end up harming the worker as well. But in the end, this is the problem with reformist politics––reform is never going to ameliorate brutal labour conditions, and will always have problems... This is why, as you noted in your last paragraph, I think the radical position is to always focus on a revolutionary politics that removes economic compulsion––otherwise we're always going to have problems.

  27. JMP: Cheers - the discussion has been quite enlightening.

    I think the danger we have sometimes is because we mainly focus on the abstractions we can sometimes become disconnected from how people experience those contradictions in the concrete. Yes, globally a given sector can be a slim minority but it's still a sector in our society and we need to be able to speak to their experience. The radical feminist movement really doesn't do a very good job of that, especially in relation to the sex-positive crowd. Yes, there's a lot of confused and one-sided ideas there, but it is a genuine expression of a certain sectors experience and their rejection of gender and sexual oppression as they experience it.

  28. But my problem is that often the "genuine expression" of a privileged sector of workers ends up suppressing the "genuine expression" of the workers as a whole––that is, the genuine expression that is generally produced by the logic of the system. Thus, the fact that a very tiny population of these workers finds the work liberating, does not mean that the work itself is on a global level, a form of patriarchal slavery. Similarly, as a communist, I do not see the genuine experience of a bought-off unionized worker in the labour aristocracy as being an analytic definition of what it means to be the proletariat under capitalism... Yes we need to understand the small contradictions and nuances, but we have to understand the broader contradiction between labour and capital, between patriarchy and a feminized work force, in order to make sense of any specific productive site.

  29. True, we need to keep a clear view of what's the forest and what's a tree. But if we can't particularize these broader contradictions to each sector and speak to their experience and concerns this will never be a relevant movement. We'll also fail to see the powerfully subversive core because it won't arrive in the form that we expect.


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