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The Problem With (Sex) Work

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 rabble.ca 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.


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