There’s a post on sex work on Feministe, and it is Teh Fail

Jill wrote a blog post titled Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex. Reading it, I once again did that thing where I start arguing with an online article in my head, and then I realized this is blogging material. So here you go:

I am an anti-sex-trafficking feminist. I think sex work is incredibly problematic. And I also support the rights of sex workers. I think you can do all those things at once.

Sure one can. The question is really rather whether one’s actions on all these are consistent and synergistic, or whether one’s undermining one set of actions with another. Oh, and whether the actions actually are helpful, of course.

Also, sex work is “problematic” only in the same sense that manufacturing is problematic: it sits at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression and is made invisible/marginalized by the kyriarchy. And since the kyriarchy is abusive and oppressive, people who do this work are abused and oppressed (and no one cares/notices, because it’s all invisible/marginalized). But neither manufacturing nor sex work are problematic per se; their place in the matrix of oppression is problematic.

My view is basically that sex work wouldn’t exist in the feminist utopia. Why? Because sex wouldn’t be this commodified thing that some people (mostly woman) have and other people (mostly men) get. Sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion.

That doesn’t follow. Unless Jill is a marxist feminist and wants to abolish commodities and the “selling”* of labor in addition to abolishing the patriarchy, everything that people do with other people will still be also offered as a paid service; even the fun stuff. Sure, abolishing the patriarchy would abolish the myth of sex being something women have and men want, but it would also destigmatize a lot of behaviors currently marginalized as a result of a patricular, heteronormative, patriarchal-religion-propagated view of what sex, love, relationships, etc. are. These changes would definitely shift the patterns of demand (and supply) for sex work, but it wouldn’t make it go away, any more than abolishing the class system will make the demand for mechanics go away.

As long as people in relationships have differing sex-drives, different and not-fully-compatible kinks, kinks that include sex (or watching peep-shows, or watching a stripper, or whathaveyou) with people not involved in that relationship (by yourself, or with together with your partner(s)), no-strings-attached-single-sex, etc., there will be demand for sex as a paid-for service; because amazingly enough, not everyone who wants to get laid finds social interaction pleasant enough to want to have to find a mutually interested partner in the wild, on short notice. Plus, if we got rid of the patriarchy, we’d also get rid of many stupid, shaming ideas about sex, which means the role of sex-workers could expand to workshops, counseling, private training or whatever for people interested in learning how to do different kinds of sex. Because goddamnit, sex absolutely should come with training sessions. We’d all be spared the awkward fumbling that is reinventing sex from scratch every time someone has sex for the first time.

Anyway, what I’m basically picturing here is the Licensed Sex Therapists from Beta Colony in the Vorkosigan Saga.

While that view would leave room for some types of sex work — sexually explicit performance, for example, if that performance were no longer primarily a looking-at-women’s-bodies-as-stand-ins-for-sex thing, which is what it mostly is today — it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex

Again, unless this feminist utopia is also a marxist utopia, the service industry will still exist, and therefore the option of paying for sex still will exist too.

it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex, especially as we see it now, with men being the primary consumers and sex being seen as something you can buy.

Well no, the primary clients might indeed not be men then. And sex wouldn’t be something one “buys”, any more than one “buys” car repair; sex is not a product, it’s a service. However, I see no reason to think that the idea of sex as a service will disappear just because the patriarchy did.

I don’t think there would be McDonalds or Wal-Mart in the feminist utopia either;

“McDonalds” and and “Wal-Mart” are not equivalents to “sex work”, or even “prostitution”. McD and Wal-Mart are specific businesses; the equivalents to “sex work” would be “food service” and “retail”. Will neither of those two types of service work exist in this feminist utopia, either? Because if so, we’re back at “marxist feminist utopia”. But if so, why single out sex work? It would be abolishing doing anything for pay, altogether.

And as a side note, the title of the post is “Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex”, so would Jill oppose the “buying of food service” with the same methods which she’d suggest for sex work? Should we have a “swedish model” for restaurants, in which the cooks, waitstaff, etc. are not penalized, but the customers are?

Yes, of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade. But that smacks a bit too much of “I choose my choice!” feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy.

There’s a difference between “I’m a woman therefore all my choices are feminist choices”, and “I have the right to navigate the matrix of oppression as I see fit”. All of us make choices that aren’t feminist, or that support and aid the patriarchy in maintaining itself, because a)most of us don’t have such options available due to external social structures, and b)our mental structures are such that what we enjoy/want/need are often entwined with patriarchy and lend it support, and it’s impossible for everyone to change all their desires. We don’t have contracausal free will (i.e. the ability to change and create desires and preferences at will), we only have agency (the ability to choose between available avenues towards fulfilling our desires). Desires change only slowly, as our character changes; and no one can rid their mind of all imprints of their society.
And lastly… as I mentioned previously, sex work is problematic because of its location in the matrix of oppression. Shift the matrix, or shift sex work out of that position, and sex work no longer functions as patriarchy-supporting, problematic work.

sex worker advocates have cast a similar too-wide net — arguing that sex work is a job like any other, that every job is coercive, etc etc. Both narratives erase the vast grey area of the entire idea of “consent” when money is involved.

Marxist feminist utopia, blah blah, this is getting boring. And in any case, that argument does make other service work different from sex work only in the degree of intimacy, not in any qualitative sense.

I too often see a similarly reductive argument — that while a small number of women and girls are actually enslaved, the rest are there voluntarily and we should support their choices.

It’s only reductive because “voluntarily” is a shitty word with too many related meanings. A better phrasing is that they are where they are because of the exercise of their agency. Social structures, both those external and internal to ourselves, are present for sex workers as much as for others. Change the social structures, and agency will be exercised differently: people who chose sex work because it’s the best of a range of shitty options might choose an option they see as better than sex work, should it become available; others however might chose sex-work if it became less marginalized, or allowed for different kinds of sex services (“training” for sex-n00bs or couples wanting to learn something new, for example) than currently exist/are in demand.
Still, even changing social structures won’t change the mind of those for whom sex-work is the best means to pursue their desires (or even, their desire itself), i.e. those who do it “voluntarily” in the sense of choosing without structural pressure or limitations**

But from a birdseye feminist view — from a sex-positive view — sex work is different because it’s commodifying something that should ideally be a basic pleasure, entered into entirely freely and at will.

That’s what the service industry is: commodifying things people do with other people; even the fun stuff. That’s what dance instructors do, too, for example. They take something people do together for fun (dancing) and that one ideally should only do with others who freely and voluntarily return the sentiment, and they provide that and related activities as a service one can pay for. Again, we’re really just talking about differences in the degree of intimacy, not a qualitative difference.

From a practical point of view, there are a whole lot of women in the sex trade who are technically there voluntarily insofar as they aren’t kidnapped and chained up, but who are coerced into sex work in ways that most of us would find intolerable — owing large sums of money to traffickers, psychologically and physically abused by pimps, cast out by their families and communities for doing sex work and believing there are no other options.

Emphasis mine. Because a)”no” other choice is often not true; only that the other choices are considered even shittier; and b)that’s the difference between “voluntarily” and “by exercising agency”: if sex work is the best option given the (internal and external) structural limitations, then changing the structures would change the results of exercising agency, but this makes sex work the same as other forms of labor in an intersectionally classist system: remove socioeconomic “pressures” that let people accept horrible work-conditions because the alternatives are worse, and the work conditions for that form of labor become worker-friendly (compare manufacturing in, say, Germany to sweat-shops in China, for example)

Putting them [economically oppressed sex workers, and economically privileged sex workers] all under the umbrella of sex work is helpful in advocating for recognition and certain legal changes, but ultimately it doesn’t mean that more women’s voices are heard; it means that the most privileged of the group dictate policy.

This is an intersectional problem, not a problem somehow inherent in sex work. Yes, if white, upper-class, sex- and gendernormative sex workers from countries where sex work isn’t illegal are the sole or even the dominant voices heard, that’s a problem in the same way that it is a problem when white, upper-class, sex- and gendernormative feminists are the only or the dominant voices in feminism. But how is that an argument for sex work being somehow qualitatively different?
Plus, many sex worker advocates ARE women who are affected by multiple axes of oppression. Whence the assumption that this isn’t so? Is it just because the voices of relatively privileged sex workers are the only voices that penetrate deeply enough into the mainstream feminist landscape? Because I find it extraordinarily easy to find the narratives of sex workers in India, the narratives of trans sex workers, etc.***

And while a small percentage are relatively privileged and fairly compensated, most aren’t. And most sex workers face very real barriers to basic rights like bodily autonomy, workplace safety, and freedom from violence.

This is true for most women in the world; it is also true for most work in the world; it is especially true for most work that women do. Again we’re dealing with sex work’s location in the matrix of oppression, with intersectionality, not with anything inherent to sex work.

There are some methods that can best serve most of these women — safer sex supplies, legal rights. But what serves a 14-year-old in a Cambodian brothel whose clients are mostly middle-aged white guys from Europe and the U.S. is not the same as what serves a 22-year-old in New York advertising on Craig’s List.

True, but once again an issue of intersectionality; something that sex work advocates are showing less problems with than mainstream feminism as a whole does; just sayin’.

And none of these issues of intersectionality (including the ones I didn’t quote, because how often can you point out the same mistake?) address the core of the supposed issue here: nothing here supports the argument that sex work (and prostitution specifically) shouldn’t exist. All of this is a good argument to not repeat mistakes of other social justice movements and make the most privileged members of the movement the sole or predominant voices in it; it’s a good argument to remember that intersectionality demands solutions suited to individual cases, based on the specifics of the intersections. It’s not an argument against sex work.

When you’re talking about sex for money, you can’t take money and international economics out of it.

That’s a strawman of epic proportions, given that sex work advocates talk about class-based oppression more than any other women’s rights advocates who aren’t also socialists/marxists/anarchists.

I’m troubled by the migration of sexual labor and what it says about who “deserves” sex and who provides it.

Right. Troubled by the class-based problems involved in sex work, and how they intersect with sex and gender based problems. Still not an argument against sex work, tho.

I do think it’s immoral and unethical to buy sex.

“Buying sex” is what men did when they purchased a wife. Anyway, contributing from a position of privilege to maintaining/reinforcing an axis of oppression is always “problematic”, and consequently I wish people would not shop at Wal-mart or procure sex services from exploitative sources; and maybe any kind of shopping or procuring of sex services contributes to maintenance of oppressive class structures. But the way to end exploitation is not to drive the victims of it underground by outlawing the purchase of their labor; rather, it can be done by giving them the tools they need to a)widen their choices within the social structure, and b)to change the social structure by attacking the forces that oppress them. Which aren’t always the individuals who pay them for their services; and which won’t end sex work, but rather end (or at least diminish) exploitative sex work.

I think it speaks to a view of human sexuality (and women’s bodies in particular, although of course there are men who pay for sex with men and boys) as purchasable;

“Buying sex” does, but like I said, that’s not a feature inherent in sex work, since sex work is the provision of services for pay, not the “selling” of sex (because selling something intangible like a service is only possible by selling the provider, and that’s slavery, not service work.) I keep repeating this distinction because the idea of buying sex is tightly coupled with the idea of the “unrapeable”: when you buy something, it’s yours to do with as you please, without the previous owner of it having a say in it. That was, and often still is, the attitude towards sex in patriarchal culture. But it’s not inherent to sex work, since the provision of a service always entails the possibility to cancel the deal, as well as the fact that it’s a one-time agreement, to be re-negotiated, and that the ownership of the means of providing the service never changes hands. It’s the equation of the provision of a sexual service with the buying of sex that’s the problem, and it’s one that must be solved without negatively affecting sex workers (i.e. not by curing the disease by killing the patient).

I’m personally a fan of capitalist marketplaces because I don’t think there’s a better system out there

So, no marxist feminist utopia, then? How then is the provision of services or the commodification of human interactions to disappear?

We can respond to the basics of supply and demand while not giving corporations outsized power; while building a social safety net; and while instituting physical, legal and financial protections for workers. We can critique the forces that establish patters of exploited migrant labor while advocating for the rights of migrant laborers. Can’t we?

Sure we can. But that’s what sex work advocates do, not what “end demand” does. The equivalent of “end demand” would be to insist on the end of demand for any industry**** in which workers are exploited. Which is all of them. Which is marxism.

- – - – - – - – - -
*”selling” is a misnomer, I recently realized. More like renting out, though the idea that labor is “sold” is what leads to a lot of abuses of workers, since the “buyers” of labor believe that they actually own the worker for the time they’re at work (and often even beyond that).
**Marx, species-being, etc. That’s an entirely separate blog-post tho.
***some examples: Don’t Talk To Me About Sewing Machines, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Barred by U.S. Restrictions, Sex Workers Hold Alternative AIDS Summit in Kolkata, India, HIV and Sex Work – The view from 2012(pdf)
****the whole industry, not just a specific business or a specific model of providing the products or services of this industry