Is sex work “a job like any other” – and is that a good thing? Amnesty International today officially adopted a policy recommending the decriminalisation of sex work around the world as the best way to reduce violence in the industry and safeguard both workers and those who are trafficked into prostitution.
“Sex workers are at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including rape, violence, extortion and discrimination,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s senior director for law and policy. “Our policy outlines how governments must do more to protect sex workers from violations and abuse.
“We want laws to be refocused on making sex workers’ lives safer and improving the relationship they have with the police while addressing the very real issue of exploitation,” said Mutasah, emphasising the organisation’s policy that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are human rights abuses which, under international law, must be criminalised in every country. “We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to.”
The proposal from the world’s best-known human rights organisation has caused uproar, particularly from some feminist campaigners who believe that decriminalisation will “legitimise” an industry that it is uniquely harmful to women and girls.
As sex workers around the world rally for better working conditions and legal protections, more and more countries are adopting versions of the “Nordic Model” – attempting to crack down on sex work by criminalising the buyers of commercial sex, most of whom are men. Amnesty, along with many sex workers’ rights organisations, claims that that the “Nordic Model” in fact forces the industry underground and does little to protect sex workers from discrimination and abuse.
The battle lines have been drawn, and the “feminist sex wars” of the 1980s are under way again. Gloria Steinem, who opposes Amnesty’s move, is one of many campaigners who believe the very phrase “sex work” is damaging. “‘Sex work’ may have been invented in the US in all goodwill, but it has been a dangerous phrase – even allowing home governments to withhold unemployment and other help from those who refuse it,” Steinem wrote on Facebook in 2015. “Obviously, we are free to call ourselves anything we wish, but in describing others, anything that requires body invasion – whether prostitution, organ transplant, or gestational surrogacy – must not be compelled.” She wanted the UN to replace the phrase “sex work” with “prostituted women, children, or people”.
The debate over sex work is the only place where you can find modern liberals seriously discussing whether work itself is an unequivocal social good. The phrase “sex work” is essential precisely because it makes that question visible. Take the open letter recently published by former prostitute “Rae”, now a committed member of the abolitionist camp, in which she concludes: “Having to manifest sexual activity due to desperation is not consent. Utilising a poor woman for intimate gratification – with the sole knowledge that you are only being engaged with because she needs the money – is not a neutral, amoral act.”
I agree with this absolutely. The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term “sex work” is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.
To describe sex work as “a job like any other job” is only a positive reframing if you consider a “job” to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply “the way of the world”.
The feminist philosopher Kathi Weeks calls this universal depoliticisation of work “the work society”: an ideology under whose its terms it is taken as a given that work of any kind is liberating, healthy and “empowering”. This is why the “work” aspect of “sex work” causes problems for conservatives and radical feminists alike. “Oppression or profession?” is the question posed by a subtitle on Emily Bazelon’s excellent feature on the issue for the New York Times this month. But why can’t selling sex be both?
Liberal feminists have tried to square this circle by insisting that sex work is not “a job like any other”, equating all sold sex, in Steinem’s words, with “commercial rape” – and obscuring any possibility of agitating within the industry for better workers’ rights.
The question of whether sex workers can meaningfully give consent can be asked of any worker in any industry, unless he or she is independently wealthy. The choice between sex work and starvation is not a perfectly free choice – but neither is the choice between street cleaning and starvation, or waitressing and penury. Of course, every worker in this precarious economy is obliged to pretend that they want nothing more than to pick up rubbish or pour lattes for exhausted office workers or whatever it is that pays the bills. It is not enough to show up and do a job: we must perform existential subservience to the work society every day.
In the weary, decades-long “feminist sex wars”, the definitional choice apparently on offer is between a radically conservative vision of commercial sexuality – that any transaction involving sex must be not only immoral and harmful, but uniquely so – and a version of sex work in which we must think of the profession as “empowering” precisely because neoliberal orthodoxy holds that all work is empowering and life-affirming.
That binary often can leave sex workers feeling as if they are unable to complain about their working conditions if they want to argue for more rights. Most sex workers I have known and interviewed, of every class and background, just want to be able to earn a living without being hassled, hurt or bullied by the state. They want the basic protections that other workers enjoy on the job – protection from abuse, from wage theft, from extortion and coercion.
A false binary is often drawn between warring camps of “sex positive” and “sex negative” feminism. Personally, I’m neither sex-positive nor sex-negative: I’m sex-critical and work-negative.
Take Steinem’s concern that if “sex work” becomes the accepted terminology, states might require people to do it in order to access welfare services. Of course, this is a monstrous idea – but it assumes a laid-back attitude to states forcing people to do other work they have not chosen in order to access benefits. When did that become normal? Why is it only horrifying and degrading when the work up for discussion is sexual labour?
I support the abolition of sex work – but only in so far as I support the abolition of work in general, where “work” is understood as “the economic and moral obligation to sell your labour to survive”. I don’t believe that forcing people to spend most of their lives doing work that demeans, sickens and exhausts them for the privilege of having a dry place to sleep and food to lift to their lips is a “morally neutral act”.
As more and more jobs are automated away and still more become underpaid and insecure, the left is rediscovering anti-work politics: a politics that demands not just the right to “better” work, but the right, if conditions allow, to work less. This, too, is a feminist issue.
Understood through the lens of anti-work politics, the legalisation of sex work is about harm reduction within a system that is always already oppressive. It’s the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation about what it is moral to oblige human beings to do with the labour of their bodies and the finite time they have to spend on earth.
Sex work should be legal as part of the process by which we come to understand that the work society itself is harmful. The liberal feminist insistence on the uniquely exploitative character of sex work obscures the exploitative character of all waged and precarious labour – but it doesn’t have to. Perhaps if we start truly listening to sex workers, as Amnesty has done, we can slow down at that painful, problematic place, and speak about exploitation more honestly – not just within the sex industry, but within every industry.