Sexism and sex work: A response to Dale and WhittakerIssue: 128
Posted: 15 October 10
The previous issue of this journal carried an article by Gareth Dale and Xanthe Whittaker arguing that sex work is fundamentally the same as other forms of wage labour in capitalist society.1 They argue that the primary response of revolutionary socialists to the growth of the sex industry should be to organise sex workers in their workplaces and fight for unionisation. They point to the work of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), now a branch of the GMB union in Britain.
Dale and Whittaker seem to be, at best, ambiguous in their opposition to the sex industry. They are led to this position because their article reduces the question of sex work to that of economic exploitation. Their arguments misrepresent and misunderstand the role of women’s oppression and how this relates to sex work.
Jane Pritchard’s original article,2 to which Dale and Whittaker were replying, rightly argued that Marxists have a unique position in a debate that is largely polarised between abolitionist feminists (who want to see sex work abolished by law) and feminists who argue for the unionisation of sex workers. We seek to combine a fight against an oppressive industry with supporting the rights of those people working within it.
Oppression and exploitation
Throughout their article Dale and Whittaker emphasise the economics of sex work at the expense of its political aspects. Sex workers, they argue, sell their labour power in the same way as other workers in capitalist society. They quote one sex worker who describes her work as producing “assembly line orgasms” and as being “repetitive manual labour”.3 Take a minute to think about the reality of being the producer of “assembly line orgasms”. Could this “repetitive manual labour” be the reason why 68 percent of prostitutes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?4
Limiting the debate to the labour process misses the central point: that sex work is a product of women’s oppression, the roots of which are located in the rise of the family within class society. Capitalism’s need for labour power to be privately reproduced in the home, and the corresponding ideology that perpetuates the family as a norm, gives rise to alienated relationships between men and women where sex and sexuality is distorted and degraded. That is why the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai described prostitution as “the shadow of the family”.5
Dale and Whittaker tend to present women’s oppression as an external force that merely conditions how work takes place in the sex industry. For instance, they argue that oppression is a factor that undermines the conditions that sex work takes place under.6 They also say that “the sex industry is overtly involved in women’s oppression as are the advertising and fashion industries. Conversely, women’s oppression is involved in sex work”.7 But oppression is not separate from and external to sex work. It is part of the explanation for sex work. The industry further reinforces sexism in wider society, helping to shape how men and women view themselves and each other. This is why we cannot simply have a trade union response. The “raunch culture” of the modern sex industry affects all women and men in society.8 Faced with a rise in sexism, surely we must have more to say about sex work than “Organise the sex workers”.
Dale and Whittaker’s reductionism leads them to compare sex work to other forms of employment in which large numbers of women are involved such as nursing and social work. They argue that sex work “belongs to a category of high-touch, personal-interaction service work that is associated with care and/or desire, and as such is coded as naturally women’s work and held in low regard”.9
If this were the case, why would anyone on the left oppose the sex industry and not also oppose the NHS? Jobs in the health service are shaped by women’s oppression—they are seen as caring professions that are better suited to women, and nursing in particular is badly paid as a result. But these areas of work are not in themselves products of women’s oppression in the way that sex work is. A socialist society would still involve healthcare. It would not involve sex work.
Equating sex work with care work suggests a further logical conclusion: that the sex industry performs a socially useful function. For example, the organisation TLC for Disabled People10 argues on its website, “Sex workers not only bring joy into the world, but also rescue disabled people from personal anguish, sexual purgatory, and touch deprivation. (Keen to register as a sex worker? Just go to the Profiles section of the site.)”11
But Whittaker and Dale seem to go even further than seeing sex work as socially useful. They suggest that sex work represents a challenge to the institution of the family. They state that prostitution, rather than being the flip side of the family, actually represents “its negation”.12 They quote Sophie Day, who argues that the selling of sex “confounds the separation between a public economy and a private realm of socially significant relationships. In this view, the realm of the market is contaminated by women who live their lives in public, and the realm of the home is likewise threatened by the introduction of money and economic thinking”.13
Do Dale and Whittaker hold this position—that sex work is not only a threat to the family but also to some of the fundamental structures of capitalist society? If so, then presumably socialists shoud be encouraging people to enter the sex industry. In fact, this is precisely what the IUSW does. Their website advertises the sex industry, giving advice for those wishing to start work as sex workers and advertising the “best” providers. The IUSW even goes as far as to have the bosses of those “good providers” as leading spokespeople of the union. Douglas Fox, owner of the Christony Companions Escort Agency, one of the largest escort agencies in Britain, is also a leading figure in IUSW. His agency website proudly carries the logo of the GMB.14
This is where a purely trade union response to the sex industry has led: a major national trade union advertising a company that rents out women by the hour. No socialist should support this.
Sex work is damaging
When discussing prostitution, Dale and Whittaker argue that “an individual’s core identity—whatever it is—may well include their sexuality but surely cannot be capacious enough to include all sexual acts in which they engage”. This approach risks falling into a postmodern pick and choose conception of identity. They seem to argue that how we “perceive” ourselves is the key.
They write that some sex workers “feel as though they are selling their selves” while others simply see it as selling services.15 Is their claim that if some sex workers do not feel oppressed, then they are not? If a worker says that they do not “feel exploited” at work, does this mean that they are not exploited? Our analysis of sex work should not be based upon how some sex workers view their work. It must be based on concrete analysis of social and economic relationships.
Dale and Whittaker write that prostitutes are able to “deploy techniques that enable them to live in two bodies”.16 They present this as an argument for why prostitution is not damaging to people working as prostitutes. But the “splitting of the self”, as they put it, must surely be a horrendous form of alienation, forced upon the sex worker through the degradation involved in their work, and not a positive coping strategy which protects the sex worker’s “core being” from damage.
They write about how the men who use prostitutes are often “far from domineering” and they quote a sex worker who says, “The punters may be sad and inadequate but for the most part they are grateful and respectful.” They also quote from a survey that found that most clients of sex workers are not derogatory about them. But whether sex work damages sex workers is not a question of how some of their clients view them. A man paying a woman for sex gets the things he pays for from the woman. The woman’s own sexual desire is not taken into account because she is there purely to provide a service. It is this that governs the relationship between client and sex worker, not the level of politeness exercised by the former. Besides, it is not just for the individual sex worker that this relationship is damaging; the sale of sex as a commodity feeds into the general objectification of women in wider society.
How we fight today
Dale and Whittaker’s arguments have serious implications for how we fight for liberation today. If a lap dancing club is set to open, should socialists oppose it on anti-sexist grounds or see it as a great opportunity for a unionisation campaign? Is it right or wrong for Job Centre Plus to advertise pole dancing jobs?
A political rather than a trade union approach would see socialists uniting with campaigners against women’s oppression who want to stop the growth of Spearmint Rhino. A political approach would be to say that pole dancing should never be seen as a job to advertise to young unemployed women.
In seeking to avoid the normalisation of the sex industry we must, of course, be careful not to fall in behind the right wing moralists. It is absolutely right that sex work should not be criminalised, as this only makes the conditions that sex work takes place in more dangerous.17 If some sex workers can organise to improve their conditions, then we should support this, as Pritchard makes clear in her original article. However, socialists must look beyond trade union concerns. This is not lining up with bourgeois moralists as Dale and Whittaker suggest.
Our ethics are guided by the fact that we want to end oppression and exploitation and create the world anew. To seek to organise sex workers at the expense of raising arguments against the sex industry does not help achieve that aim. It runs the risk of legitimising an industry that reinforces the oppression of women.
To take a firm stance against the existence of the sex industry is not, as Dale and Whittaker argue, to provide only “lukewarm” support for the women within that industry.18 On the contrary, it is the best way of fighting for the rights of those women, as part of a fight for women’s rights in general. To argue that we should prioritise organising sex workers, simply because they are workers, is to fall into a different kind of moralism, one which ignores political considerations.
We are fighting for a world where the notion that sex can be bought with money is an alien concept and where economic considerations are removed from sexual relationships. This would be a world where sexual relationships are prompted by nothing other than “the abandon of young love, or by fervent passion or by a blaze of physical attraction or by a soft light of intellectual and emotional harmony”.19 We can best achieve this through a political struggle for liberation, not as mere “trade union secretaries” but as “tribunes of the oppressed”.20
1: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p187.
2: Pritchard, 2010.
3: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, pp184-185.
4: Quoted in Baryard, 2010, p141.
5: Kollontai, 1921.
6: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p188.
7: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p185.
8: Levi, 2005.
9: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p187.
10: The IUSW provides a link on its website.
12: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p189.
13: Quoted in Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p189.
15: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p186.
16: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p187.
17: See, for instance, Choonara, 2008.
18: Dale and Whittaker, 2010, p184.
19: Kollontai, 1921.
20: Lenin, 1961, chapter 3.
Baryard, Kat, 2010, The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today (Faber).
Choonara, Esme, 2008, “Prostitution: The Government Puts Women In Danger”, Socialist Worker (1 March), www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=14280
Dale, Gareth, and Xanthe Whittaker, 2010, “A Response to the Sex Work Debate”, International Socialism 127 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=664
Kollontai, Alexandra, 1921, “Prostitution and Ways of Fighting it”, speech to the third all-Russian conference if the heads of regional women’s departments, www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm
Lenin, 1961 , What Is To Be Done?, in Collected Works, volume 5 (Moscow), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/
Levi, Ariel, 2005, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Simon & Schuster).
Pritchard, Jane, 2010, “The Sex Work Debate”, International Socialism 125 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=618