The sex work debate—a response to Jess Edwards
Posted: 13 December 10
The following is a contribution to the debate on sex work which has been taking place in the International Socialism journal. The author is the president of the GMB Sex workers & Adult Entertainment branch.
I have read with attention the debate around sex work that has appeared in International Socialism. I am very pleased that such a debate exists among your pages, with different views allowed, which proves not only a genuine democratic process but also a will to improve the quality of the debate in order to help everyone make their own opinion. I am persuaded that all parties, because they have socialism in common, have the will to try finding the best way to support sex workers in a better society.
I would like to contribute to this debate because I feel personally concerned as someone who has worked in the sex industry for eight years, both in the UK and France, but also as a trade unionist. I am a member of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) and president of the GMB union’s sex workers branch, which have been cited in previous articles.
I have to specify that my opinion does not necessarily reflect those of the IUSW or the GMB sex workers branch, in particular on the question of our membership policy and the inclusion of managers. So I take the precaution to say that my voice is unfortunately not representative of my organisation.
Is sex work different?
I think that the debate so far has focused mainly on whether or not we should consider sex work as fundamentally the same as other forms of wage labour in capitalist society. In my opinion, sex work is both fundamentally the same and fundamentally different. Of course it is different from other jobs since it is stigmatised and many activities around sex work still criminalised. But there are also many tools created by other workers in the labour movement that are useful for sex workers fight against their own oppression.
In many countries, sex workers do not have the opportunity to be a part of the Labour movement. I am happy that at least everyone seems to agree with our right to join a trade union and for our self-determination, even when doubts may persist about our capacity to organise politically. I know that this doubt is reinforced when managers are allowed to join the union and consequently gives the impression that the organisation defends the sex industry more than workers’ themselves.
The right to work without criminalisation.
On some occasions, I have heard other workers say that demanding a right to work sounds awkward when most workers actually organise against the reality of their work. This is where sex work is fundamentally different because, contrary to other jobs, many parts of the industry are still criminalised. Our stigmatisation and the way the debate occurs forces sex workers constantly to justify ourselves—about whether or not we choose to work, if we like our job or not, and ultimately our right to work.
Thus, don’t be confused when a sex worker claims the right to work or the recognition of sex work as work. This doesn’t mean that we deny the realities of exploitation within the sex industry or that we try to normalise them (although some managers who call themselves sex workers do), but this means that we demand access to the same rights as any other worker and citizen, including the right not to be criminalised.
Managers and workers—different position
I agree that the union should not promote escort agencies or brothels as “good businesses” to sex workers, and I have always tried to stop that trend within the union. But it is one of the union’s roles to give advice to sex workers about safety. I disagree with the assumption that it encourages people to work in the sex industry just as I would disagree with those who argue that opposing harm reduction policies for drugs use or the legalisation of abortion on would encourage people to use them. I think people are adult enough to make difficult decisions for themselves, such as working in the sex industry. I don’t think we should be afraid of people being encouraged to work in the sex industry when it is among the most stigmatised and repressed areas of work people can do. There are constant warnings about how terrible this industry is for women and young people in particular. I have never met anyone who encouraged me to become a sex worker, but many who said I shouldn’t.
Douglas Fox was a vocal member of the IUSW but has recently left the union. His and his partner’s membership were accepted by the GMB because it is a general trade union that includes managerial workers within its branches, whatever the sector of the economy. Sometimes managers have separate branches but the sex workers’ branch is not big enough. It was thought not relevant to create another specific branch for managers. What strikes me is that the sex workers branch is the only one that generates concern when the GMB has the same rule for all its members. This attack is often directed against the union in order to discredit all sex workers’ voice, despite the fact that what each individual has to say is very different. I hope that you can make a clear distinction between me and someone like Fox.
I wished that instead of dismissing the whole union as “run by pimps”, which is misleading, socialist and feminist activists would help sex workers like me to strengthen a pro-workers position so the union really supports all sex workers, fights exploitation, and doesn’t limit itself to being a campaigning tool against criminalisation. We must defend unionisation and not let managers confiscate workers’ voices. Unfortunately, if sex workers’ unionisation is accepted as a principle, the desire to see and end to the sex industry seems more important and somewhat contradictory. Obviously when sex work is gone, there will be no more sex workers and therefore no need for a trade union. This argument is not very helpful since, at present, the sex industry does exist.
This argument reminds me what we hear sometimes as LGBT activists and feminists about the hierarchy of struggles: After the revolution, there will be no more sexism. Your fight is secondary and you should focus on the end of capitalism. This is what I understand when I read that we cannot simply have a trade union response but a political one. For me, trade unionism is a political response. I don’t oppose one with the other, especially when I am convinced that sex workers are the best situated to elaborate a response against the sex industry. How do we fight against oppressive industries, if not by workers’ unionisation? Otherwise, what do we mean by fighting the sex industry? Don’t we risk repeating the same mistakes as those prohibitionist campaigners who harm the workers? This is what happens when sex workers are not involved as allies in your struggles.
Edwards writes that: “Our analysis of sex work should not be based upon how some sex workers view their work.” I find it very problematic. Firstly because you can’t ignore sex workers’ voices or select only the ones that fit the most to what you want, especially when you are not a sex worker yourself. And here is all the difference with the example she provides when she says that: “If a worker says that they do not ‘feel exploited’ at work, does this mean that they are not exploited?” Of course, as a worker you are best situated to know what the real situation is for all workers. And you can question what one individual worker says. But think of the example of a gay man saying that he feels psychologically damaged by his condition and wants to be cured. This was the opinion most people had of gay men and women during the mid-20th century and nowadays there are still organisations in the USA made up of “ex-gays” who pretend to help people become “normal”. Would you ignore all the LGBT people who say they are not ill because this group of people think they are?
Secondly, most sex workers do feel oppressed and they say it. We wouldn’t try to organise if we were all completely happy with our condition. But the analysis of our oppression is just different. Indeed many sex workers don’t feel exploited when having sex with a client. There are many things oppressing us which are much worse having sex with strangers—for example, being politically silenced by people who think they know better than us what our oppression is. The emancipation of the (sex) workers must be the act of the (sex) working class itself. This must be the same socialist principle for all.
Thirdly, we do not impose the same conditions or take the same precautions when it comes to supporting other groups of workers. We never ask before we support them; or say that we need to remind them how the job is really shit, a result of patriarchy and capitalism. I know sex work can be a shitty job, but it is annoying when people feel the need to remind us that what we do is the result of gender and class inequality. We know it already. But most jobs under capitalism and patriarchy are, especially for working class women and young LGBT people. Having to hear that all the time means either that we have to feel shit about the job we do or, if we actually “don’t dislike” it, that we have to feel guilty because this job exists as a result of an unequal society.
Edwards writes: “sex work is a product of women’s oppression, the roots of which are located in the rise of the family within a class society”. I often wonder if we are as much anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchy when it comes to other jobs. Why do we have to focus so much on one job and not on inequality in society as a whole? Women’s oppression and their economic exploitation is a reality for most female workers, not just sex workers. In addition, sex work is not done only by women. Male and transgendered’ workers are a large part of the sex industry in most big cities.
I don’t understand how we can say sex work perpetuates the family as a norm. Usually it is the opposite since most wives are not happy when men have sex with us. The 1949 UN convention against prostitution for instance states in its preamble that it “endangers the welfare of the individual, the family and the community”. I am pretty sure that sex work existed before capitalism and the “rise of the family within a class society”. Edwards says that sex work “gives rise to alienated relationships between men and women where sex and sexuality is distorted and degraded”. I am not sure I know what she means but I find it quite offensive to be judged in my sexuality. I don’t find anything degrading in sex between two consenting adults. I don’t think that sex between a sex worker and a client is necessarily worse than other relationships. At least we talk about the practices before having sex. The rules seem to me clearer than when I was in a “relationship”. If money reveals the contract, it doesn’t mean that oppression is absent from “free” relationships. A client can be respectful, romantic and loving while a husband can be violent and abusive (and vice versa). Instead of always demeaning sex workers’ experience, why not look at your own sexuality? We could see that we experience similar problems and we could start seeing each other as equals. Finally, I don’t like when Edwards writes that the sex “industry further reinforces sexism in wider society”, because although I assume she doesn’t mean it, it implies that sex workers become then agents of the patriarchy, even if involuntarily. In fact, sex workers can be and are feminists and contribute to changing men because we reach them in their intimacy. We listen to them without judgement, we can educate them and we work on their fantasies to improve their lives and hopefully their relationships with others.
Edwards says that sex work is different from other women’s jobs because they are not products of women’s oppression. Yet, like sexual services, they were part of what was expected of women to give for free within the family’s private sphere until some women fought to professionalise as real work what was before seen as a domestic task and natural contribution. She also says that sex work is different because it will not exist in a socialist society. I wonder how she knows that. I don’t think giving pleasure to other human beings is in contradiction to socialist ideals. We may still be there and working for everyone, certainly not just for a majority of men, and not for the money, but for the whole community’s wellbeing.
Edwards continues saying that sex workers’ “splitting of the self’ must surely be a horrendous form of alienation, forced upon the sex worker through the degradation involved in their work”. However, sex workers are not the only workers to act or to simulate performances. Are actors being damaged for forcing their body to act another character than their self in front of their clients? This concept of “splitting the self” is, I am afraid, derived from religious ideas of “selling the soul”. I don’t separate myself from my body, and I fear that this concept can be used against sex workers to portray us as psychologically damaged and therefore unable to know what is good for us. Many minorities have suffered enough from this kind of pathologisation and we need to be careful not to perpetuate such misconceptions.
Edwards quotes Kat Banyard saying that: “68% (of sex workers) suffer post-traumatic stress disorder”. I don’t know what sources Banyard uses in her book, but I know that this whole concept of sex workers’ post-traumatic disorder comes from Melissa Farley. What people forget to say is that Farley interviews only the sex workers she selected and that she likes to find them in psychiatric hospitals or in rescue centres. Recently, Farley was dismissed by the Canadian Judge Himel in her decision to overturn sex work criminalisation. She wrote: “Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence.” Furthermore, in her affidavit, she failed to qualify her opinion regarding the causal relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and prostitution, namely that it could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution. Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. For example, comments such as, “prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” and “just as paedophiles justify sexual assault of children….men who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women” make her opinions less persuasive. Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research, including, “that prostitution is a terrible harm to women, that prostitution is abusive in its very nature, and that prostitution amounts to men paying a woman for the right to rape her.” Accordingly, for these reasons, I assign less weight to Dr. Farley’s evidence.
Furthermore, Edwards says, “the sale of sex as a commodity feeds into the general objectification of women in wider society”. What does she means by objectification? Does she mean that all workers become objects under capitalism and women under patriarchy because we all need to “sell ourselves” to survive? Or does she continue to specify sex workers as different? Sex workers, like other workers and women, are not without intelligence. Our work doesn’t consist in being passive objects waiting to be penetrated. Many skills are required to do sex work and portraying us as objects is what actually objectifies us.
Edwards concludes her text quoting Kollontai and telling us what a good socialist sexuality should be, 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”. I wish instead that we could let people decide the reasons why they want to have sex, even if it’s not related to love, passion, attraction, or emotional harmony. No one should tell us what we should do with our sex. Finally, if socialism is about being “tribunes of the oppressed” why not listen to sex workers instead of speaking for them?
Edwards, Jess, 2010, “Sexism and sex work: A response to Dale and Whittaker”, International Socialism 128 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=688