Sex work: a rejoinder

Issue: 129

Gareth Dale and Xanthe Whittaker

Productive debate requires engagement with the other’s stronger positions. In her reply to us, Jess Edwards ignores this rule, relying instead upon insinuation, imputation and distortion.1 She enlists enough Aunt Sallies and straw men to pack out a small stadium, and red herrings to collapse a fishmonger’s slab. She misrepresents our argument in so many places that locating even a fraction of them may try the reader’s patience. Yet we must attempt the task.

According to Edwards we claim:

“Sex work is fundamentally the same as” other work. It can be “equated” with care work, is “socially useful”, and “challenges the institution of the family.”.

“Prostitution is not damaging to people working as prostitutes.”

Women’s oppression only influences the sex industry as an “external” force.

One’s “primary response” to the sex trade should be “to organise sex workers in their workplaces”. Those who go beyond this are aligned with “bourgeois moralists”.

We reduce the sex work debate, she concludes, to questions of economic exploitation and union organisation and are “ambiguous” in our opposition to the sex industry.

This is a cock and bull account of our case. It relies upon gross and culpable misrepresentation.2 Consider, first, an example of Edwards’s technique. After citing our reference to Sophie Day’s argument that selling sex “confounds the separation” between public and private, Edwards implies we’re suggesting that sex work “threatens” capitalism. If so, “presumably” we’re “encouraging people to enter the sex industry”, and this is “precisely what the IUSW [International Union of Sex Workers] does”. One of its “leading spokespeople”, Douglas Fox, runs an escort agency!

In fact, our citation from Day concerned a different question: why sex work attracts stigma. We claimed that sex work threatens only a “particular moral economy” within capitalism. Fox, a self-employed sex worker who runs an escort agency, is no longer an IUSW member. The IUSW does not only include wage labourers and the self-employed in its ranks, yet these are the majority. We regard it as we do any union: critically. Other unions engage in disreputable activity (sweetheart deals, graft, etc), and many include managers, but they remain unions.3

We repudiate Edwards’s suggestion that we deny that prostitution can be harmful. It is an outlandish claim. What we say is that the degree of harm varies greatly according to individuals and circumstances.4

Edwards claims that “68 percent of prostitutes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”, and elsewhere that this percentage applies to all sex workers.5 She insinuates that we ignore that trauma, but she fails to disclose that the study of 130 individuals from which the figure is taken was of street prostitutes, a category that we singled out as “highly vulnerable” to rape and other assault. The experiences of outdoor and indoor prostitutes should not be equated. When asked if they had ever been beaten, raped or stabbed, one study found that 27 percent, 22 percent and 8 percent of street prostitutes responded “yes”, compared with 1 percent, 2 percent and 0 percent of indoor prostitutes.6

When approaching studies of sex work, a critical awareness of source and methodology is indispensable. Edwards’s 68 percent figure tells a plausibly horrifying story of the misery some prostitutes experience during their work (and elsewhere, for most of the 130 had suffered physical and/or sexual abuse when children). However, she borrows the figure from prominent abolitionist Melissa Farley (via Kat Banyard).7 Farley’s methodology has been completely discredited.8 Her surveys should be contrasted with “Setting the Record”, a study by police into prostitution,9 Nicola Mai’s research,10 and, for lap dancing, that of Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy.11 We’re not asserting that these give “the” complete picture, but neither do we think that Farley’s statistics should be cited uncritically.

The risk of violence, combined with stigma and illegality, lead some to suggest that street sex work is not “a job like any other”.12 Yet the link between illegality, stigma and violence is indeed common to other work, such as drug dealing. Some aspects of some sex work resemble aspects of care work, in particular the performance “of caring, affection, and even love”.13 (“I consider sex for money a lot like nursing,” says one prostitute. “It helps people whose lives are incomplete. It is a bit like when you like someone but not enough to have sex, but you feel sorry for them so you let them have sex.”)14 Edwards insinuates that because we see a few commonalities between care work and some forms of sex work we “fundamentally equate” the NHS and the sex industry. This is a baseless assertion; it bears no relationship to our text.

This debate matters because, if recognised as work, unsafe practices faced by sex workers are dealt with as employment issues covered by regulation. Additionally, sex workers and their supporters are keenly aware that there is “a clear link between stigma and violence”, feel that “the bad reputation attached to working in the sex industry implicitly legitimised violent and criminal behaviour towards them”, and call for its decriminalisation.15

Stigma is a complex issue, for different forces act to destigmatise sex work. One is the sexualisation of culture, discussed below. A second is pressure from sex workers and their supporters. The third is the changing legal situation. In some countries it has become significantly easier for prostitutes to pursue complaints of rape in the courts.16 By implication, prostitution is increasingly recognised as the hiring of a service, with prostitutes recognised as legally entitled workers, not objects. That some employers in the sex industry would welcome the legal and social recognition of sex work as work should not affect our stance. After all, the same applies to its decriminalisation, supported by all sides in the debate in this journal.

How sex workers perceive their work, and their identity, matters to us. Alluding to this, Edwards cavils that we “risk falling into a postmodern pick-and-choose conception of identity” that takes at face value the self-perception of individuals. If taking seriously the views of sex workers is “postmodern” we plead guilty as charged. That we listen to their opinions is not to make the claim, which Edwards sticks in our mouths, that our position should be based upon sex workers’ views rather than on “analysis of social and economic relationships”. (Indeed, we engage with many such relationships, and in greater depth than Edwards.17)

Our inclusion of sex workers’ voices contrasts with the media framing of sex work. This focuses on the outdoor variety, when engaged in by women and with emphasis on violence and abusive circumstances. But sex workers reveal a heterogeneous picture. While media voices shout about the “sex”, they focus on the “work”,18 and while media narratives emphasise entrapment as the explanation for entry into the trade, they describe a variety of motivations—above all money, sometimes the exercise of some control over their conditions.19

In championing collective organisation we have been seduced by “trade unionism”, according to Edwards. To this we make two points. First, our piece was a critique of Pritchard’s article, so focused upon the area of disagreement.20 It was not a treatise on sex work as a whole. Second, Edwards is casting aspersions. Nowhere do we say that union organisation offers a complete strategy vis-à-vis the sex industry (or women’s oppression). As to Edwards’s direct questions: we support campaigns against the opening of lap dancing clubs (although we are very wary if they appeal to state power or see lap dancers as the enemy), and we don’t think job centres should advertise pole dancing jobs (with the caveat that we aren’t overjoyed about them advertising many other jobs, eg with poor pay and conditions). In general, we follow this two fold rule of thumb: reject all forms of sexism while supporting as many sexual freedoms as possible; oppose the sex industry and the commodification of sex while resisting the stigmatisation of sex workers and supporting their efforts to organise.

Edwards’s final charge is that we don’t discuss women’s oppression. In fact we discuss it on every page, are unambiguous in our aspiration “for a world where women don’t have to sell sex”, and argue that the commodification of sex feeds into the general objectification of women and vice versa. She’s right that “the woman’s own” desires aren’t taken into account during sex work, but this is less a symptom of gender oppression than of alienated labour, as male sex workers (and workers in other industries) will attest. We aren’t convinced by her assertion that the sex industry owes its existence to the oppression of women.21 From what we know of alienation, objectification and commodification (not to mention the gay sex trade—which Edwards, it might seem, sees as a mere emulation of its straight counterpart) we’d be surprised if sex work were absent in a hypothetical non-sexist capitalist society. Moreover, we remain unconvinced by her ideas on the link between the sex industry and raunch culture. Raunch culture evolved from the growing assertiveness of a sexist interpretation of women’s sexuality and the intrusion of market forces into the private realm. It does feed off pornography, but the sexualisation of popular culture is not a simple product of the sex trade.

The sexualisation of culture contributes to the destigmatisation of sex work, and it is bound up with something disturbing that has been happening to the social construction of sex. Although gazing at images of naked women has long been popular in some quarters (19th century oil paintings, etc), sexual imagery has of late become more mainstream and overt. Sociologists talk of our “profoundly self-pleasuring society”, a “striptease culture” preoccupied with self-revelation and exposure.22 As culture becomes permeated with a narcissistic preoccupation with the cultivation of looks in general and the body in particular, sexiness becomes ever more central to what is marked as good and worthwhile, and sexuality and the performance of intimacy become part of the obligatory repertoire for many workers. (For example, the recent announcement that Pizza Express waitresses are to be trained in flirting. “It’s great”, says the asinine trainer, “if you’re a guy and a really gorgeous Italian girl comes to your table”).23 Sexualised body display and erotic performance connote not only glamour and youth but, increasingly, strength and independence too. Strippers are more likely to be represented as feisty free spirits than downtrodden victims, and burlesque gains prominence through high-profile performers such as Dita von Teese.24 Above all, there’s the use of explicit, even pornographic, poses in advertising.

What lies behind these trends? Women’s oppression is a necessary part of the explanation but not a sufficient one. In Critique of Commodity Aesthetics, Wolfgang Haug studied the aestheticising tendencies elicited by commodity exchange.25 Exchange value, he argues, generates a seductively glamorous aesthetic, as commodities on the shelves exaggerate their sensual qualities to attract the buyer, enticing consumers to engage with them in a voyeuristic relationship. This cosmetic, eroticised aesthetic spills out of the realm of merchandising and seeps throughout the fabric of contemporary human relations. In other words, the ubiquity of a para-pornography of impossibly perfect bodies is no simple sex-industrial spin-off; rather, it’s rooted in commodification and sexism in general.

Amid the incessant glossy rain of stylised sexual imagery and the provocative sex-chatter that saturates the media, it is tempting to argue that permissiveness has become a shackle and/or that the sex industry is the key problem. The former would be misguided, for the problem is not sex but sexism, and not sexiness per se but the way it is wrought, by the commodified aesthetic and narcissistic culture (not to mention Pizza Express), into an imposition. The latter would be one-sided. It is true that pornography tends to envision women as passive objects. But this is more the channelling of a ubiquitous sexism than its constitutive cause—just as computer war games are more the product than the progenitor of war.

Our analysis, then, is political and not Lenin’s “pure and simple unionism”. We do not believe that going beyond “trade union concerns” need entail lining up with “bourgeois moralists” but neither would we agree with modern puritans who dismiss, for example, the provision of masturbatory fantasies as “socially useless”. Whether or not collectively produced porn/erotica is “socially useful” is a red herring. (A great deal of paid human labour appears “useless” to those who don’t have a taste for its output, whether it be poker websites or the novels of Dan Brown.) Our critique of the sex industry is not that it produces and distributes sexual fantasies but that it commodifies sex and reinforces the oppression of women.


1: Edwards, 2010. This rejoinder is a much reduced version of a longer one available from

2: Given its morally charged nature, participants in this debate should show courtesy and, in this journal, comradeship. In responding to Jane Pritchard, whose article started this debate, we discussed our text with her before publication. On seeing a draft of Edwards’s rejoinder, we sent her nearly all the misrepresentations listed here and requested she amend them. She refused to amend or to communicate.

3: If Edwards is unaware of this she should consult websites that expose it,

4: For two ends of the spectrum, see Illiria, 2008; Ditmore, 2010, p93.

5: “The post traumatic stress disorder that is suffered by such a large percentage of sex workers, is not caused simply by bad employers”-online discussion.

6: Weitzer, 2005. On surveys of clients, Edwards responds to our citation of one that finds many clients to be polite with the snipe that “whether sex work damages sex workers is not a question of how some clients view them”. But this bears no relation to what we actually wrote.

7: She seems to think it applies only to women, when a quarter of the sample of street prostitutes were men and transgendered.

8: Schaffhauser, 2011; Weitzer, 2005; Ditmore, 2010, p47.

9: Jackson, 2010; Ditmore, 2010, pp28-64.

10: Mai, 2009.

11: Cassidy, 2010.

12: Jeffrey, 2006; Schaffhauser, 2011.

13: Dittmore, 2010, p60.

14: Illiria, 2008.

15: Mai, 2009.

16: Cowling and Reynolds, p134.

17: Discussion around sex work pays insufficient attention to political and economic dynamics-the erosion of welfare (low pay, unemployment, homelessness, tuition fees), migration of women, the growth of inequality and with it a servant class cooking and cleaning for, and jerking off, the rich.

18: Hallgrimmsdottir, 2006.

19: See Roberts, 1993, p307; Hallgrimmsdottir, 2006, p277; Ditmore, 2010, pp147-170.

20: Pritchard, 2010.

21: “The existence of the sex industry is the result of women’s oppression and the existence of the industry serves to perpetuate women’s oppression.”-online discussion.

22: Attwood, 2009.

23: Independent, 14 October 2010, p24. See also Ditmore, 2010, pp9-22.

24: Attwood, 2009.

25: Haug, 1986.


Attwood, Feona, 2009, The Sexualization of Western Culture (Tauris).

Cassidy, Sarah, 2010, “One in four lapdancers has a degree”, Independent (27 August 2010),

Cowling, Mark, and Paul Reynolds, 2004, Making Sense of Sexual Consent (Ashgate).

Edwards, Jess, “Sexism and Sex Work”, International Socialism 128 (autumn),

Hallgrimmsdottir, Helga, 2006, “Media Narratives of the Sex Industry”, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 43:3.

Haug, Wolfgang, 1986, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics, Minneapolis.

Illiria, Justine, 2008, “I Don’t Sell My Body Anymore Because I Can Sell Drugs”, Mute, ” target=”_blank”>

Jackson, Keith, 2010, “Setting the Record”,

Jeffrey, Leslie, 2006, “The Economy of Sex Work in the Maritimes”, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 43:3.

Mai, Nicola, 2009, Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry (London).

Pritchard, Jane, 2010, “The Sex Work Debate”, International Socialism 125 (winter),

Roberts, Nickie, 1993, Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society (HarperCollins).

Schaffhauser, Thierry, 2010, “The sex work debate—a response to Jess Edwards”, International Socialism website,

Weitzer, Ronald, 2005, “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution”, Violence Against Women, 11:7.