The sex work debate

Issue: 125

Jane Pritchard

The debate on “sex work” has divided the trade union movement. While the GMB has tried to organise women who work in lap dancing clubs, in 2009 the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Women’s Congress voted against a motion which supported the decriminalisation of the sex industry and the unionisation of sex workers. Instead a motion was passed in favour of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Over the last two years the University and College Union (UCU), the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Unison have taken different positions on this debate. Within feminist thinking there are opposed views on sex work and violence against women. Radical feminists in alliance with neoconservatives campaign for the abolition of prostitution and, in the interim, are supporting legislation that proposes the criminalisation of men. Other feminists, many of them academics who research in this area, as well as sex workers’ organisations themselves, demand the decriminalisation of prostitution. They argue that, while the long-term aim is to eliminate the conditions that breed prostitution, in the short term the priority is to keep women safe.

The language itself is highly problematic and emotive. The use of the term “prostitute” is regarded as a denigrating word used for women who are forced into selling sex through poverty and exclusion, while the use of the term “sex worker” is seen as dignifying an activity which reflects and compounds women’s oppression. This article does not suggest that sex work is “a job like any other”—however, the term sex work will be used, first because it avoids the moral condemnation often attached to the word prostitute. Second, this term is used because women who directly sell sex on the streets, in flats or in brothels are only a subset of a much larger number of women who work in the sex industry.1 The modern sex industry is a multibillion dollar industry, which generates huge profits for both transnational corporations and criminal gangs. The sex industry is difficult to define because it encompasses a huge range of diverse activities. According to the writer Elisabeth Bernstein:

The scope of sexual commerce has grown to encompass: live sex shows; all variety of pornographic texts, videos, and images, both in print and on line; fetish clubs; sexual “emporiums” featuring lap-dancing and wall-dancing; escort agencies; telephone sex and cyber-sex contacts; “drive through” striptease venues; and organised sex tours of developing countries.2

Accurate figures are hard to come by, but there is a general consensus that the last two decades have seen a resurgence in the international sex industry, including street prostitution, the voluntary or forced migration of women to work in the sex industry and the proliferation of lap dancing clubs. What is certain is that the sex industry is hugely profitable. A European Parliament report from 2004 estimated the global sex industry to be worth $5,000 billion to $7,000 billion.3 Some of the transnational corporations involved, such as Hugh Heffner’s Playboy and lap dancing chains owned by Spearmint Rhino and Foxy Lady, are well known. However, many apparently more respectable companies make huge profits from providing telephone lines and cable and satellite programmes, and being the internet providers for the sex industry. These include GM Motors (through DirecTV), Time Warner, News International (EchoStar satellite, AT&T) and hotel chain Marriot International.

In a world where everything is for sale, activities such as lap dancing, which were once viewed as oppressive to women, are now accepted as mainstream leisure opportunities. Pole dancing lessons, which require stilettos and skimpy shorts, are widely advertised as the new way of keeping fit. Soft porn is routinely displayed at the counters of supermarkets and garages, and prostitution is glamorised on TV in programmes such as The Secret Diaries of a Call Girl. At the same time there was widespread revulsion at the murder of five young women working on the streets of Ipswich in 2007. This
combination of increased visibility, normalisation and brutal violence has revitalised a debate about how to respond to prostitution and the sex industry, about whether sex workers are criminals or victims, and whether the industry should be tolerated, reformed to improve women’s lives or totally opposed as the institutionalised oppression of women. Two of the main debates have coalesced, first around whether working in the sex industry is fundamentally the same as working in other industries with the consequence that “sex workers” should organise in unions just like other workers, and second, whether clients should be criminalised as a way of reducing the demand for paid sex. These debates are the focus of this article.

It is argued here that understanding prostitution and the wider sex industry has to be rooted in understanding the specific oppression of women within the capitalist family unit and the increasing commodification of sex as the marketplace intrudes into the most intimate aspects of human existence. In the wider sense these phenomena have to be located in the context of the dynamics of capitalist expansion, in the vast growth in the global reach of capitalism in the late 19th century and again over the last 30 years in what is loosely termed globalisation. In these two periods the factors which drive women (and much smaller numbers of men) to sell sex have been transformed.

The sex as work debate

The notion of “sex work”, that selling sex is a job like any other, emerged in the 1970s through prostitution advocacy groups in the US such as Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE). It is predicated on the idea that, as all sex is commodified under capitalism, what can broadly be termed erotic labour is another service that can be bought or sold like any other. The result of this analysis is to argue against the criminalisation of prostitution and against attempts to eradicate prostitution altogether. Some contemporary campaigners go beyond arguing that “sex work” is a job like any other and argue that “sex work” is actually superior to other jobs that are available for women. They point to benefits in terms of working hours, autonomy, self-direction and even job satisfaction.

Some celebrate “sex work” as an inherent human right and, in particular, as a women’s right of sexual expression and an arena in which women can exercise disproportionate control over men. At this end of the spectrum of theories about “sex work”, what began as an understanding of how economic necessity drives women into the sex industry has become a celebration and expression of women’s empowerment. For example, Ana Lopez of the GMB union and the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), calls prostitution a “positive choice” for women. The IUSW website argues that prostitution can be empowering for women:

People gain personal strength from selling their bodies because their clients worship and admire them, they have as much sex as they want and defy traditional mores and roles imposed on them. Often prostitutes are extremely healthy, playful, creative, adventurous and independent women.4

Such arguments are accepted by academic Gregor Gall who claims of the “sex work” discourse:

[It] has been shown to be sufficiently robust to allow the generation of sex, sexual services and sexual artefacts as commodities under capitalism to be categorised not just as work but as wage labour…[therefore] sex wage labour under capitalism may be expected to be subject to the same broad impulses and dynamics of the process of capitalist accumulation that other wage labour is subject [to].5

Gall concludes that as “sex work” is fundamentally the same as other forms of employment, it generates the potential for a unionisation project and the possibility of sex workers exercising collective influence in order to defend and advance their interests.

At the other end of the spectrum there is abolition feminism which alleges that all commercial sex is violence against women. Proposals to improve safety for sex workers by legitimising their working situations are rejected as legitimising violence against women. In this view there is no qualitative difference between the “violence” of a society which “forces” a woman to become a lap dancer, and violence that expresses itself in beatings, rape and murder.

Between these polar ends of the spectrum socialists and feminists take a range of views. However, in order to consider these arguments it is important to understand the relationship between capitalism, prostitution and the sex industry and the specific oppression of women in capitalist society.

Capitalism, prostitution and the sex industry

Although it has been dubbed the oldest profession, prostitution has not been found in all societies. Historian N J Ringdal suggests that prostitution was a unique cultural phenomenon first developed in Mesopotamia and later spread to surrounding cultures in Egypt, Greece and India.6 However, from ancient times, many societies in North America, the old East India and Polynesia had a high degree of freedom for women and were unacquainted with prostitution.7 Therefore prostitution was not an inevitable feature of early human societies. Leading Bolshevik Party member Alexandra Kollontai helped to develop a Marxist analysis of prostitution after the Russian Revolution of 1917. She drew a distinction between prostitution in other eras, such as ancient Greece and Rome, and prostitution under capitalism.8 In ancient times the number of prostitutes was small and prostitution was seen as a legal complement to exclusive family relationships. In the Middle Ages, under artisan production, prostitution was accepted as lawful and unproblematic. Prostitutes had their own guilds and took part in festivals and local events just like any other guilds.9

With the rise of capitalism that changed. Prostitution in the 19th century occurred on a much greater scale than in previous societies. It was fed by the massive social dislocation as people were driven from agriculture into the manufacturing system. The urbanisation, poverty and large scale migration which characterised 19th century capitalism produced conditions in which brothels sprang up around the globe. In his book London Labour and the London Poor, written in the 1850s, Henry Mayhew described how women in seasonal and insecure trades were frequently driven into prostitution at certain times of the year.10 Thus milliners, whose skills were only in demand during the London society “season”, became particularly associated with prostitution. Socialist anarchist Emma Goldman quoted a study called Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century to describe the conditions that fuelled the growth of prostitution:

Although prostitution has existed in all ages, it was left to the 19th century to develop it into a gigantic social institution. The development of industry with vast masses of people in the competitive market, the growth and congestion of large cities, the insecurity and uncertainty of employment, has given prostitution an impetus never dreamed of at any period in human history.11

In 1921 Kollontai claimed that in Berlin there was one prostitute for every 20 “honest” women. In Paris the ratio was one to 18 and in London one to nine.12

Then as now there was a strong relationship between the migration of women and prostitution. At the end of the 19th century around 80 percent of prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires were first generation immigrants from Europe.13 This was true of major cities from Italy to India, with the majority of migrants being from Central and Eastern Europe.14 Hysteria and moral panic focused on the growth of a “white slave trade”. The claim that white women were being defiled by foreign and non-white men brought forth an alliance of reactionaries encompassing the church and politicians. However, there was little evidence that women had been kidnapped or coerced. Rather they were attempting to escape from desperate poverty and to some extent gain economic independence.

International capitalist development in the 19th century transformed prostitution into an international sex industry. The most recent period of globalisation and restructuring of capitalist production, from the 1970s onwards, has again reshaped the sex industry as it has wreaked havoc with the lives of ordinary people, women in particular. In developing countries structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have increased displacement in rural areas, increased unemployment in urban areas and led to wage cuts and increases in poverty. In new production zones of South East Asia transnational corporations ride roughshod over minimum wage and health and safety laws, leaving women working in hazardous conditions. The booming sex industry fills the gap left by wages paid below subsistence levels or the lack of any secure, paid employment.

Neoliberal policies have produced a huge polarisation between super rich elites and the marginalised and desperately poor who are often driven into the informal economy and sex industry to make ends meet. For example, Russia today is a major source of migrant sex workers and a major destination for sex workers. One writer has described the “erotisation of Russian culture”, in the post-Soviet era. The new Russian super-rich have fuelled a commercial sex boom in which “prostitution was fully incorporated into both the public and private life of the post-Soviet elites, who were often to be found in expensive night clubs surrounded by call girls”.15 This has coincided with the dramatic collapse of the economy and the drying up of any alternative sources of employment. A survey in the 1990s ranked prostitution eight out of the twenty most common jobs in the country.16

The Iraq War, which has brought in its wake the destruction of the Iraqi economy and social structures, has increased the sex industry. The Independent newspaper reported that an estimated 50,000 Iraqi women refugees were being driven into prostitution in Syria. Nihal Hassan reported from a sex club in Damascus, “The make up can’t disguise the fact that most are in their mid-teens. It’s a strange sight in a conservative Muslim country, but this is the sex business, and it’s booming as a result of the war in Iraq”.17 The sex industry lies at the heart of complex international networks of poverty, legal persecution and economic exploitation which force women into prostitution. However, these networks could not have developed in this way were it not for the continuing oppression of women in contemporary society.

The expansion of international capitalism at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries had many similarities to the current period of capitalism in terms of the internationalisation of finance, trade and investment and the sex industry. However, one important distinction must be made. There was a virtual absence of immigration restrictions up until the end of the First World War, while since the Second World War increasingly repressive and pervasive immigration legislation has been introduced in the developed world. Anti-immigration legislation means there is no possibility for poor and unskilled women to travel independently and work legally, so they become dependent on recruiting agencies and criminal networks. While some find low paid jobs looking after other people’s families, or cleaning and catering, others get enmeshed in the complex web of the sex industry.

Migrant women working in the sex industry are at risk from deportation, imprisonment, harassment and abuse. Deportation means they end up with disastrous debts that they will never be able to pay and often face rejection by their families. In the UK government agencies consider trafficked women above all else as undesirable aliens. The fact that they may be victims of sexual violence and exploitation is completely subordinate or even irrelevant to their immigration status. Refugee organisations have accused the Home Office of choosing them as soft targets to boost deportation targets because migrant sex workers are an easy catch. Therefore although New Labour politicians pay lip service to the plight of trafficked women, it is their government’s repressive immigration legislation that leaves women vulnerable to criminal gangs and treats the victims of sex traffickers at illegal immigrants to be deported against their will.

The roots of oppression and the commodification of sex

The scale and nature of prostitution and sex work have been and are conditioned by the poverty, polarisation and dislocation endemic to global capitalism. However, prostitution is not just another dimension of exploitation, but has to be understood in the context of women’s oppression. Women have not always been oppressed. According to Frederick Engels women’s oppression developed with the emergence of private property and was later transformed by the rise of the bourgeois family, which became the mechanism for transferring property from one generation to the next.18 Modern women’s oppression was also shaped by the separation of the home from the workplace during the industrial revolution and the resulting creation of a separate sphere of private life.

Along with Engels, Bebel argued that prostitution was the flip side of marriage and a “necessary social institution of bourgeois society”.19 Prostitution played a specific role because sexual interest was removed from the bourgeois family and assigned to prostitutes. Women within the family were expected to endure sex as a means of procreating, whereas men were deemed to have desires that could only be satiated outside the confines of the family. Some Victorian moralists justified the existence of prostitution on this basis. As historian Leonore Davidoff has written:

Defenders of prostitution saw it as a necessary institution which acted as a giant sewer, drawing away the distasteful, but inevitable waste products of male lustfulness, leaving the middle class household and middle class ladies pure and unsullied.20

Alexandra Kollontai wrote that prostitution was “the inevitable shadow of the official institution of marriage designed to preserve the rights of private property and to guarantee property inheritance through a line of lawful heirs”.21 This attitude helps to explain why prostitution was morally condemned but tolerated and in some countries, such as France, highly regulated by the state.

Marxist accounts of the roots of women’s oppression were revived by some strands in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In its early days the women’s movement sought to challenge the economic exploitation of women with campaigns against discrimination and for equal pay in the workplace. The movement also campaigned for 24-hour childcare, equal access to education and jobs and the extension of women’s control over their own fertility through access to contraception and abortion. Women challenged stereotypes about their appearance and the double standards applied to their sexuality, which sanctioned men’s sexual activity while castigating women who exercised the same freedom.

However, the gains made by the women’s movement were not sustained. One wing of the movement retreated into the politics of the personal and substituted individual lifestyles for collective struggle while the other, the socialist-feminists, harnessed themselves to the Labour Party. The result of this was to seriously weaken the movement’s ability to challenge inequality in the workplace and women’s oppression in general. The demise of the women’s movement, coupled with the increased marketisation of sex, laid the way open for a resurgence in new forms of sexism, the so-called ironic sexism which has led to the normalisation of “lads’ mags”, pornography and lap dancing clubs.

Today women participate more widely in the workforce than ever before, and although some gains have been made, genuine equality is a long way off. Although the ideology of the nuclear family is stronger than the reality, the family remains central to capitalism in terms of reproducing labour and fulfilling welfare functions. The oppression of women and the continued existence of the family are generated by the interests of capitalism which is best served by pushing the burden of social welfare onto individual families. Women are left to cope with a post-feminist ideology that tells them that they are equal and liberated, whereas the reality is one of unequal pay, responsibility for childcare and sexist discrimination.

Capitalism in the 21st century has increased the objectification of women and the commodification of sex. Sex is used everywhere, to sell everything. The social relationships that create the possibility of an industry for sex are deeply rooted in the structures of capitalism itself. The dominance of market competition over personal relationships creates a situation where human desires are transformed into commodities which can be sold for a profit. In his early writings Marx described how, in capitalist society:

Each attempt to establish over the other an alien power, in the hope of thereby achieving satisfaction of his own selfish needs…becomes the inventive and ever calculating slave of inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites. He places himself at the disposal of his neighbour’s most depraved fancies, panders to his needs, excites unhealthy appetites in him, and pounces on every weakness, so that he can then demand the money for his labour of love.22

Today we have become so used to a situation where all our human needs have been transformed into commodities that it seems almost natural. In their rapacious search for new markets to exploit, capitalist organisations probe more and more deeply into all aspects of our lives and in the process transform them further. Thus money can buy anything, including the simulation of love, but on the other side of the coin, all our human desires and abilities contract into a focus on consuming or what Marx called a sense of having:

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc, in short, when we use it.23

Our ability to experience sexual pleasure is alienated from us and turned into a commodity which we then desire to consume. But this process transforms sexual confidence and satisfaction into goals which recede further and further from our reach. In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and The Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy shows how the growing commodification of sex and objectification of women’s bodies has become increasingly divorced and disconnected from sexual pleasure and fulfilment.24

The sex industry now appears to be setting the agenda for numerous TV programmes, which show how women are encouraged to seek personal happiness by being surgically, cosmetically and sartorially tweaked into conforming to certain sexual stereotypes. In the US breast augmentation rose by 700 percent between 1992 and 2004. In some South American countries this procedure is a standard gift for a daughter at 18.25 Increasingly, women are even prepared to undergo a “vaginoplasty” in which their vulva and labia are surgically altered to make them look like those of porn stars in Playboy. There could be no more graphic example of how women in particular are alienated from their bodies to such an extent that they are prepared to pay for someone to cut and stitch them into a shape they are told will make them desirable to others.

Sex is not immune from the conditions which shape all aspects of our lives. All sexuality is shaped by the material conditions and social priorities of the society we live in, but the open treatment of sex as a commodity to be sold on the market is not just another aspect of that process. Sexuality is regarded as one of the last intimate aspects of ourselves. Sex is a part of our human nature, an experience that can be fulfilling and a central part of an individual’s identity. As one economist put it:

Prostitution is the classic example of how commodification debases a gift’s value and its giver, as it destroys the kind of reciprocity required to realise human sexuality as a shared good and the mutual recognition of each partner’s needs.26

Openness about sex and expectations of sexual fulfilment were key demands of the women’s liberation movement. However, the sexual freedom fought for in the 1960s and 1970s has been distorted and repackaged as commodities. The selling of sexuality to clients transforms the body into an object, a thing for someone else to use. All aspirations to autonomy and personal satisfaction are brutally stripped away by commercial sex which degrades both women and men and reinforces the most backward prejudices against women.

Organising sex workers

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Bolsheviks believed that prostitution was incompatible with the aspiration for sexual equality. They revoked all laws concerning prostitution and the first All Russian Congress of Peasants and Working Women adopted the slogan “A woman of the Soviet Labour Republic is a free citizen with equal rights, and cannot be and must not be the object of buying and selling.” Despite these proclamations prostitution in Russia grew after 1917, mainly due to the harsh economic circumstances that prevailed. It was dealt with inconsistently with brothels operating openly in some areas, while in others prostitutes were arrested.

Kollontai’s view was that prostitution was wrong, not on moral grounds, but because it stopped women contributing to the socialist society. Further, she argued that prostitution represented a threat to the new socialist morality because it destroyed solidarity and comradeship in the working class. Therefore the struggle against prostitution took place on two fronts: the first to secure economic equality for women and their participation in the labour force, the second to undermine the existence of the family as the source of women’s oppression by introducing collective canteens, laundries and nurseries.27

There was also a lively exchange on the issue of prostitution and sexuality between German socialist and campaigner for women’s rights Clara Zetkin and Lenin. Lenin recognised that prostitutes were double victims of bourgeois society—”victims, first of its accursed system of property and secondly of its accursed moral hypocrisy”. However, he condemned the efforts by a Communist woman in Hamburg to organise prostitutes as a “morbid deviation”. He argued that socialists should focus on organising women where they had collective power, in the workplaces, and thus transform the whole of society. Zetkin was herself contemptuous of the “empty chatter of bourgeois women” who moralised about the evils of prostitution—she argued that without well paid work for women, any discussion of abolishing prostitution was nonsense.28

Some campaigners and academics argue that prostitution is a job like any other in that sex workers negotiate rates of pay for the service they perform, and have control over their working conditions and exercise more autonomy than women in many other low-paid, low-status jobs. However, the possibility of collective organisation at work rests on the sharing of conditions, a common employer, and shared grievances, which can be opposed.

Sex workers face massive barriers in their capacity to organise collectively to improve pay and conditions. Women involved in street prostitution are marginalised, isolated and desperate, where there is little possibility of fighting for collective rates for the job, of negotiating collectively with clients or contributing to pension schemes. In the UK women who work on the streets are mostly those excluded from society, such as runaway teenagers, drug addicts and undocumented migrants turning to prostitution as a means of survival. It is by no means clear that they would wish to be incorporated into civil society as a “sex worker”, even if this option was open to them. Not everyone who sells sex thinks of themselves as a “sex worker” or wishes to be recognised as such.29

While this may be the case for women working on the streets of the UK historically, in parts of the developed world the situation may be more complex. During the 19th century and first part of the 20th century there were many examples of prostitutes organising and protesting against maltreatment. The current Uruguayan sex workers’ organisation has the seeds of its history in the struggle of Polish prostitutes during the 19th century. Everyday resistance is documented from the mid-19th century in Lucknow (India), and Guatamala, and in colonial Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s.30 There were significant waves of sex workers’ organising in the 1970s and then in the early 1990s in response to HIV/AIDs. A third wave of organising appears to be emerging significantly in India and Argentina. The Karnataka Sex Workers Union, established in India in 2006, has specifically constituted itself as a trade union, affiliating to the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) which has organised other informal workers. They have assisted in enrolling women in the electoral register, struggled against the criminalisation of clients and lobbied the government about violence against sex workers.31

In 2001 in Argentina the Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de la Argentina (AMMAR) sex workers’ organisation became an official affiliate member of the Central de los Trabajadores de la Argentina trade union federation (CTA). Although subject to debate in the movement, their membership went beyond a token gesture. The CTA used resources to support women against abuse, while AMMAR branch secretaries took on responsibilities as elected members of the CTA.32 There was no suggestion that sex work was desirable or fulfilling, but as (often) single parents it was the best option available to feed themselves and their families. In the words of one of the members of AMMAR their aspiration was:

That one day there are no more women that exercise this work for necessity, however, as we are not the owners of the truth we leave open the discussion as to whether—in the future we dream of—there will be women that all the same want to do this work.33

The rise of lap dancing clubs

The sex industry extends beyond the direct exchange of money for sex. Lap dancing clubs are a concrete manifestation of the sex industry which socialists need to address. First, these have been the very places in which there is deemed to be “erotic” labour and which have been targeted for union recruitment by the GMB trade union. Second, as socialists or activists in our communities, we have to take a view as to whether it is acceptable that these are located in our areas.

Lap dancing clubs are an important aspect of the industry because they are presented as its respectable face. Clubs like Spearmint Rhino have managed to gain an air of respectability, thanks to slick marketing and celebrity endorsements. Whereas strip clubs and brothels are seen as sordid and distasteful, lap dancing clubs are seen as an essential part of “lad” culture—somewhere that “city boys” can spend their bloated bonuses. Even worse is that taking staff to a club, buying drinks and paying for women to dance are legitimate business expenses and companies can claim back 15 percent VAT.34 This reflects the entrenched discrimination and sexism in the financial sector. In this “ironic” and post-feminist culture attendance is not exclusive to men. Women are dismissed as puritans and spoilsports if they do not join in.

Lap dancing has been described as “the fastest growing area in Britain’s sex industry”. There are 150 clubs in the UK and 20 in London and they are estimated to generate £1 billion per year.35 One factor in the proliferation of these clubs is the 2003 Licensing Act, which introduced the one size fits all premises licence, meaning that strip clubs are no longer required to get special permission for nudity. Some have suggested that lap dancing is completely separate from the sex industry and is simply one among many leisure activities open to ordinary people. The previous owner of For Your Eyes Only, Alan Whitehead, dismissed criticisms of his contribution to the sex industry and argued, “Sure they take their clothes off, but they’re not strippers. They’re dancers”.36

Lap dancing is promoted as a job where women can make lots of money and have some power and autonomy. For the vast majority of women this is sheer nonsense. All lap dancers in clubs are self-employed, relying on tips and income from private dances. Dancers pay between £35 and £100 per night to the club management to “rent” facilities such as poles, cabaret areas, private dance booths and VIP suites. This self-employment is not liberatory but keeps women permanently insecure and subservient. The women are not in control, autonomous or empowered—they are strictly monitored and controlled.

Changes in the law reclassifying lap dancing clubs as “sex encounter institutions” should be welcomed, albeit cautiously. Radical feminists such as Julie Bindel have been prepared to make alliances with right wing groups to call on the state to get lap dancing clubs banned. Socialists should have no truck lining up with such people. Beyond opposing moralistic arguments we do not see the solution as giving more power to the state, as the state is a means of oppression, not liberation. For example, in 1984, the Obscene Publications Act (1959) was used to raid the Gay’s the Word bookshop and seize hundreds of books as part of the moral backlash under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

The impact of lap dancing clubs on localities goes far beyond what actually takes place inside them. It means that women who live and work in these areas are more likely to be subject to abuse and harassment. In 2006 the Respect group in Tower Hamlets council argued against the extension of licences for lap dancing clubs on the grounds that they degraded and exploited women and were part of New Labour’s idea of regenerating inner cities by repackaging them as playgrounds for the rich. The City of London Corporation does not allow sex clubs or lap dancing venues. Instead taxi loads of stockbrokers from the City head to disadvantaged areas on the edge of the City, like Tower Hamlets.

Lap dancing clubs are symptomatic of the wider way in which the sex industry has been normalised and come to be viewed as acceptable. Before 2003 Jobcentre Plus (the UK government employment agency) did not advertise vacancies from within the “adult entertainment” industry. It would have meant that people not considering this type of employment could have risked their benefit entitlements. After a legal challenge from Ann Summers Ltd in 2003 this decision was reversed. Between 2006 and 2007, 351 jobs were advertised in government job centres, including pole dancers, “adult” chat line workers, masseuses and escorts.37

Some campaigners for rights for sex workers argue that erotic dancing is adult entertainment, not a sexual service, and that this group of workers should have access to the same employment rights and protection as other workers in the economy. In 2001 “erotic dancers” and others working in the sex industry were invited to join the GMB. The GMB has adopted the International Union Sex of Workers (IUSW) definition, which encompasses “any workers who use their body and/or their sexuality to earn a living”. In 2004 it had a branch of 150 members, mainly lap and table dancers. The unions signed a recognition agreement with two lap dancing clubs and maintain that working conditions and terms of employment have since improved. Codes of conduct and grievance procedures have been introduced, and union representatives been elected in those two clubs. However well intentioned the GMB, it is not clear that such organising has gone beyond a token presence in the industry. If the women who work in these places are able to organise to improve their wages and working conditions, then of course socialists must support them. Our quarrel is not with the women who work in them, but with the big firms and individuals who make vast sums for commodifying sex and trading on the objectification of women.

Socialists should oppose lap dancing clubs because they are an integral part of the sex industry. Their very existence helps to perpetuate the oppression of women. Lap dancing clubs are not normal workplaces, and attempts to characterise them as such must be resisted. Whether the dancers have union rights or not, the clubs function on the basis of the objectification of women and package them as objects available for the sexual gratification of others. The existence of lap dancing clubs makes it harder to fight against the idea that women should be valued according to how well they conform to physical stereotypes or how sexually available they are.

Criminalising men?

Rather than criminalising sex workers themselves, some governments have sought to criminalise the men who solicit or pay for sexual services. One of the contentious clauses of the UK’s Police and Crime Bill (2009) has been the proposal to criminalise men who buy sex. The argument is that shifting the burden of blame to clients will bring about a reduction in prostitution. This has been strongly opposed by a wide range of organisations and representatives of sex workers as making things more dangerous as it drives activity underground where women are less protected.38

In Sweden a 1998 law criminalised the buying of sex, a strategy which embodied elements of a feminist approach that sees prostitution as a violation of women akin to rape. Street prostitution in Sweden has fallen, but prostitution via the internet has risen, which some suggest could have happened independently of the legislation. Furthermore, sex worker organisations have pointed out that the criminalisation of their clients only pushes them into darker, less frequented areas, making them more vulnerable. Women who work on the streets are the most marginalised of all sex workers and they suffer the most from such legislation. O’Connell Davidson suggests that calling on the state to penalise buyers of sex has encouraged some feminists to forge alliances with repressive forces of the state and reactionary forces. She argues that this has involved:

Police chiefs calling for more extensive police powers and tougher sentencing policy, anti-immigration politicians calling for tighter border controls, and moral conservatives urging a return to “family values”.39

It is very difficult to identify the factors which propel men into paying for sex: their motives are diverse and there are many obstacles to any open discussion of the subject. The “punter” of popular myth is the sad, inadequate figure who cannot relate to women. However, Paying the Price, a 2004 government consultation paper, found that the typical customer was “a man of around 30 years of age, married, in full-time employment, and with no criminal convictions”.40 Today the number of men visiting prostitutes, or admitting to it, is increasing. The Independent quotes a 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal which found that the proportion of British men paying for sex had gone up from 5.6 percent in 1990 to nearly 8.8 percent in 2000. Dr Helen Ward, lead author of the report, points to growing divorce rates, sex tourism like stag holidays and the increasing availability of commercial sex through such means as the internet as reasons for the growth in male participation:

It’s far more acceptable to visit a prostitute. The sex industry is far more visible. Anyone with a WAP phone or a computer can find sex to buy. It’s part of the commercialisation of everything—these days we expect to buy anything we want when we want it.41

Men may turn to buying sex because they work long hours, are isolated from social networks or are part of a transient population. But they are also encouraged to think that they should be having sex and that women’s bodies are just another commodity that can be bought, like a car or a plasma TV. There is nothing inevitable about this situation. As Julia O’Connell Davidson has argued:

Human beings are not born wishing to buy commercial sex services or visit lap dancing clubs, any more than they are born with specific desires to play the lottery or drink Coca-Cola. They have to learn to imagine that it would be pleasurable to pay a stranger to dance naked for them; they have to be taught that consuming such services is a signifier of the fact that they are having fun, a marker of their social identity and status as “a real man”, “adult”, “not gay” or whatever.42

It is capitalist society, with its sexist social structures and rampant consumerism, that is the educator.

State accommodation or repression

State responses to the sex industry have historically combined the repression of prostitutes with a tacit acknowledgement that prostitution cannot be eradicated and so must be regulated. One of the most notorious examples of the former came in 1864 when the British government passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts which applied to 11 garrison and port towns. The acts were a response to soaring levels of venereal disease in the armed forces which were so crucial to the British Empire. The acts permitted police officers to arrest women they thought might be prostitutes and force them to endure a humiliating and painful internal examination for signs of venereal disease. Women with such diseases could be confined in a “lock hospital” for up to three months. All working class women in the designated towns were vulnerable to abuse and arrest. A national campaign forced the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, but the attitudes they embodied were enshrined in further legislation which followed.

Today most state responses are framed by two opposing political perspectives. The first sees prostitution as morally reprehensible and an affront to moral decency, which must be eradicated, and the second sees sex as a commodity like any other and seeks to regulate the sex industry. Neither works to reduce the exploitation involved in the sex industry.

Some campaigners, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, point to New Zealand’s decriminalisation of prostitution in 2003 as the model to be emulated. Campaigners point to how decriminalisation benefits sex workers by improving their ability to access health services or police protection and general attitudes towards them. However, the results of experiments with a more tolerant attitude to the sex industry have been the subject of bitter dispute. On the other hand, the Swedish model of criminalising clients, which has been hailed as a great success in greatly reducing visible prostitution, has simply driven these activities underground, making them more hazardous for the women who work in them. Although we should fully support the decriminalisation of prostitution, this does not mean that we support it being regulated and controlled by the state. State intervention in the sex industry is not ultimately the way to overcome the raunch culture and sexism that exist in society, or the material conditions which make women choose prostitution or lap dancing as the best alternative open to them.

In the UK the New Labour government treats prostitution as anti-social behaviour, issues prostitutes with Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbo) and regularly declares “zero tolerance” for street prostitution. All attempts at helping or rehabilitating sex workers are formulated within this punitive framework. Police have been encouraged to work more closely with charities running safe houses, sexual health outreach programmes, and drug and alcohol treatment programmes to help women get out of the sex trade. However, as part of this process, women can be bound by Asbos to attend programmes designed to encourage them to get help with drink or drug problems. Breaching an Asbo can incur a prison sentence of up to five years, and a criminal record makes it even harder for women to leave the sex trade.43

The New Labour Government has purported to be concerned about the plight of “trafficked” women. The Poppy Project was set up in 2003 with funding from the Office for Criminal Justice Reform. A report they published, Big Brothel, has been hugely criticised by 27 academics who research on the sex industry as well as organisations who represent or work with sex workers. They argue that it is seriously flawed and has produced sensationalist results, which are being used to introduce legislation that puts migrant and non-migrant women who sell sex at risk.44

More recently, the Policing and Crime Bill (2009) has been sold as a benevolent feminist project by politicians such as Harriet Harman. However, our attitude to this legislation should be based on whether it protects sex workers and their families—which it does not. The harsher definition of persistent soliciting (with “persistent” redefined as twice in a three-month period), the forced “rehabilitation” of those arrested, the targeting of brothels for raids and closures will drive prostitution further underground, increasing the vulnerability of those involved. Fear of arrest deters women from reporting violence or gaining access to health and other services. The majority of sex workers are mothers who worry about protecting their children from the stigma attached to criminalisation and the separation that results from a prison sentence. The legislation would penalise women who work from a flat. In May 2009 the Royal College of Nursing voted 93 percent in favour of up to four sex workers being allowed to work together legally on the grounds that decriminalisation would remove the stigma of prostitution, enabling sex workers to access the health services they need.

Measures that prevent men from buying sex from street prostitutes are increasingly presented and justified as anti-trafficking measures. However, huge objections have been made by groups concerned with the safety, human rights and civil liberties of women who work on the street.45 With regard to “trafficked” women, the regulation of commercial sex does nothing in itself to counteract racism, xenophobia or prejudice against migrants and minority ethnic groups. An end to draconian immigration controls, and granting asylum to these women would, however, immediately undercut “trafficking”.


Those who are exploited have the potential to challenge their alienation through collective struggle, which lays bare the hidden realities of how the market dominates our lives and where the real power for change lies. Ultimately, workers have the potential to create a socialist society in which human beings exercise democratic and collective control over their society and every aspect of their lives, including their sexual relationships.

The exploitation of women who work on the street could be ameliorated by rehabilitation programmes with real resources and treatment for drug addiction. Jail does not cure drug addiction and it certainly does not give women a route out of prostitution. To reduce the number of women involved in prostitution, the government should develop initiatives which offer training and employment to women, and provide rehabilitative counselling and support to women who are emotionally damaged and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Women who work on the street should be released from the burden of convictions for soliciting, enabling them to apply for jobs outside prostitution. Decriminalising prostitution and offering all trafficked women asylum would have a huge impact on many of these women’s lives.

A real alternative for women who work in the wider sex industry cannot be divorced from the fight for real opportunities in the labour market and the struggle for good quality, affordable childcare and free higher education. Women may “choose” to work on adult chat lines or as exotic dancers, because the reality of their everyday lives is that this fits better with looking after families or study than the badly paid or inflexible alternatives on offer.

However, while reforming the industry could help women, the aim of such reforms should be to reduce women’s dependence on selling sex and sexuality, not normalising or legitimising that exchange. “Sex work” is not a job like any other. It is not only a symptom of the most degrading and alienated aspects of life under capitalism, but also reinforces that degradation and alienation. Many jobs that people do today would still have to be done in a socialist society, but we believe that the poverty, alienation and oppression that create the conditions in which the sex industry flourishes would wither away. The commodification of sex deprives people of choice and fulfilment in their sex lives. The representation of sexuality displayed in lap dancing clubs or “lads’ mags” does not promote sexual freedom—it makes that freedom harder to achieve. Human beings have the potential to establish genuinely fulfilling and free sexual relationships. As Frederick Engels put it:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.46


1: Times Higher Education, 11 December 2008, reviewing the work of Dr Teela Sanders.

2: Bernstein, 2001.

3: Gall, 2006.


5: Gall, 2006, p35.

6: Ringdal, 2004.

7: Ringdal, 2004.

8: Kollontai, 1921 in Holt, 1977.

9: Kollontai, 1921 in Holt, 1977.

10: Mayhew, 1861.

11: Goldman quoting Blaschko in Innes, 2000.

12: Kollontai, 1921.

13: Ringdal, 2004.

14: Gibson, 1986.

15: Avgerinos, 2007.

16: Avgerinos, 2007.

17: Independent on Sunday, 24 June 2007.

18: Bebel, 1879, and Engels, 1972.

19: Bebel, 1879, and Engels, 1972.

20: Davidoff, 1995.

21: Kollontai, 1921, in Holt, 1977, p20.

22: Marx, 1975, p356.

23: Marx, 1975, p351.

24: Levy, 2006 p22.

25: Levy, 2006 p158.

26: Anderson, 1993, quoted in Van der Veen, 2001.

27: Kollontai, 1921, in Holt 1977.

28: Quoted in Ringdal, 2004, p267.

29: O’Connell Davidson, 2006.

30: Downe, 1999; Kempadoo and Doezema, 1998.

31: Hardy, 2010. Also see

32: Hardy, 2010.

33: Hardy, 2010.

34: Independent, 20 September 2009.

35: London Evening Standard, 17 August 2007.

36: Daily Mirror, 9 July 2003.

37: Jobcentre Plus.

38: and

39: O’Connell Davidson, 2003, p55.

40: Paying the Price, 2004, government consultation document.

41: Independent, 8 April 2007.

42: O’Connell Davidson, 2006.

43: Observer, 12 August 2007.

44: Guardian, 20 October 2009; Murray, 1998.


46: Engels, 1972, p145.


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