On the Question of Sex Work
A raging discussion among various circles is ongoing at this moment in time regarding sex work, what it means, how it should be approached and how it is to be interpreted within the framework presented by Marx. It is important that sex work is measured in a historical context of how work developed. In hunter and gatherer societies women played virtually the same role as men but in the advent of property relations did the role of women fundamentally change. Establishment of basic territorial property based societies required warriors – men became warriors and therefore also the chiefs, priests and rulers of society whilst women became relegated to secondary and then to tertiary social roles. It is highly recommended that one familiarizes themselves with the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State before or after reading this essay.
It is of great importance to mark the development of human society in order to understand why sex work primarily exists and services men and why the people who choose to become sex workers are predominantly female or adopt characteristics associated with femininity. In understanding the social basis of women – we understand how sex work is proliferated.
Now there is no simple way of summarizing the development of society in a succinct way but the Greco-Roman world is worth focus on. As societies that relied heavily on slaves to fulfill agricultural transitioned into feudal ones and the advent of Christianity in Europe settled in, gender roles were further intensified and entrenched. Marriage became sacrosanct and in some jurisdictions women did literally become the property of the men. Then the question arises – what of those outside of the ‘holy’ institutions of marriage? The way the Christian world perceived itself was that the ultimate objective for women was to become married and become homekeepers and childbearers. Then the question arises again, what of those who don’t want to get married? What are they to do? What happens to them? At this moment in Christian Medieval Europe women were heavily restricted if not totally forbidden from working – so what was left? I would suggest that the heavily patriarchal structures of society inevitably provided only one avenue of accruing wealth for women and that was through the selling of their body in exchange for money. The main purchasers of sex were also then inevitably men, because they were the ones who could accrue money and wages because they were the only ones able to work.
This has changed. The advent of the industrial revolution required a lot more labour in the newly intensified methods of production and industry and women were permitted by the capitalist class into the workforce. To this day they remain “the slaves of slaves” in the workplace and we are still combatting unequal pay in the workplace. That is neither here nor there however. Women were brought into the workforce on significantly lesser pay and conditions so the question must then arise – was it simpler to sell oneself for sexual exploitation for a potentially higher reward or be grounded down in the factory or industry? Sex work continued to remain as an option that was more financially lucrative and it must be underscored that this was and remains the primary reason for engagement in sex work. The inadequacy of wages for women and the fullest exploitation of labour by capital saw the proliferation of sex work rise alongside the rapid industrialization of Western society.
In Ireland, sex work existed away from the eye as something unholy and evil to the paradoxical hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless exist it did and as society became more socially liberal and the influence of the Church declined sex work became a more prominent, more acceptable feature. However whether in the shadows or in the open, the main purchasers of sex are men and the majority of those who sell their sex – women.
The social, cultural and economic subjugation of women and this continuation within capitalist society fuels the existence of sex work. The consciousness that men have within contemporary capitalist society is one of constance objectification and denigration and therefore this highly complex social phenomenon not only lowers women but completely distorts the view men hold of women. Pornography has an equally similar impact on the consciousness of those who view it – something that can be bought and paid for whereas in reality I would argue that sex work and the transformation of the body into a commodity is wholly different to the selling of your labour power or labour. A most excellent essay on the subject was written by Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and you can find it here.
It is important to note that throughout the development of all of human society there were always those who enjoyed the process of sexual relations and readily did so in exchange for money. Today the case is no different and liberal groupings use these people as examples of the ‘successes’ of sex worker. These people form a tiny minority of a super exploited majority of illegally trafficked or coerced sex workers who in the absence of options have took to selling their body to earn a living.
Wage, Labour and Capital
This pamphlet, written in 1849 explains what wages are, their relationship to labour / labour power and to capital. It’s important that any discussion of work is done in the context of this pamphlet. If you haven’t read it you can find the full version here. In short, the argument states that wages are a form of commodity that the capitalist gives the worker in exchange for the time the worker sells to the capitalist.
X Wages = Y Time Sold.
The pamphlet goes on to explain how a wage is determined – it is a predetermined sum of the least amount the capitalist is willing to pay for you to perform a task for an amount of time. The task usually generates wealth, or income for the capitalist.
Example: Cork Coffee Roasters pays 10.00 p/h to a barista. The barista works 8.5 hours per day and sells 30 cups of coffee per hour on average. The surplus value that the barista is creating, the wealth of the cups of coffee goes to the capitalist, not to the barista and the wage of the barista remains unchanged. This is the case for most places of work in Ireland and on most contracts.
How can sex work be accounted in this formula? The conclusion that I have come to after researching this subject is that it cannot. The formula outlined by Marx in Wage, Labour and Capital does explain to some extent the relationship of wages to work, labour and capital but it does not account for sex work. My argument however will develop this idea a step further. A sex worker transforms their body into a commodity and sells the commodity (their body) in exchange for wages – another commodity. So the formula is partly agreeable – there is an exchange of commodities. However, in the original conception of the pamphlet the transaction of wages x time involves the creation of wealth. Sex work does not produce wealth, it does not in the strictest and technical terms produce value that can then be used by the capitalist.
It is my view that Marxism is not static and therefore our analysis of society and it’s phenomenon is not static either. The conclusion I would draw is that sex work cannot be fit into the category of ‘work’ by default that it a) transforms the body into a commodity in a way other forms of work do not and b) does not create anything of value. It is a form of work – because commodities are exchanged but a different form. If we were to take the development of the exchange of commodities, money for labour and then wages for labour power, I would place this as the third development, the body for wages. Those who state that ‘sex work is not work’ are in error and those who state that it is “the same” as other forms of work ar equally in error.
Communists and Sex Work
There are competing views among communists, but it is generally held that the existence of sex work is directly linked with the power of capital in society and poverty. Her.ie reports that since 2008 those seeking “sugar daddies” has increased by 358% What is actually interesting about this article is that identifies the root cause of the issue itself and poses the question: “If you were seriously strapped for cash, how far would you go in order to earn some money?”. A more recent article by Joe.ie notes the huge increase of people signing up to find a sugar daddy with over 500 people in Trinity, UL, UCC and NUIG all signed up.
In many ways this answers the question that is to be posed: Why do people sign up? The increase in those engaging in sex work is linked to austerity which would suggest that were we not to be forced to endure austerity – would people be in a position to have to sign up for this service? Note as well that it is predominantly young women that sign up and that the majority of sex workers are overwhelmingly female.
The question must also be asked – are there benefactors to sex work?
In countries where it has become regulated and transformed into an industry, trafficked sex workers are paying off debts and therefore in an even more insecure economic condition than those who are not trafficked. In the Netherlands and other countries, pimps, brothel owners etc are the main benefactors inn these circumstances. They take money that is earned and by the sex worker and continue to maintain rigid control over the life of the sex worker. There are sex workers who exist only to line the pockets of their literal owners and this is the extreme but very real downside of introducing legislative reform.
It is an indisputable fact that the rise of sex work in Ireland is linked to the destruction of social safety nets, increase in education fees, precarious housing and precarious work. However this does not mean Communists should simply stand at the sidelines and decry those who choose this option – that would be foolhardy, unacceptable and an abandonment of a section of our own class. We engage in harm reduction actions and offer help, support and defence where we can and how we can, that is our task in relation to our class and whether some express moral outrage at sex work or not, they sell their bodies in exchange for wages and are as dependent on this exchange as workers in other fields and industries are.
On harm reduction for sex workers
There is a debate in Ireland as to which ‘model’ would the be best suited but I am inclined to think that the model which offers the most amount of legal protection to sex workers while the maximum amount of potential punitive measures against potential criminals. The right to legal recourse, while not the ultimate solution nor the elimination of capitalism in Ireland would nevertheless create a safer environment for those in the position of having to be engaged in sex work. The lack of social power sex workers have, trafficked or not is a significant factor in how they are treated both on a structural societal level and on a personal level. There are no serious consequences for those who commit violent or criminal acts against sex workers – and there should be.
In Sweden there are options available for those looking to leave sex work to work elsewhere and while this is an imperfect solution, I think it is a radical one in contrast to countries where you are simply left to fend for yourself.
What is the objective of the Communist movement?
It is our task to defend the exploited – this includes sex workers but it is equally our task to advance the consciousness of our class, empower our class and ultimately seek the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production. Yet in doing so we have to simultaneously be on the defensive and offensive, in being on the defensive we strive for short term gains for our class whilst never losing sight of the long term objective of revolution.
Ultimately we have to vigilantly challenge the liberal held notion that engaging in sex work is a selfless act of liberation or emancipation. Statistics demonstrate clearly that the rise in sex work is linked to socio-economic circumstances and the individual cases cannot speak for the trafficked and exploited masses. We must challenge these liberal notions because they distort the painful and horrific truth: sex work is one of the most advanced form of exploitation that exists within capitalist society where a person (majority female) has to turn their body into a commodity and place a price on it.
Liberals individualize the issue and cast it as a liberating act of ‘agency’ – and for some, it very well could be but for the majority it is a last resort in a precarious, capitalist society. The struggle of communists is to smash oppressive practices and the best way of doing is by obliterating the capitalist class and the conditions they thrust upon our people. Liberals individualize all issues and draw them down as something that can be solved by the personal endurance of one person or mitigated by their self-resilience.
Looking ahead, the question arises whether sex work will exist in socialist society?
I would suspect it will, but on a much smaller scale. Our objective is to eliminate poverty and the conditions which lead people to transform their body into an exchangeable commodity. There is, in my view nothing functionally wrong with a person who, without economic duress and coercion chooses to become a sex worker and this will inevitably happen – but as mentioned before, our struggle is to alleviate the oppressed and exploited masses not to highlight the minor, individual cases.