A feminist perspective on Jacqui Smith’s proposals to change the prostitution laws

December 23, 2008 at 10:05 am (Caroline S, Feminism, Free Speech, sex workers, women)

viceFirstly, let me introduce myself – I’m Caroline Shepherd, and I’m a sex positive feminist who supports sex workers rights. I blog primarily at Better Burn That Dress, Sister, and have a few other blog projects on the go as well (Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy and  in the moderation queue).

Right now, I’m concerned with Jacqui Smith’s proposals. I see Voltaire’s Priest has blogged about this in Sex Workers: Practical Help, not Puritanism and BindelBollocks already, but I’d like to hit you with the feminist perspective, or, because radical feminists traditionally wet themselves when I say I’m a feminist, the sex positive feminist perspective.

Firstly, here, very basically, is what Jacqui Smith proposes –
1) Giving councils more power to close down brothels and lap dancing clubs.
2) Make kerb-crawling punishable as a first offense.
3) Outlaw sex with someone “controlled” for another’s gain.
4) Class sex with a trafficked woman as rape. Claiming ignorance will not be considered a defense.

Sex workers and sex workers unions have objected vehemently. I have a small selection of examples in one of my blog posts, but to be honest, you’re better off going straight to the source – for example, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), particularly this press release from Catherine Stephens. In it, she explains that these laws will quite simply endanger sex workers;  the industry will be pushed even further underground. Sex workers are already incredibly vulnerable as it is, this is frankly unthinkable. In fact, considering this logically – women will be literally thrown into the street, unable to work in a controlled environment and forced to make snap decisions when getting into the car with a client. Furthermore, it is assumed that a woman working for another person is “controlled” and exploited. This is not necessarily so.

People who read my blog regularly know that I am not against prostitution. I see it as ‘selling sex’, not ‘selling women’, and I believe in supporting a woman’s choice to sell sex. I trust her judgement and respect her autonomy to make this decision. It is true that some women do not choose to be in this industry and they must be helped. Pushing the sex industry further underground won’t help anyone, least of all those most vulnerable. I do not believe, however, prostitution is necessarily unsafe, I believe it is made unsafe by bad laws and that decriminalisation and regulation will give women their right to a safe working environment. Being as I support human rights and workers rights, so too do I support sex workers rights.

However, to be perfectly frank – my opinion on sex work is, essentially, inconsequential. One may think sex work is immoral, anti-feminist, “icky”, whatever. The simple fact is there are women out there who are vulnerable and made more vulnerable by bullshit laws. Let’s say we do nothing, keep the laws as they are now. What next? To quote the indomitable Renegade Evolution (a sex worker, sex workers rights activist and blogger), what’s the plan? Harm reduction (discussed here by Ren for Feministe) is the priority here, religion, morality, feminism, that’s not the major concern right now. The need to protect vulnerable women, respect women’s right to choose to sell sex and ensure a safe working environment for women are the priorities. There are times I’m at a complete loss as to why feminists cannot agree to this.

45 Comments

  1. voltairespriest said,

    And let me be the first to give you a warm welcome, Caroline!

    I completely agree with your post – if the feminist movement loses the perspectives that you mention in your closing paragraph then I don’t really understand what it thinks it’s there for. In my view a lot of the proposals such as Smith’s (and the backing from writers like Bindel) comes from a very conservative strain which runs through some parts of the feminist movement, and which actually restricts the voices of those very vulnerable women whom it is supposed to represent. A feminist version of the labour movement bureaucracy at its worst, if you will.

  2. Renegade Evolution said,

    Thanks for the props, Caroline, but as a small reminder, my blog is not safe for work.

    It would be so nice if lawmakers would actually LISTEN to sex workers, no matter WHAT country they are in.

  3. hangbitch said,

    Good article, Caroline, and absolutely right. Making criminals out of sex workers and men who use them delivers nothing, except more criminals.

    Prostitution was decriminalised in my home country New Zealand several years ago and the results for women have been very encouraging thus far – sex workers report feeling safer, health and safety law is being openly utilised, women feel that they can call the police and expect a response if they’re in trouble, and the NZ prostitutes’ collective is even reaching a point where it can seriously look at employment contracts and proper employment protections for women in the sex trade. None of this would have been possible with even one of Smith’s initiatives above.

    Catherine Healy, who has run the NZPC for years, listed the advantages of decriminalisation in the Guardian earlier this year:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/29/gender.law

    You’re right when you say feminists need to unite on this. It’s simply about making sure women who work as prostitutes have full and equal access to all aspects of the law and of society – just like anyone else. It’s that simple, really.

  4. Mark P said,

    The rush by some on the left to embrace the term “sex worker” seems more than a bit odd to me. It is a term quite deliberately designed to conflate prostitution with the employees of sex related businesses, including strippers, phone sex line operators and the like. As such it serves to mystify rather than clarify.

    Regardless of your views on harm reduction when it comes to prostitutes, a junky selling sex for a fix or a desperate illegal migrant who has had her passport and other documents taken from her by pimps is not in even remotely the same social position as someone whose job happens to be related to sexual matters, like for instance a phone sex line operator. It is a misleading political choice to try to conflate the two. One of the defining features of many (perhaps a very large majority of) prostitutes is that they are excluded even from the “benefits” of the usual system of capitalist exploitation and instead exist desperately around its margins.

    It is as if people think that by redefining prostitutes as “workers”, contrary to both Marxist categories and common sense, that somehow they are giving “agency” to these women, a notion which reeks to me of sanctimonious bullshit.

    As an aside, the statement in the original post denying that prostitutes with pimps are necessarily controlled or exploited is pretty bizarre stuff. In so far as the same poster wants to position prostitutes as “workers”, their relationship with an “employer” is precisely one of exploitation. Unless prostitution is seen to be some happy aberration where not only are prostitutes “workers” rather than marginalised victims but they are actually better off than actual workers because they aren’t even exploited by their employers! Where do we sign up for this socialism in one brothel?

    Now as I said earlier in this comment, not accepting that prostitutes are “workers” in any useful or meaningful sense of the word does not imply a particular position on harm reduction measures. From the point of view of anyone opposed to sexism, prostitution reinforces sexism in society. It is predicated on the notion that men can purchase women’s bodies for sex and this is not something anyone should want to see expanded or normalised. On the other hand, prostitution is also a product of sexist society as well as something which contributes to further sexism and as long as we live in such a society it is likely that it will continue to exist in some form. Helping those women (and, more rarely, men) who are caught in that “industry” is also a reasonable and important goal.

    This debate is so thorny and difficult precisely because measures designed to help an extremely vulnerable and exploited group (prostitutes) can often have the effect of “normalising” and expanding prostitution. While measures designed to reduce the prevalence of prostitution can have the effect of making life even harder for existing prostitutes.

  5. Quick note « Better burn that dress, sister. said,

    […] 2008 by Caroline I’ve blogged some more about Jacqui Smith over at Shiraz Socialist in A feminist perspective on Jacqui Smith’s proposals to change the prostitution laws (cos I know youse all love it when I call myself a […]

  6. Caroline said,

    hangbitch –

    That’s for that link, very useful!

    Mark P –

    I agree that there is a vast difference in jobs and indeed privilege. Even in prostitution you have women who are privileged and those who aren’t, and those who aren’t, who can’t, say, blog about their experiences etc are the most marginalised of society and so are least ‘heard’. No one is denying that. The term “sex worker” was coined in the 1970s to, partly, yes, reflect the autonomy workers may have in the industry (and many have chosen to be in the industry, as inconvinient as that truth might be to radical feminist theorists). Also, importantly, it was to replace the degrading terminology that is used in society. “Prostitute” is not only a word to describe a certain type of sex worker, it’s also used as an insult to put down women. The term “sex worker” reflects also that it is a job in which labour is sold, just like any other. I generally use the term “sex work” because I’ve found it to be generally their preferred term and I’d sooner go with that than impose terms they might have rejected. Sanctimonious? I don’t know, don’t honestly think semantics are a priority right now, especially when I’m writing about the importance of harm reduction and I’m placing emphasis on women who have very little to no privilege. I’ve explicitly recognised the importance of understanding many women do NOT have a choice and ARE trafficked – these women’s situations will be made a whole lot worse under the laws Jacqui Smith proposes.

    As for “normalising” prostitution – well, I don’t find prostitution dirty, icky, anti-social, anti-feminist or whatever you’re worried about so long as women have chosen to work in this industry. Decriminalisation and regulation will help this.

  7. Mark P said,

    Some people might “choose” to do all kinds of things that most of us would regard as unpleasant or dangerous or harmful. I’m not really interested in “choice” when it comes to such things. There may well be some of the (nearly always mythical) “happy hookers” somewhere in the world, but they aren’t really the issue, particularly when we are talking about harm reduction, The whole point about talking about this issue in terms of “harm reduction” is that prostitution does indeed involve harm, both to many of the women who are trapped in that “business” and also to society as a whole.

    I am of the view that there is something wrong with prostitution. I don’t want to live in a society where men can rent women for sex and I particularly don’t want to do anything that will have the effect of normalise and expand that practice. One of the things which people who talk about “sex workers” seem to miss when they insist on talking about “harm reduction” or about “sex workers” is that many of the measures they favour will tend to normalise prostitution and increase the numbers of women who work as prostitutes. As far as I can tell, you don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. I on the other hand think that it will reinforce sexism as well as making life worse for the extra women who end up as prostitutes.

    That concern will often come into conflict with the (entirely correct) desire to minimise the danger and misery faced by those women who are already prostitutes. That’s whey I don’t pretend that there is an easy solution to this problem, at least in a sexist capitalist society.

    However, I do think that regardless of anyone’s views about how to balance those two issues, it is deeply wrongheaded to insist on describing prostitutes as “workers”. They don’t have an employer in the sense socialists or Marxists would understand. They are either independent operators or, if they work for someone else, they work on a basis which has little in common with wage labour as most of us would understand it. They are certainly exploited, both by clients and by pimps, but in a quite different way to the way in which workers are exploited, even those workers in the sex industry.

  8. Renegade Evolution said,

    “Some people might “choose” to do all kinds of things that most of us would regard as unpleasant or dangerous or harmful. I’m not really interested in “choice” when it comes to such things. There may well be some of the (nearly always mythical) “happy hookers” somewhere in the world, but they aren’t really the issue, particularly when we are talking about harm reduction, The whole point about talking about this issue in terms of “harm reduction” is that prostitution does indeed involve harm, both to many of the women who are trapped in that “business” and also to society as a whole.”

    Heya, mythical creature here, and advocate for all kinds of people involved in the sex industry, willing and not, and harm reduction is, in fact, something needed by all people in the biz, whether they love it or do it to survive or because they are forced. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that every human on the planet no matter their job would like to see it be less dangerous, so why the hell do you think that even happy whores wouldn’t be interested in harm reduction?

    “I am of the view that there is something wrong with prostitution. I don’t want to live in a society where men can rent women for sex and I particularly don’t want to do anything that will have the effect of normalise and expand that practice. One of the things which people who talk about “sex workers” seem to miss when they insist on talking about “harm reduction” or about “sex workers” is that many of the measures they favour will tend to normalise prostitution and increase the numbers of women who work as prostitutes. As far as I can tell, you don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. I on the other hand think that it will reinforce sexism as well as making life worse for the extra women who end up as prostitutes.”

    Woo, you don’t like the idea of normalization! I’m sorry. Let’s see, normalization vs. women getting murdered, women getting raped, robbed and beaten and being afraid to go to the law or laughed at by police, or having a rape labeled a theft of services, if and when a woman leaves prostitution, if she has a crimial record related to it, her future employement opportunites are far from good, hummm, guess what? Normalization does not look so bad in those cases now, does it? Death, fear and violence seem far worse to me anyway.

    “That concern will often come into conflict with the (entirely correct) desire to minimise the danger and misery faced by those women who are already prostitutes. That’s whey I don’t pretend that there is an easy solution to this problem, at least in a sexist capitalist society.”

    Well, a good start might be actually listening to the people in the business.

    “However, I do think that regardless of anyone’s views about how to balance those two issues, it is deeply wrongheaded to insist on describing prostitutes as “workers”. They don’t have an employer in the sense socialists or Marxists would understand. They are either independent operators or, if they work for someone else, they work on a basis which has little in common with wage labour as most of us would understand it. They are certainly exploited, both by clients and by pimps, but in a quite different way to the way in which workers are exploited, even those workers in the sex industry.”

    Really? Tell you what, why don’t you come do my job for a month then tell me it isn’t work. Go to a few sex worker events and tell those women that what they are doing is not labor. I dare you.

  9. Mark P said,

    Firstly, I think we are talking at cross purposes when it comes to the term “worker”. This is a Marxist website and the term “worker” has a specific meaning in Marxist thought, beyond simply meaning someone who performs work. A businessperson, a slave, a shopkeeper, a serf and many other groups of people may well work, but they are not “workers” in the Marxist understanding of the term. To Marxists, a worker is a free wage labourer. The term is used in a wider sense in many other contexts, but this is a website run by Marxists with an audience consisting in large part of other Marxists. My point was to question a growing adoption of the term “sex worker” by sites and publications which in general use a very different definition of the word “worker”.

    Secondly, your argument contrasting “normalisation” with “women getting murdered, women getting raped, robbed and beaten…” is rather irritating, given that the post you were replying to specifically talked about the “danger and misery” facing many prostitutes. I am not saying that horrific things don’t happen to prostitutes and I am not saying that it doesn’t matter (sorry about the double negatives). I am saying that in this kind of discussion people with good intentions often talk past each other because advocates of anti-prostitution laws often refuse to look at the damage such laws can do to people working as prostitutes and advocates of the full legalisation of prostitution refuse to accept that the measures they propose would in all likelihood lead to a much larger and more prevalent prostitution industry (or in the alternative, they accept that but don’t care).

  10. Laura Agustín said,

    Why can’t a lot of these arguments all be true of *someone*? of some groups within a very broad category? Why do people think there has to be one final bottom line about the good and evil involved when there is so much diversity amongst people who sell sex?

    Some people who do it prefer to call themselves sex workers, including in very poor areas of Latin America, Africa, Asia. They feel less stigmatised and experience their lives as ‘working’ lives.

    Some people prefer to call themselves prostitutes, because they feel the word has a long and worthy tradition.

    Some people use ‘sex worker’ to refer to not just prostitutes but to everyone who does anything in a sex business: peep show or lap dancer, phone sex operator, webcam performer. But some of those latter people *don’t* like to call themselves sex workers because they think that makes them sound like prostitutes, and they distance themselves from prostitution.

    This discussion was about Jacqui Smith’s proposal. In my own Guardian piece about it, I point out that all the above complexity also applies to migrants who sell sex. I said:

    ‘It shouldn’t be so difficult to maintain two ideas at the same time: some people prefer selling sex to their other options, no matter where they were born, while some other people find it unbearable. Some migrants get a raw deal from intermediaries or do not want to migrate at all, while other migrants get more or less what they want by paying people to help them.’

    That was at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/19/humantrafficking-prostitution

    I think we could all argue less if we allowed that, given the enormous numbers involved in selling sex, there are many differences amongst the people and jobs involved.

    Laura Agustin – Border Thinking
    http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin

  11. Renegade Evolution said,

    Mark:

    I realize this is a marxist site, however, if one is going to show an interest in let alone offer an opinion on a group of marginalized people, it is (at least in my opinion) important to consider using terms they use to self define when dealing with them. You may not like the term sex worker, it may not fit in with your marxist view of the world, but a great many people of all kinds, all over the world, involved in the sex industry have adopted the term sex worker for themselves…so, what is more important when dealing with this issue: Your politics or the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of all those people? You don’t have to like or agree with the term in a marxist sense, but a person or a group of peoples right to self define is usually pretty important to them, and I can tell you that walking-literally or otherwise- into a discussion about any form of sex work and telling sex workers what terms they can and cannot use to define themselves is A) not a good way to show you actually care about the people involved at all, B) likely to get you railed on by people who do identify as sex workers.

    And oh, gee, I am sorry if I irritated you, really. Most sex worker rights adovocates support decriminialization, which would make, in many ways, the lives of sex workers/ prostituted people (there is a difference) safer. However, to suggest that such a thing would lead to normalization is…naive? Plenty of stigma would remain, you know. There is a great deal of stigma applied to people involved in legal aspects of sex work; after all, being a porn perfomer, an escort in a legal brothel, or a stripper still comes with plenty of stigma and is not exactly normalized. There are huge segements of society still willing to utterly look down on any person who takes off their clothes or has sex for money no matter how legal or illegal the practice is…I do think the day when a person can say “I sell sex and sexuality for money” and have people look at them and nod just as they would do to a teacher, accountant or editor is a long way away…in the mean time, people working in the sex industry, especially illegal aspects are denied the same basic human rights others take for granted, and live in fear of the police. How is this, in any way, a good thing?

    Smith and others are pushing models like those found in Sweden without actually knowing how horribly that model has affected Swedish sex workers/prostituted people, and in the worst cases without even seeming to care. This is what is going on in Sweden:

    “Most of the women I have spoken to wish to be able to work together with others. This is to ensure safety and to support each other. They find it unfair that they cannot do this and feel scared when they have to work alone.

    This law also makes it difficult for sexworkers to cohabit with a partner since it is illegal to receive any of a sexworker’s income. It is hard for a sexworker to have a family at all since sexworkers are considered to be unfit parents and therefore can lose custody of their children if it emerges that they sell sex.”

    “The more vulnerable sexworkers seem to be the ones most negatively affected by the law. Women working on the streets in some bigger cities claim that there is now a greater percentage of ‘perverted’ customers and that the ’’nice and kind’’ customers have disappeared. A ‘perverted’ customer is someone who demands more violent forms of sex, sex with feces and urine and who is more prone to humiliate, degrade and violate the sexworker. He also more often refuses to use condoms.”

    “And if you are a victim of trafficking the only help you can expect from the Danish or Swedish governments is to be locked up in a closed institution for refugees for some months BUT only if you help the police and expose yourself, for the threat against your family can be executed by criminal organisations.

    And when the police no longer need you, you are deported back to your home country directly in to the arms of criminal organisations.”

    -from isabella lund, a Swedish Sex Worker (http://sensuellqkonsult.wordpress.com/)

    Women in Sweden (even non sex workers) have been arrested for having condoms on their person, as condoms are seen as criminal evidence. They claim the trafficking rate in Sweden has dropped, but in truth, they are merely deporting trafficked women back to their home countries. The sex industry has merely been driven even further under ground and made more dangerous…

    This is the sort of thing Smith is pushing for the UK…how anyone can advocate that yet still say they care about sex workers stuns me, because these laws further put prostitutes in harms way, and you cannot care about people you are willing to do that to.

  12. Oliver FP said,

    I really like this excellent, succinct article.

    And Mark P – man decides that women’s choices are invalid. And puts scare quotes around the word. That’s a really super feminist thing to do!

  13. Caroline said,

    Mark P –

    “Some people might “choose” to do all kinds of things that most of us would regard as unpleasant or dangerous or harmful. I’m not really interested in “choice” when it comes to such things.” – like it or not, the laws Jacqui Smith proposes harm those who have freely chosen the profession, and there ARE those who have chosen freely, despite your disapproval. Their voice is important too, and I certainly won’t be disregarding it as carelessly as you.

    “Happy Hooker” – funny, so often when I write about sex workers rights I get someone saying that somewhere, despite the fact that my focus is very clearly and explicitly on sex workers who are greatly less privileged.

    “normalising” sex work… You mean people will stop judging women and controlling them with their prejudices and preconceptions as you propose? Cos I’m not seeing a lot wrong in that.

    “workers” – yeah, I get that it’s an inconvinience to your Marxist outlook, nevertheless I think it’s a good term for the reasons I’ve already outlined. Plus I think sex workers / prostitutes / hookers / whore / whatever are more than capable of self-labelling, and they do in a variety of ways as Laura points out. Hell, I saw Catherine Stephens use “hooker” the other day. Fact is, you have Ren there, a sex worker, telling you it’s work. I know she can find an army of those who agree with her, and I can find one or two myself who would also back her up. I don’t know if you read sex worker’s blogs, if not look some up, it might give you a better understanding if you’re open enough to learning (and I’m not terribly convinced you are, to be honest, but I could be wrong).

    Whatever your theoretical view (or, indeed, bias), there are women who want to do it who are being harmed by these laws, and there are women who don’t want to do it, harmed already and being harmed further. All are vulnerable. This might be a radical idea, but if you are interested in this then maybe listen to women like Ren rather than fighting her and calling her “irritating”. Have a look at this video by Dacia, read through some of Sexsäljares och allierades nätverk i Sverige (Sexworkers and allies network in Sweden, it’s written in Enlish), and read stuff about the New Zealand model (like the article hangbitch was kind enough to link). And check out Laura’s blog, that’s a must for understanding all this.

    Denying decriminalisation of sex work because you find it “unpleasant” and are unable to understand it through Marxist theory is morally reprehensible.

  14. Mark P said,

    Oliver:

    As I said earlier in this thread, I have no particular interest in women’s right to “choose” to be prostituted, nor, more generally, do I have any particular interest in approaching a social issue through the lens of individual “choice”. My politics are not about affirming people’s individual lifestyle choices or about validating their sense of self worth or any of the other stupidities which seem to be fashionable amongst sections of the left (particularly, for some reason, the American left).

    Prostitution is not, for a huge number of prostitutes, a matter of choice at all. For many more it is a matter of severely circumscribed choice. The negative consequences for society as a whole – and women in particular – of making it acceptable for men to rent women’s bodies for sex are also not a matter of choice. You will have to pardon me if you don’t think it’s “super feminist” to primarily approach the issue from this angle rather than concentrating on validating the lifestyle choices of some women who may for whatever reason want to work as prostitutes. Luckily, I never described myself as “super feminist”.

    Renegade Evolution:

    You will note that, despite the relative lack of political priority I would give to people’s right to “self define”, that I did not send an email to a prostitute or some group of prostitutes telling them that they can or can’t call themselves “sex workers”. I really don’t particularly care if they want to call themselves that or if they want to call themselves Buddhists or shepherds or tables or accountants or anything else. I don’t care and it isn’t really my business anyway.

    I commented on a Marxist site, with a largely Marxist readership, where the term “worker” has a commonly understood meaning, on the political implications of adopting the term “sex worker” and it’s impact on our common understanding. Prostitutes are not workers in the Marxist sense of the term, although they do in fact perform work.

    On the more substantive point, I did not at any point argue that it is a good thing for prostitutes to be “denied the same basic human rights others take for granted, and live in fear of the police.” In fact it should be clear from my earlier posts that I think that such consequences of anti-prostitution laws are extremely negative. Where I disagree with you is that I don’t accept that this ends the discussion and that there are no other factors to take into account. Policies advocated to improve the position of prostitutes can also have the (in my view extremely negative) consequence of increasing the numbers of women in prostitution and making more acceptable in wider society the idea that men can rent women’s bodies for sex.

    That this conflict, between harm reduction and opposition to prostitution as an institution, exists is why I don’t think that there is an easy answer (at least within the confines of a sexist, capitalist, society). You on the other hand, as far as I can tell, don’t think that there’s anything inherently negative about prostitution, about increasing the numbers of prostituted women or about normalising the idea that men can rent women’s bodies for sex, so to you there appears to be no conflict. At the risk of having Oliver come back and bleat some more about the validity of women’s choices, I think that this is a social problem and one which has to be approached in terms of its social consequences.

  15. Caroline said,

    Don’t want to speak for Ren, but at this point let me say explicitly – I do not see anything inherently wrong with prostitution and I do not believe that it is necessarily violent. Social attitudes (such as yours) and bad laws are what makes the violence and discrimination sex workers face tiday.

  16. Happy Christmas! « Better burn that dress, sister. said,

    […] on 24 December, 2008 by Caroline I’m signing out of blogland til Boxing Day, as much as I’m enjoying the crack over at Shiraz Socialist.I’ll be back with some reflections of the year, plus another hundred reasons why we should be […]

  17. Rachel said,

    The tenor of this conversation is absurd. Instead of discussing the actual content of the article, you’re bogged down in your commie Marxist semantics and it’s really kind of rude. I believe Caroline wrote this article to talk about how harmful Jacqui Smith’s proposals would be to those who operate in the sex industry and related fields. Other commenters are trying to divert the conversation back to that, yet you Mark, continue to divert back to fucking semantics, making the same arguments over and over again — I guess if you can’t be right, you have to be loud, and loudness on the internet comes in the form of repeating yourself. It appears as though you have nothing to contribute other than putting words like “choice” into scare quotes. You’ve made your point, now move on.

  18. TrinityVA said,

    The tenor of this conversation is absurd. Instead of discussing the actual content of the article, you’re bogged down in your commie Marxist semantics and it’s really kind of rude.

    Yes, THIS.

    “We will save you from labor practices we don’t like — regardless of your own understanding of your situation!”

    Doesn’t exactly give me such a high opinion of Marxism, really.

  19. TrinityVA said,

    Also, buying a service from someone isn’t “renting her body,” and I see no reason to think that Marx’s analysis of alienated labor somehow applies in a special way to sex work or sex workers.

  20. Anthony Kennerson said,

    Now…speaking as an actual socialist and someone who does actually understand Marxism and even has at one time or another supported Marxist theory (though I consider Marxism to be only one aspect of Left theory) who also happens to support without apology decriminalization of sex work and prostitution under the terms of harm reduction, allow me to respond to the remarks of Mark P from my own viewpoint.

    First off, for someone who labels himself as a Marxist, Mark is sort of confused about what describes a “worker”; as far as I know The Bearded One’s original definition of “worker”, he meant “any laborer who is totally dependent on his labor for subsistence”. Now, we can get into some total semantic smackdowns over what exactly should count as “labor”, but I would think that women and/or men exchanging the services of their body parts for compensation would fall under the definition of “worker”. Just because the muscles sex workers use to ply their crafts aren’t particularly as treasured as a traditional worker’s hands doesn’t mean that they work any less harder, and face any less difficulties as other workers. To simply dismiss them from being workers merely because you happen to dislike their particular brand of work is not only a fallacy of Marxist theory…it is basically silencing of sex workers and their own voices.

    Then there is Mark’s own attempt to reduce sex workers and prostitutes to invisiblilty, since they are the mere wards or their “pimps”, and his claim that decriminalization would simply lead to “normalizing” prostitution, which he sees ultimately as a BAD, BAD thing. I suppose, Mark, that we can assume that you are a proponent, then, of Melissa Fairley’s “Swedish Model” approach of focusing on arresting men who solicit prostitutes (the “pimps” and “johns”) for arrest and shaming and censure?? You do know that that approach has not entirely been too effective at all in actually protecting sex workers and “prostituted women”, don’t you?? And then there is the whole moral approach of reducing sex work to “renting one’s bodies”…as if traditional marriage or a simple date followed by consensual sex couldn’t be described in the same way.

    But…it’s so much easier to revert to Marxist rhetoric and theory to justify your prejudices rather than actually deal with the root of Caroline’s article on the policies put forth by Ms. Smith.

    It has been noted that neither Caroline, Trinity, nor Renegade Evolution are Marxists or even Leftists(in fact, Ren is more of a Libertarian and Caroline and Trinity are probably more classical liberals). I, on the other hand, AM a Leftist, and I see not a single damn conflict between defending sex workers’ right to improve their chosen profession and make their lives safer, and the overall socialist goal of economic egalitarianism. And last time I checked, Caroline was invited to this place by the owners of this blog to promote their ideas; you may not have to like them or support them, but it’s really not your place to bring the hammer of Marx down on them for their supposed “heresy”.

    In fact, there IS a definite and definitive conflict between those of us who favor “harm reduction” and decriminalization and destigmatization of consensual sex work, and those like Mark P. who denounce such activism as “normalization” and insist on reducing sex workers to mindless enablers of “pimps” and “johns”. The former believe that those who are part of the working class should have the full resources and tools and protection needed to make safe, sane, and consensual choices on their own; the latter would rather use their plight to mock their suffering and constrict their “choices” to whatever fits their respective ideology. Whether this comes from radical feminists, traditional fundamentalists, or putative “Marxists” is inmaterial; the ultimate desire of social control is what counts here.

    Rather than attempt to bully sex workers and their experiences to the ground, Mark, how about addressing Jaqui Smith’s proposals and why you would favor or oppose them??

    Anthony

  21. Mark P said,

    I think that the increasingly unreasonable whining on this thread about how I am “shouting”, “silencing”, “bullying”, “rude” and so on has been quite revealing about the weakness of the arguments of the people who have been doing the complaining. In fact throughout this thread I have been as polite, or more so, than the people who have been responding to me. I have no ability to “silence” anyone who wishes to contribute to this discussion. There has been, so far, one person on this thread arguing against a classification of prostitutes as workers and arguing that the easing of the social difficulties of prostitutes isn’t the only goal to take into account on this subject. There have been five or six people arguing the opposite point. If your feelings and “choices” and “voices” are so fragile that they can’t deal with one badly outnumbered person arguing that the situation is more complex than you are making out, I’m afraid I can’t really help you.

    Now responding to multiple people at once is difficult. For instance Rachel complains that I’m rude for arguing against the notion that prostitutes are workers in the Marxist sense and essentially tells me to shut up because this is a matter of semantics. A post or two later however Anthony comes along and tries to mount an argument that prostitutes are indeed workers in the Marxist understanding of the term.

    As it happens Anthony is incorrect in his description of Marxist categories, because the oversimplified version of the Marxist understanding of class he puts forward fails to differentiate between for instance slaves, serfs and wage labourers, all of whom have to work to survive. To be a “worker” – or to use older jargon a proletarian – involves not simply working or even depending on work but the sale of wage labour by workers who are free to leave their employment and seek work somewhere else to an employer. It does not mean just working or just being exploited, it is a technical term describing a particular relationship to the forces of production. Prostitutes, at least in Britain at the moment, do not fit that category. In so far as they are independent operators they are not wage labourers, in so far as they are pimped they are not free.

    This argument is not one I’d bother to make on a liberal or libertarian website, because the term worker is undoubtedly used in many circumstances to mean something quite different. However there has been a tendency recently amongst some on the Marxist left to import the term “sex worker” from a different and not entirely compatible discourse. In circumstances where “worker” is taken to have a particular meaning, this use of the term is misleading in that it elides the very real differences between the social role of prostitutes and the social role of wage labourers in sex related industries. It is not, despite the complaints and misrepresentations of my argument in this thread, unreasonable or arrogant to make a point about Marxist terminology on a Marxist website. And having said that once more, I’ll move on.

    Some of the complaints about me making this point has been accompanied by challenges to address wider, more substantive, points about prostitution and anti-prostitution laws (which of course ignores the fact that my earlier posts have done just that). Anthony goes so far as to demand that I address the issue of Jacqui Smith’s proposals just a couple of paragraphs after he assumes that I am an advocate of “Swedish model” laws, which strikes me as a rather dishonest attempt to both have his cake and eat it too. It is at least an improvement on the chorus of waffle about “silencing voices”, “validating choices” and similar drivel, so perhaps I should be grateful.

    I am, by inclination, extremely reluctant to allow the capitalist state to increase its power over any aspect of people’s lives. I am also mindful of the need to provide assistance to a group of extremely vulnerable people and to avoid, as far as possible, making thier situation worse. Finally I am also of the view that these laws as phrased seem unlikely to work as they are allegedly intended. Taking all of that into account I am, mildly and not immutably, opposed to them absent a wider social transformation or, more realistically, a major effort to help women out of prostitution, help rather than punish illegal immigrants and so on.

    I am not however willing in general to reduce – as everyone else on this thread seems to wish to do – this issue to one simply of harm reduction for existing prostitutes or, worse still, to view a social problem through the half-witted lense of “personal choice” abstracted from the reality of drug addiction, desperation, pimping and trafficking. Personal choice does not exist in any meaningful way for many, even a large majority, of prostitutes. And personal choice does not, in any case, overwhelm the important social interest in combating sexism and preventing the normalisation of the idea that men can rent women’s bodies for sex. This of course is the elephant in the living room in this discussion, one which most of you have to talk around or when it is addressed at all simply deny that it is a problem.

    My view is that such things matter and that therefore a key part of any approach to prostitution has to be an intensive and ongoing set of schemes and programmes to help prostitutes out of prostitution, including illegal immigrants and drug addicts in particular. It is only in that context, a context which incidentally provides actual meaningful “choice”, that better thought through plans than this one to criminalise johns are worth considering. I am not at any stage interested in whether or not such schemes “validate” the “choices” of people who might want to be prostitutes I’m afraid. That consideration is utterly trivial beside harm reduction for most actually existing prostitutes and society’s legitimate interest in not encouraging the rental of women’s bodies for sex.

    Now if some of you find me repetitive and rude, feel free not to respond. Personally I have no intention of responding further to crass misrepresentations of my arguments or any rubbish that reduces social issues to personal lifestyle choices and urges that we respect those choices.

  22. SnowdropExplodes said,

    Mark P:

    I find your understanding of Marx to be somewhat lacking.

    You question the right of sex workers to be identified as “workers” in the terminology used by Marx.

    Would you then also question the right of a self-employed plumber to identify as a worker, on similar grounds? Since such a working person would not have an exploitative employer, I suppose you would then suggest that zie should not identify hirself as “working class”?

    You are the sort of person who makes me ashamed to identify as Marxist (instead, I call myself a Marxian or just Communist).

    It is true that one would have to work very hard indeed to derive any form of “surplus value” from the sex trade, but then, Marx was writing about an economy that was largely based on primary and secondary industries: today’s economy is much more oriented on tertiary industry, and identifying how an admin clerk’s employer derives surplus value from hir labour is not that easy either these days.

    The only sensible definition of a worker that Marx used that is helpful here seems to me to be that a worker is one who has to work in order to survive. If we accept such a definition, then a great many sex workers are indeed workers. Such a definition occurs time and again in the writings of both Marx and Engels, so really, by trying to use Marxism to say that sex workers should not use the term ‘worker” in their self-identification, you are not doing Marx any favours, and you’re certainly not doing workers any favours. All you are doing is revealing your sexist attitudes.

    Admittedly, Marx’s own writings were full of sexist claptrap as well, but it was my understanding that Marxist thought had progressed beyond that to recognise, for instance, the work of a woman in the home to be a form of labour in Marxist terminology, and if that is so, then why not similar work conducted for a living outside of the home?

    All of which is beside the point, as my estimable friends have pointed out in other posts.

  23. SnowdropExplodes said,

    Oh, yet more points to Mark P’s arguments:

    This definition: “To be a “worker” – or to use older jargon a proletarian – involves not simply working or even depending on work but the sale of wage labour by workers who are free to leave their employment and seek work somewhere else to an employer.”

    Is undermined in Marx and Engels’ own writings, because they point out (and comment upon a similar observation by Adam Smith before them) that most workers who are theoretically free to leave and seek other employment, and not in fact free to do so, because they would not be able to support themselves in the interim. This, after all, is how the term “wage slave” was derived.

    Frankly, trying to use “worker” as a technical term is just dumb, and strikes me as trying to say everyone else is dumb for not knowing what you mean when you use your technical term in a way that is different from common usage.

    If you want a technical term for the precise definition you gave, stick to using “proletarian”. Everyone in a Marxist discourse will know what you mean, and people outside will know that it has a specific meaning (even if they don’t know what it is). Your statement, “there has been a tendency recently amongst some on the Marxist left to import the term ‘sex worker’ from a different and not entirely compatible discourse,” reveals only the weakness of current Marxist discourse, since if it is incompatible in its terminology with everyone else, then how can it ever persuade anyone else of its arguments in a wider context? Such thinking is sheer foolishness.

    I admit, I have seen your arguments made elsewhere when sex workers’ rights are mentioned, but frankly, I don’t (as a Marxian person myself) acknowledge any of them as being entirely sane, let alone valid.

    If you don’t think sex workers are proletarians, then tell me into which classification described by Marx do they fall? Can sex workers be allies of the proletarian revolution? Are they natural allies, even? Or are sex workers just going to have to STFU and do as they’re told by the Glorious Dictatorship of the Proletariat?

    You write, “I am not however willing in general to reduce – as everyone else on this thread seems to wish to do – this issue to one simply of harm reduction for existing prostitutes or, worse still, to view a social problem through the half-witted lense (sic) of “personal choice” abstracted from the reality of drug addiction, desperation, pimping and trafficking.”

    Well done for ignoring everything that comes out of sex workers’ rights activists’ mouths! Guess which organisations are most active in providing help for prostituted individuals seeking to escape? If you listen to ANY sex workers’ rights organisation, you will find that drug rehabilitation and exit routes are very high indeed on their agendas. Similarly, the very best way to stop trafficking is to combine decriminalisation of prostitution with guaranteed asylum for trafficked workers (sorry, “serfs” or whatever term you want to apply to them – what exactly is the Marxist term, in your opinion, for a filipino maid who was bought from traffickers – or for the cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay?) – very quickly, sex trafficking would become a loss-making concern!

    In short, sex workers’ rights activists have the plan that you say you want to see.

  24. Renegade Evolution said,

    Mark:

    And what, exactly, do you think sex worker’s advocates do? Those things you mentioned: drug rehab, education, working to provide women involved in prostitution who want out with other options? Gee, that would be it. My grasp of marxism might not be up to par, but neither is your grasp of the reality of most sex workers or what, exactly, than harm reductionists and advocates do.

  25. Anthony Kennerson said,

    Ahhhh, Matt…if I remember right, you are the one doing the responding to Caroline, not the other way around. If anybody has a right to respond to “misrepresentations” of your position, it is Caroline.

    But, just for fun and games, let me respond to some of your rebuttal points.

    Now responding to multiple people at once is difficult. For instance Rachel complains that I’m rude for arguing against the notion that prostitutes are workers in the Marxist sense and essentially tells me to shut up because this is a matter of semantics. A post or two later however Anthony comes along and tries to mount an argument that prostitutes are indeed workers in the Marxist understanding of the term.

    Actually, Mark, I said that sex workers are indeed workers, if we understand the Marxist concept of “worker” as anyone who exchanges his labor for subsistence. Sure, slaves (whether they be Black tenant workers in the South during the antebellum years or sharecroppers or streetwalkers may by highly exploited to the extreme by those who take from their labor (such as the slaveowner or the propery owner or the pimp who collects or underpays them for their labor), but that makes them no less workers for their efforts. Or, perhaps you believe that there should be a hierarchy or workers where only those who you believe to be deserving of humanity should get the first crack at self autonomy and self-determination, while those whose profession you dislike should wait for “the revolution” to happen and allow others to determine their fate??

    Some of the complaints about me making this point has been accompanied by challenges to address wider, more substantive, points about prostitution and anti-prostitution laws (which of course ignores the fact that my earlier posts have done just that). Anthony goes so far as to demand that I address the issue of Jacqui Smith’s proposals just a couple of paragraphs after he assumes that I am an advocate of “Swedish model” laws, which strikes me as a rather dishonest attempt to both have his cake and eat it too. It is at least an improvement on the chorus of waffle about “silencing voices”, “validating choices” and similar drivel, so perhaps I should be grateful.

    Well…aside from the fact that Jacqui Smith’s activism in extending the Swedish Model to Ireland and Great Britain is the fundamental heart of Caroline’s original essay, and that you seem to be pretty much opposed at your fundamental core to Caroline’s (and most of the respondents here) stance on decriminalization and “harm protection”, why the hell shouldn’t we assume that you do in fact support Ms. Smith’s policies….especially since you go on in your very next paragraph to say this:

    I am, by inclination, extremely reluctant to allow the capitalist state to increase its power over any aspect of people’s lives. I am also mindful of the need to provide assistance to a group of extremely vulnerable people and to avoid, as far as possible, making thier situation worse. Finally I am also of the view that these laws as phrased seem unlikely to work as they are allegedly intended. Taking all of that into account I am, mildly and not immutably, opposed to them absent a wider social transformation or, more realistically, a major effort to help women out of prostitution, help rather than punish illegal immigrants and so on.

    (Emphasis added by me.)

    So, Mark….are you saying that decriminalization and destigmatization combined with harm prevention within the framework of a socialist transformation of work would not do anything to improve the lives of women caught in the worst elements of sex work?? And that the only solution available is to simply abolish sex work all together as a means of ending innate sexism?? If so, then congratulations, Mark; you have just endorsed the Fairley/Smith radicalfeminist “Swedish Model” to the letter. The only difference between your stated position here and that of Fairley and Smith is that you would use the specter of “Marxist revolution” to institute your abolitionism, while Smith and Fairley aren’t willing to wait that long; they want to see sex work abolished right now through the existing capitalist institutions. Now, who’s “having their cake and eating it too”, I wonder?

    I am not however willing in general to reduce – as everyone else on this thread seems to wish to do – this issue to one simply of harm reduction for existing prostitutes or, worse still, to view a social problem through the half-witted lense of “personal choice” abstracted from the reality of drug addiction, desperation, pimping and trafficking. Personal choice does not exist in any meaningful way for many, even a large majority, of prostitutes. And personal choice does not, in any case, overwhelm the important social interest in combating sexism and preventing the normalisation of the idea that men can rent women’s bodies for sex. This of course is the elephant in the living room in this discussion, one which most of you have to talk around or when it is addressed at all simply deny that it is a problem.

    First off, Matt….you assume that those of us who happen to be socialists (and remember, I never said that I WAS a Marxist, only that Marxism is one of many influences in my beliefs….antiauthoritarian Leftism and sex radicalism and antiracism being other fundamentals) aren’t as nuanced as you apparently are at differentiating between the real life situation of sex workers and prostitutes and that of other workers. As if workers in more traditional crafts and industries don’t suffer as much from drug abuse or exploitation or desperation, and as if none of them aren’t “pimped” for their labor?? But, I guess that the real issue here, as it always must be with those who are so obsessed with condemning sex workers as somehow more alien than others and thusly more needy to be “saved” from their own condition, is that thing called SEX….the real problem isn’t that prostitutes and sex workers “rent their bodies” (why not go all the way, Matt and simply say that they “sell their bodies??”); it’s exactly WHAT they “rent” their bodies FOR that is the real issue.

    In short, as much as Matt would love to claim that his opposition to Caroline’s points are based on sound Marxist doctrine, I’d say that it’s just plain old sex hate and sexual conservatism draped in radicalfeminist and “Puritan Left” rhetoric about the innate “sexism” of the exchange of sex for money and the nature of male and female sexuality as innately “conditioned” by capitalism (read that to mean “male capitalist patriarchy”). Women who refuse to play that game and stand up for their rights to transform the sex industry and sex work in a more progressive and humane direction simply doesn’t register in his radar.

    And….just in case that Matt has missed it, most radical sex workers DO fight to get women who want out of the industry out, and DO believe in strongly condemning and eradicating the worst practices of trafficking and “sexual slavery”. And most of them also support forming alternative means of financial, social, and moral support for those women who do want to get away from abusive relationships or harmful workplace conditions. And a few of them actually happen to be SOCIALISTS, too, who are able to integrate their efforts to improve the lives of sex workers and the rest of the working class and poor by giving them more resources and tools and support to take control of the means of production (in this case, their own damn bodies). Isn’t that what Marxism is supposed to be….or maybe I missed some part of Marx’s writings that stated that freedom from slavery could only be achieved by certain members of the working class who prescribed to narrow, arbitrary standards of propriety??

    Oh…and one last thing on “personal lifestyle choices”: the stated principle of free will and choice that I and most decent people aspire to is NOT the caricature that Matt uses to blow off the choices of those he dislikes. In fact, the basic principle that I believe in is that free people who are given the maximum amount of resources and responsibilities in an egalitarian society should be trusted to make informed decisions about their own lives and their own bodies, conditioned only that they do no harm to others and that they respect the choices of others. Hell yes, capitalism as it stands today does pose a very real restriction of people’s freedom of choice…but that would be true of most working people, not just sex workers or prostitutes. The entire point of anti-authoritarian socialism is to empower working people and other non-privileged folk to gain enough power to protect themselves and make such decisions for themselves, while also protecting those who may not be as able to make informed decisions.

    No sex worker activist worthy of her title has EVER called for repealing existing laws against rape or economic abuse or even illegal ‘trafficking” of workers; but they have expressed legitimate and proven concerns that laws such as the Swedish Model have, wittingly or unwittingly, done legitimate harm to real, live women by making the report of abuse that much more difficult, by only driving the “sex industry” underground and thus making it more dangerous and more threatening for those women trapped within it; and by enforcing a philosophy of sexual shame and denial and extreme Puritanical loathing that only leads to more dehumanization of both sex workers and their clients….which only tends to aggravate the abuse and exploitation.

    To reduce their efforts at empowering women to resist abuse to mere defense of a “lifestyle” is not only noxious politics, it is rank scapegoating more reminiscent of the Religious Right (who, after all, are just as obsessed with saving gay and lesbian people from their own “self-abusive” behavior and the “homosexual lifestyle”. It’s basically the same as imposing a sobriety test on traditional working class folk in order to deny those not meeting such standards the fruits of “the Revolution”: a bastardization of the basic principles of genuine progressive activism.

    All that….and what SnowdropExplodes said about using and abusing Marxist nomenclature to cover your own myopias.

    Radical sex worker activists are the cutting edge of progressive activism. Those who ignore them are doomed to repeat the failures of the past. Leftists should be listening to them, not blowing them off, and certainly not mocking their struggles. Mark’s words show that Marxism still has a ways to go when it comes with analysis of the real world…as opposed to the doctrine espoused from a book.

    Sorry for being so long winded, but I had to say what I had to say. Let the chips fall wherever they may.

    Anthony

  26. TrinityVA said,

    Mark: If you don’t like unreasonable whining, stop unreasonably whining. 🙂

  27. Roy Kay said,

    Mark’s case in a nutshell:

    The individual is nothing compared to the masses.

    The masses are nothing compared to the Dictatorship of (i.e. OVER) the Proeletariat

    I plan to be part of the Dictatorship.

    Therefore, the individual is nothing as compared to me and my dictatorship of how people are supposed to act – especially those scummy sexworkers. Besides no one has any right, including sexual rights, except as defined by the Dictatorship of the Preoletariat

  28. Mark P said,

    No, “radical sex worker activists” are not “the cutting edge of progressive activism” and to even make that claim is to show a quite stunning myopia and lack of proportion. I’m sorry if that dents egos or hurts feelings, but pretty much everyone feels at some level that the area of political work they are most involved in or interested in is the most important or the cutting edge or whatever and well, most of the time, even if the area is important in a wider sense, it just isn’t true.

    There are a number of people on this thread (allegedly Marxists or “Marxian” in their thinking) who are deeply confused about Marxist categories. Not only because they think that the term “worker” means everyone from slaves and serfs through to the petty bourgeoisie, which would reduce the term to meaninglessness, but because they seem to think that Marxist categories are like “best in show” rosettes at dog shows, conferring status and moral superiority. This is both bewildered and bewildering.

    Whether or not someone is a worker in a Marxist sense is not a moral award. The fact that (for instance) self-sufficient peasant farmers in some Andean community are not “workers” in the Marxist understanding of the term does not mean that they are not human, that they are not oppressed, that their work is without value, that they should not have our support in their struggles or anything similar. The fact that independent street traders of the kind found in large numbers in many third world cities are normally extremely poor and marginalised does not make them “workers”, but nor does it mean that they should be ignored or that their struggles are valueless.

    Once more, Marxist categories are not used (or at least should not be used) to confer legitimacy or moral standing. They exist to help us understand the role and power (or lack of power) of various social forces and strata and their relationship to the forces of production.

    Prostitutes are not “workers” in this sense, although many other groups subsumed into the non-Marxist category of sex-workers are also workers in the Marxist understanding of the term. Prostitutes (in Britain at least) are defined in large part by their marginalisation from “normal” processes of production, but beyond that their social position varies wildly, from people who are essentially small independent traders at one end to people who are in a very real sense unfree labour (or slaves). Saying that is not a moral judgment on prostitutes. It does not imply that they are less than human (although it certainly implies that in many circumstances they are treated as less than human) and it does not imply that prostitutes are to blame for the institution of prostitution (any more than a janitor at a BAe factory is to blame for the arms industry).

    The role and significance of unpaid labour in the home, which somebody else asks about above, is an interesting, important, and contentious one in Marxist thought, with a number of compelling but sometimes contradictory theses advanced, mostly involving the concept of reproductive (as opposed to productive) labour. It is also a vast issue with only a tangential relationship to the discussion at hand.

    Sorry to go without getting back to the substantive issue of anti-prostitution laws, but family calls. I will try to get back to it later.

  29. SnowdropExplodes said,

    Mark P.

    I explained (with reference back to Marx and Engels) why I believe that modern Marxist thinkers can use the term “worker” to refer to people outside the proletarian definition. You seem to say in response, “well, that’s not how I use the term, so therefore you’re wrong, so there!” and then claim that YOUR usage is THE Marxist usage, and no other can possibly be valid. I even referred to the concept of “wage slavery” (with reference back to Marx and Engels, and also to Adam Smith) to show you why your strict definition of the term “worker” is also a nonsense, and that point you haven’t answered at all.

    I agree that “slave” and “serf” are distinct from “proletarian”, but I reject your use of “worker” as strictly synonymous with “proletarian”, and as I pointed out before, to say that it is, is deeply flawed use of language and terminology if you want to claim that Marxist folks are more relevant than radical sex workers’ rights activists. At least they use language that can be understood by other people! I also think that Marx’s definition of a proletarian depended to some extent upon the proletarian being seen to be a member of a producing class, that is, a primary or secondary industry worker, and frankly, that’s not the economy we live in any longer, so this strict definition of “worker” doesn’t strike me as terribly relevant any more. I explained all this earlier as well.

    The role and significance of unpaid labour in the home, which somebody else asks about above, is an interesting, important, and contentious one in Marxist thought, with a number of compelling but sometimes contradictory theses advanced, mostly involving the concept of reproductive (as opposed to productive) labour. It is also a vast issue with only a tangential relationship to the discussion at hand.

    This is why Marxists are increasingly seen as irrelevant and divorced from reality. If you don’t see the relevance of women’s “traditional” roles to a discussion involving a) prostitution and b) classifications of labour. Feminists from a study of Marx and from their own research and observation, are pretty clear on these factors, and if you aren’t then you’re well behind the curve when it comes to being “the cutting edge of progressive activism”. If instead of dealing with theses, you deal with reality, you’ll get a lot further a lot faster.

    Marx famously wrote, “Philosophers have explained the world. The point, however, is to change it.” It seems you’re very happy with doing the first part, to the point that you’ve forgotten to check whether the world has changed without you!

  30. TrinityVA said,

    “Whether or not someone is a worker in a Marxist sense is not a moral award. The fact that (for instance) self-sufficient peasant farmers in some Andean community are not “workers” in the Marxist understanding of the term does not mean that they are not human, that they are not oppressed, that their work is without value, that they should not have our support in their struggles or anything similar.”

    Then why pick nits? If you believe that the activism Caroline describes is good for prostitutes, why get so hung up on the word? What hangs in the balance here? Because it sure sounds like you’re just trying to impress us with the bigness of your brain and the smallness of your thinking.

  31. Mark P said,

    Snowdrop explodes:

    The concept of wage slavery does not imply that slaves – that is unfree labourers – are workers in the Marxist sense. “Wage slavery” is not the same as actual slavery. It is an argument against liberal or capitalist viewss that employment is a contract entered into by equally free and similarly positioned rational actors rather than an exploitative relationship. The undoubted fact that wage labourers are not always in a position to quit their jobs and find something better does not mean that wage labourers are the same as actual slaves or that they are actually owned by their employers.

    You might think that it is unwise to use the word worker in a technical sense, to mean the same thing as proletarian, but it is a fact that in Marxist discourse in modern times that is exactly what the word is used to mean. That’s the understanding which most of the readers of this site would have and that’s the way in which it is used in most Marxist publications. And recent moves by some to import the term “sex worker” from another discourse jars with that because – as you seem to acknowledge – some groups within the umbrella of “sex workers” are workers in this (proleterian) sense and other groups are very definitely not.

    I would not be in favour of replacing the word worker with the older usage proletarian because I’m not in favour of unnecessary jargon and unnecessary inaccessibility. I also disagree that the Marxist use of the term worker means only people who work in industry and does not include people who work in the service sector. If you work for a wage you do indeed produce surplus value for an employer, regardless of whether you are a cleaner, a sales assistant, a massage therapist or a burly man with a flat cap and a hammer (more strictly, if you don’t produce surplus value you won’t be employed for very long).

    It is a very serious mistake to include as workers only those who work in primary industry. It is an equally serious mistake to remove the specificity of wage labour from this analysis and instead broaden the term worker (or proletarian) to include either all people who work (the petty bourgeoisie, the slave, the serf etc) or all exploited and oppressed people. We are in favour of the liberation of all of these groups of people, but their very different relationship to the forces of production throws up a range of different strategic and analytical issues. Trying to gloss over that is not, in my view, helpful.

    I get the distinct impression that some people here want to include prostitutes under the term worker either because they think that doing so conveys some kind of moral legitimacy and agency. That isn’t the purpose of Marxist categories of conceptions and if Marxists start to blur their own framework in this way they will only confuse themselves about the quite specific and quite different problems facing prostitutes. For instance, unionising “sex workers” is an obvious thing to suggest where “sex workers” are actually wage labourers, sex line workers for example or even prostitutes where they are employed in legal brothels. But unionisation, industrial action, strikes and so on are a fantasy where people either have no employer to unionise against or are pimped in circumstances where they are little more than slaves. Pretending that such people are workers elides the real and important differences between the way they are exploited and oppressed and the way in which wage labourers are exploited and oppressed.

    By the way, I did not say that a discussion of women’s traditional roles is irrelevant to a discussion of prostitution. Which is just as well as that kind of statement would be idiotic.

    I said that there are a range of different, but related, analyses within Marxism of the relationship of women’s traditional work in the home to the forces of production and that, while that is both interesting and very important, the issue of “home makers” relationship to the forces of production is only tangentially related to the issue of prostitutes relationship with the same. Housewives and prostitutes are not in the same position socially or economically, in other words. That’s a much narrower statement than a broad (and obviously wrong) claim that the traditional role of women within the family and the home is unrelated to the issue of prostitution. The central role of the family in the oppression of women generally has been a staple of Marxist thought for a century and a half and these ideas have been greatly developed in different (and sometimes contradictory) ways by socialist feminist thinkers since. If on the other hand you want to make a serious argument that socialist feminist analyses of women’s traditional work in the home imply that prostitutes are workers in the Marxist sense feel free to do so and I’ll listen.

    Roy, adds nothing but slightly bizarre abuse to the discussion so I won’t bother replying to him.

    Getting back to the part I left out in my earlier response, I make no apologies for taking as a starting point the idea that prostitution both flows from and reinforces the oppression of women. I do not think that the only issue to discuss about prostitution is how to help prostitutes or how to respect and validate the choices of prostitutes.

    If we were, for example, discussing the employment of some women in sexist advertising we, as socialists or Marxists, would be interested in those women’s role as wage labourers certainly but we also have something to say about the nature of the industry in which they work. I don’t think that it is at all unreasonable to say that for instance advertising based on sexist imagery is socially harmful, regardless of whether or not some women quite like having photographs taken of themselves lounging on car bonnets or whatever. Whether this validates their lifestyle choices or not really isn’t of interest to me.

    To take another example, I understand that some particularly environmentally damaging forms of mineral mining are carried out in the Amazon region, sometimes by labourers who are in effect slaves. (This is not an issue I know a great deal about, but assume that this is so for the sake of argument). That throws up a whole series of questions for socialists, few of which have anything much to do with whether or not some of the miners concerned really quite like what they are doing. Instead we have a range of issues including the welfare of the miners concerned and their ability to organise themselves, the environmental damage done by the industry they are involved in and so on. The answers are complex and not immediately obvious because actions taken to protect the environment from that industry could potentially have drastic negative effects on the lives of the extremely vulnerable people working there. There is a tension between solidarity with the people at the coal face and quite legitimate wider social concerns.

    If you think -as I do and as far as I can tell a large majority of both Marxists and feminists do – that the institution of prostitution contributes to sexism in society then there is a real tension between many of the things advocated by “sex workers activists” to help prostitutes and many of the things advocated by feminists to end or limit prostitution. It is only if you think that prostitution is just fine and that it’s all just a matter of individual life choices being interfered with by the state and “radfems” that there is no tension and no difficulty. I don’t think however that such a view stands up to much examination and in particular I think that such a view is incompatible with a Marxist (or even just a social rather than individualist) standpoint.

    When it comes to particular proposals therefore I think that they have to be carefully evaluated. As I said earlier, I think that the current proposals in Britain may well have the effect of making things worse for prostitutes without actually doing any real damage to prostitution as an institution. But I make absolutely no apologies for saying that the core of any solution I would support would have to be proposals to help prostitutes out of prostitution.

  32. Mark P said,

    TrinityVA:

    Why pick nits? Because I think that having an accurate analysis matters and has strategic implications. If we elide the differences between different groups of oppressed people, different categories of the exploited, in our analyses we will likely be drawn towards confused or incorrect strategies based on that analysis.

    Marxists place a lot of emphasis on wage labour not because wage labourers are necessarily the most oppressed group in society (very often they are not) but because of the potential social power of wage labourers within capitalism. It is an issue of strategy for us rather than some desire to construct a moral pecking order of the oppressed. One of the chief problems facing people who want to help prostitutes is the extreme lack of social power possessed by people who are pimped or who are, to use another common example, junkies operating independently to get their next fix. Strategies appropriate to and useful for factory workers, or call centre operators or even strippers simply do not apply to people in those kind of desperate circumstances.

    In other circumstances, different to those pertaining in Britain, many prostitutes may well be effectively wage labourers. In those circumstances the strategic map would be very different indeed.

  33. Renegade Evolution said,

    Right then…

    Mark P, we don’t want your help or need your political analysis-

    Sincerely-
    Some Whore

  34. SnowdropExplodes said,

    I would not be in favour of replacing the word worker with the older usage proletarian because I’m not in favour of unnecessary jargon and unnecessary inaccessibility.

    Except that I have just demonstrated to you more than once that your usage of “worker” is still unnecessary jargon, and it is still unnecessary inaccessibility. It simply does not reflect common usage. It makes you irrelevant. The physics use of the term “stress” is a specific term, that has only a tangential relationship to the common usage; therefore, it is a jargon term even though it is a common word. Similarly, the mathematics use of “eccentricity” has very little to do with the common usage of the term. Any time that you use a word for a specific technical meaning, it becomes a jargon word, and if you use that word for your technical meaning in any other context, it is open to misinterpretation. As I explained, the benefit of “proletarian” is that it is very obviously a technical term, which means people can ask what you mean by it and then understand you better; whereas if you use ‘worker”, then they may make false assumptions about your meaning, unless they are already a part of your circle.

    You might think that it is unwise to use the word worker in a technical sense, to mean the same thing as proletarian, but it is a fact that in Marxist discourse in modern times that is exactly what the word is used to mean.

    I say again: that means that your discourse is irrelevant to most people outside your select circle. What use is it to have your pretty little circle-jerk going on, if you don’t get out there and change the world!?

    And, frankly, I don’t accept your claim that “in Marxist discourse in modern times that is exactly what the word is used to mean.” After all, I have read and participated in a fair amount of such discourse, and only twice has anyone ever taken me to task over this issue, and on both occasions it was SPECIFICALLY with respect to sex work only, and not any other kind of work that might fall outside what is covered by the traditional term of “proletarian”. I am forced to conclude that in actual fact, you DO feel that “worker” affords some kind of moral status

    The rest of your response is based on a strawman interpretation of what I said, which makes responding to it quite pointless. I still ask you to tell me into what Marxist category do the filipino maid and the cockle pickers and so on actually fall? You seem pretty adamant that they aren’t ‘workers” in the Marxist sense, so therefore they have some other relation to the means of production. So tell me what that is? The more you inform me, the better I can respond. You seem more interested in having others stop disagreeing with you, than in learning or enabling others to learn.

    (More to follow)

  35. SnowdropExplodes said,

    Okay, Mark P. – time for a crash course in socialist sex-positive feminism:

    I make no apologies for taking as a starting point the idea that prostitution both flows from and reinforces the oppression of women.

    Except that taking that as your starting point begs the question of why you believe it to be self-evident. Sex-positive feminist thought questions that starting point and examines it, and using the tools of feminism demonstrates that this belief is flawed and is in fact based in the pre-existing sexist understanding of a woman’s control over her own body. By taking it as your starting point, you are not following the example of Marx, but are accepting Capitalist/Patriarchal norms as the basis for your argument. Just as Marx demonstrated the fundamental contradictions and flaws in the Capitalist model by examining the assumptions behind it that led the previous generation of economists to seemingly absurd results, so sex-positive feminists have examined the basis of assumptions about women’s sexuality, to demonstrate the absurdities of “radfem” thought.

    Thus, sex-positive feminism says, instead of basing our reactions on what “sex work” is like now, in a generally sexist culture anyway, we should look instead at what it could be, and treat that as what sex work fundamentally is. If we do that then we see that drug addiction and coerced service are problems not of sex work itself, but of the relations of these women to the means of production. And we can solve some of those problems by a) decriminalising prostitution, b) making sure there are plenty of escape routes (including drug rehab etc) and so on.

    Providing sexual services in exchange for a fee is not by its nature sexist. What is sexist is the assumption that no women want to do it, that providing sexual services is “selling yourself”, or “selling your body”, that selling sex somehow tarnishes a woman, and that only women provide sexual services for a fee. These assumptions are what contribute to the oppression of all “sex workers” (not just prostitutes), and also contribute to the oppression of women who are NOT “sex workers” because of the part they play in making women’s sexuality purely an object of barter or exchange, and NOT a matter of her own choice. In contrast to the examples you use to suggest that “freedom of choice” in the matter of prostitution is a secondary matter, in this case it is precisely the centre of the matter, and only by recognising that a sex worker has a right to choose her career, can we also grant that any woman has the right to choose her sexual partners, for her own reasons.

    As things stand, marriage or relationships (as I am sure you are aware from the comments you make above) are just another form of prostitution – indeed, in the standard format, it is expected that a woman must make a man prove himself “worthy” either with expensive gifts or some other token of his value, before she allows him to enjoy her body. She is not expected to take any pleasure from the act itself, but only from whatever it is that she extracts from the man beforehand. Her sexuality is therefore not a part of herself, but something from which she is alienated and which she does not recognise except as something outside of her (there is a different analysis explaining how men’s sexuality is alienated from them, too). Consequences that flow from this are that men expect that as long as they can meet the “asking price” of ANY woman (not just an identified prostitute) then they have a right to have sex with her. This obviously is the assumption behind a great many rapists’ actions. This in turn means that in the current paradigm, all women are essentially viewed as prostitutes (in the famous quotation, “now we are just haggling over the price”). A woman’s value is measured only by how expensive it is to get her to let you fuck her, and by how desirable such a fuck is deemed to be.

    Now, sexist advertising (which you mentioned earlier) explicitly or implicitly supports these views and promotes this paradigm. Elsewhere, I have argued strongly that in pornography these assumptions are challenged (and become more challenged the more “extreme” the pornography becomes!) Prostitution, on the other hand, only appears to support this paradigm because it is where that paradigm is most clearly expressed. But if we alter those preconceptions as they apply to prostitutes, then the whole edifice collapses. The thing is, traditional approaches to prostitution (whether it is to engage in it, or seek to control it) have all operated under the same sexist assumptions. What sex-positive feminists, and sex workers’ rights activists, argue is that we should sweep away those assumptions particularly as they appear in law. Once they are gone in the bright light that is prostitution, there is some hope that they will unravel in other pats of life as well. Even if not, then sex-positive feminists continue to campaign on those levels as well as in the arena of sex work, to change perceptions of women’s sexuality. Once it is understood that you cannot buy a woman, or buy her body, except by literally enslaving her – in other words, once it is understood that fucking a woman does not confer ownership of her – then we can hope to progress towards wider liberation.

    To put it another way, getting rid of prostitution will change nothing. But “fixing” prostitution by the methods advocated by sex-positive feminists and sex workers rights activists, will give us the tools to fix many other examples of sexist thinking in society; it may even also help undermine some of the flaws within the Capitalist system (the analysis behind that is a bit more in-depth). Sex workers’ rights advocates are most assuredly anti-sexism and have a practical method of attacking some of its underlying assumptions about women. Namely, make it about a woman’s choice, and her sexuality. NOT about “buying” her.

    But I make absolutely no apologies for saying that the core of any solution I would support would have to be proposals to help prostitutes out of prostitution.

    How many more times do we have to say this? That’s what sex workers’ rights activists say too!

  36. Caroline said,

    All I have to say at this point is this – once again a sex workers rights supporter (i.e. me) has written about the need to support and protect vulnerable women (i.e. sex workers) as a priority, and yet again someone wades in, ignores the “Harm reduction is the priority here, religion, morality, feminism, that’s not the major concern right now. ” and indulges (yep, indulges) in a rant about theory. Mark P – you really think we’re interested in preserving your ideology right now? I think to be honest you’re a pretty disgusting individual. At first I thought you were interested in sex workers, hence giving you the links and generally being polite to you, but you’re not, are you? You just stick to your Marxism and your definitions and you go comment on the relevent posts. This isn’t relevent for you and you’ve hijacked the discussion and completely taken it away from my purpose – what you’re saying is irrelevent to what I’ve written about and it doesn’t look like you’re listening much to those who have bothered to reply to you.

    So yeah, cheers for making it all about you.

  37. DaisyDeadhead said,

    Regardless of your views on harm reduction when it comes to prostitutes, a junky selling sex for a fix or a desperate illegal migrant who has had her passport and other documents taken from her by pimps is not in even remotely the same social position as someone whose job happens to be related to sexual matters, like for instance a phone sex line operator.

    I call myself a “salesclerk” or just say I’m in retail. As is someone who works on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood and makes more on commission in one week, than I paid for my used car. We are still both in “sales”–that is the bottom line. We hustle product to others, and often make them believe they need something they don’t. Is that mystifying–or again, simply a description of the process? There is high-class retail and low-class retail, and similarly, high-class sex work and low-class sex work. I think we all know what that is, without any explanations… what is “mystifying” about it?

    Do you apply the same logic to child care? There are teen-aged babysitters making a couple of bucks an hour and then there are highly-professional nannies, trained by colleges and/or agencies. They are ALL doing childcare. Right? Or is that not “work” either, according to your strict, male-defined categories.

    It is as if people think that by redefining prostitutes as “workers”, contrary to both Marxist categories and common sense, that somehow they are giving “agency” to these women, a notion which reeks to me of sanctimonious bullshit.

    According to Marxist categories, any time money is exchanged, something is happening. Sales or service. To deny this basic fact is not to be Marxist, at least where sex work is concerned. (Would you go along with “sex merchants”–which I believe was in vogue in socialist Eastern Europe for awhile?)

    Now as I said earlier in this comment, not accepting that prostitutes are “workers” in any useful or meaningful sense of the word does not imply a particular position on harm reduction measures. From the point of view of anyone opposed to sexism, prostitution reinforces sexism in society.

    Do you believe that prostitution reinforces sexism more than say, modeling in Vogue? Guys playing football? Why or why not? Far more people see mainstream models and football players and are influenced by their body types (and try to achieve them, possibly by harmful means) than they see porn actresses.

    You are making sex a special situation.. This is Puritanism, not Marxism

    It is predicated on the notion that men can purchase women’s bodies for sex and this is not something anyone should want to see expanded or normalised. On the other hand, prostitution is also a product of sexist society as well as something which contributes to further sexism and as long as we live in such a society it is likely that it will continue to exist in some form. Helping those women (and, more rarely, men) who are caught in that “industry” is also a reasonable and important goal.

    Is there some line of work that women are in that is NOT the product of a sexist society, and does not involve purchasing bodies to do something? Doesn’t working on an assembly line purchase bodies also? Why is purchasing someone for sex different than purchasing their hands for data entry or their ears for customer service?

    Yeesh! I thought this was Marxism 101.

    Trying to gloss over that is not, in my view, helpful.

    Then why are you doing that?

    (And, what Anthony and Snowdrop said.)

  38. Susan said,

    Mr. Mark P,

    Let me say that first off I’m not a Marxist, but I am well aware that Marx indeed did say that prostitution is work. He defined prostitutes as part of the “Lumpen Proletariat”. Meaning that they are still proletarian and still workers.

    That aside, I can’t help but think you’ve been spending too much time around radical feminist thought for your own good. Or simply that you’ve absorbed too much mainstream drivel about prostitution into your consciousness.

    To most people, sex workers (I will use that term, regardless of how you feel about it) are either independent call girls (which most people believe are “mythical”, despite the evidence right in front of them), or they are enslaved. This is inaccurate.

    Take the case of Ashley Dupre of Eliot Spitzer fame. Ashley worked for an escort agency and made a huge amount of money. To most people this is a contradiction in terms, including you, it seems. If she worked for somebody else selling sex, she “must” have been “enslaved”. Yet she made hundreds an hour, so she must have been “independent”. Yet she couldn’t be “independent”, because she had a “pimp”. But she lived in a midtown Manhattan apartment, so she was “independent”. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    The simple truth of the matter is that Dupre was a worker, and had an employer. That is the uncomplicated, un-sexy truth of the matter. Get used to it, Mark.

  39. Anthony Kennerson said,

    Just as I thought…all Mark is doing is using Marxist theory as a crutch to sell classic radicalfeminist antiprostitution policies.

    After all, who else but an ideologue for antiprostitution laws would simply reduce all of Caroline’s points to defending “sexism” and enabling “men to purchase women’s bodies for sex”?? Who else would so twist the classical definition of “worker” to reduce sex workers (which include not only Mark’s more privileged class of strippers and phone sex operators, but also porn performers, independent Internet adult webmasters/webmistresses, and even, yes, a streetwalker) to blind out those whom he wishes to either silence or reduce to weakling souls waiting for him to “liberate” them??

    And who else but a standard “Puritan leftist” would even dare to reduce any and all exchanges involving sex and money between men and women to “slavery”?? As opposed to…what??? Consensual sex after the revolution, where I assume there would be no need for prostitution (or, for that matter, promiscuity) because all sexual needs would be provided with the approved monogamous relationship between one man and one woman??

    This is the fundamental difference between me and you, Mark: I happen to respect people enough to allow them the right to choose their own destiny in a socialist movement.

    And….unlike Puritan Leftists like you and Robert Jensen, I don’t feel the need to lecture WOMEN — especially FEMINIST WOMEN, heaven forbid ACTIVIST SOCIALIST FEMINIST WOMEN — on how they should either live their lives, justify their experiences, or develop their movement(s).

    And finally….in case you haven’t noted the title of this blog, Mark, it’s called “Shriaz Socialist” That’s SOCIALIST, not MARXIST. There are plenty of socialists who are not Marxists, and there are even plenty of those who do call themselves Marxists who don’t reduce sex work to slavery and the mere oppression of women by men. And, it should be noted that Caroline Shepherd never called herself a Marxist (or even a Leftist) to begin with; her motivation in challenging Jacqui Smith and her proposed legislation is purely out of concern for the welfare of exactly those women whom you would dismiss as “slaves” and powerless. For you to mock her detailed research on the benefits of harm prevention and decriminalization with repeated jabs using Marxist dogma to sell your radicalfeminist position, without having the fortitude and the tact to just come right out and state your objections on radicalfeminist grounds more clearly without the sanctimonious Marxist claptrap or the innate fine-tuned and thinly honed bullshit about what constitutes a “worker”….says a lot more about you and your vision of Marxism than it ever did about Caroline. In my word, she’s a far more preferable progressive activist than you ever will be….and I AM a socialist and a “plain Marxist” of the Paul Sweezy/Harry Magdoff school of Monthly Review.

    Either deal with it, friend, or just blow it out your…theory.

    Anthony

  40. Stephen said,

    I’d just like to make the point that the bill doesn’t plan to charge men who have had sex with trafficked women with rape, though that charge can of course be made if the client has reason to believe the woman does not consent.

    The ‘strict liability’ is over the controlled for gain proposals, so not knowing a sex worker was ‘controlled’ (which isn’t defined) would be know defence.

  41. What do you make of this? « Shiraz Socialist said,

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  42. Petition to defer any bill on prostitution until after the next general election « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] until after the next general election on Number10.gov.uk- if you’re wanting to fight this Jacqui Smith nonsense, there’s a good place to […]

  43. Of prostitutes, puritans and prohibitionism « Shiraz Socialist said,

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