Since the 19th century, middle-class feminists have campaigned to eliminate prostitution on the grounds that it debases all women. It is true that prostitution would not exist without the subjugation of women. However, targeting sex workers not only blames the oppressed for being oppressed; it deepens their oppression.
Today’s sex workers challenge the right-wing view that all prostitutes are sex slaves, powerless victims, and disposable bodies. Most enter the business for economic reasons, to feed themselves and their families, and they want the same occupational rights and protections that all workers want. Overwhelmingly, they call for sex work to be recognized as work and for the complete and total decriminalization of the sex industry.*
In August 2015, Amnesty International voted to protect the human rights of sex workers on the basis that,
Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.
Amnesty’s decision drew the rage of critics on the right who insist that all sex workers are forced into the trade by pimps and traffickers and that stiff laws and vigorous law enforcement are necessary to rescue these ‘victims.’
The American Rescue Industry, a web of ‘anti-sex-slavery’ organizations, commands more than a billion dollars a year in public and private funds. Investigative reporter Anne Elizabeth Moore revealed that most of this money is devoted to lobbying for stricter laws against the sex industry. Only a small portion goes to provide legal services, medical assistance, or safe housing. As Moore discovered,
While many organizations make vague claims of housing or housing referrals, only two organizations, or 6 percent, offer dedicated beds for trafficking victims…In other words, housing is guaranteed for less than 4 percent of the victims that organizations claim to have rescued from trafficking situations.
Paradoxically, anti-prostitution feminists also look to the State to abolish prostitution by criminalizing sex workers and their clients. This is paradoxical because the capitalist State is not a champion of women’s rights. On the contrary, the State upholds the oppression of women by denying reproductive rights, not funding childcare, allowing job and wage discrimination, denying social support, and other practices.
Kat Banyard is the founder of UK Feminista, which promotes “Action for equality between women and men.” In 2004, Banyard launched the ‘End Demand’ campaign to protect ‘the prostituted’ by criminalizing those who purchase sexual services. (‘The prostituted’ is a code phrase that defines all sex work as coerced or forced.) Banyard insists that “to end sex trafficking and prostitution we have to end demand for it.”
This analysis is just plain wrong.
Those who righteously demand that governments ‘do something’ about prostitution ignore the social conditions that push people into sex work and the social forces that create the market for sex services.
Prostitution dates back to the beginning of class society. As women became the private property of men, they were divided into mothers and whores (good girls and bad girls). In the upper classes, female virginity and fidelity were demanded to safeguard the inheritance of wealth. The resulting sexual vacuum was filled by prostitutes of all classes.
Under capitalism, the demand for paid sex flows from the family system of reproduction, where sex is restricted to single partners who must also work, raise children, and care for family members. Those who want sex that is uncomplicated by romantic entanglements or family responsibilities have little option but to pay for it.
Capitalism not only creates the demand for sex work, it also ensures a steady supply of sex workers – desperate immigrants and refugees, people with criminal records, the uneducated, unskilled, disabled, sick, addicted, and gender-variant who are generally excluded from well-paying jobs. Add a labor market that has been down-sized, automated, and engineered to drive unemployment up and wages down. Compound the problem with lack of affordable housing, medical care, and child care. In short, poverty is the primary driver of sex work.
As the cost of education rises, more students turn to sex work. Approximately five percent of students work in the sex industry. Three times as many (both male and female) say they would be willing to do sex work in order to pay for their education.
Organized sex workers oppose laws that penalize and scare away clients. A lack of clients forces sex workers to be less selective, lower their prices, offer more risky services, and seek the help of managers or pimps. In short, arresting clients does not stop prostitution, it makes it more dangerous.
All laws against the sex industry make the work more dangerous. Knowing that sex workers have no legal protection makes it easier for clients and cops to get away with abuse, assault, and even murder.
In the United States, sex workers who pair up to increase their safety can be charged as felony traffickers. In Arizona, sex workers can be sentenced to outdoor labor on chain gangs. In New York, you can be arrested for carrying condoms, because condoms can be used as legal evidence that you’re selling sex. Fines and criminal records force people to keep selling sex, rather than helping them to stop. Sex worker, Toni Mac, explains,
If you’re caught selling sex outdoors, you pay a fine. How do you pay that fine without going back to the streets? It was the need for money that saw you in the streets in the first place. And so the fines stack up, and you’re caught in a vicious cycle of selling sex to pay the fines you got for selling sex.
Genuine socialists defend the right of oppressed groups to self-determination. Nevertheless, self-declared socialist, Chris Hedges, condemned Amnesty’s support for sex workers. Refusing to distinguish between consensual sex work and forced human trafficking, he defines all sex work as “being raped for a living.”
Hedges portrays all sex workers as victims and patronizingly dismisses their right to decide for themselves what they need. In fact, he explicitly denies them any role in their own liberation,
Women and girls, especially those who are poor and of color, cannot take part in a liberation movement until they are liberated. They cannot offer to us their wisdom, their leadership and their passion until they are freed from physical coercion and violent domination.
Moral crusaders reject self-determination in favor of victim-rescuing, and they see the capitalist State as the only force capable of large-scale rescue. Banyard asks, “How should governments respond to the prostitution trade?”
Governments are more than willing to police individual behavior under the guise of protecting the vulnerable. (Restricting access to contraception and abortion are prime examples.) In 2002, President George W. Bush declared that,
The United States opposes prostitution and any related activities, including pimping, pandering, and/or maintaining brothels as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons. These activities are inherently harmful and dehumanizing. The United States Government’s position is that these activities should not be regulated as a legitimate form of work for any human being.
Since 2003, the U.S. government has required all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to explicitly oppose prostitution in order to qualify for funding to combat HIV/AIDS. The “anti-prostitution pledge” makes no distinction between prostitution and sex trafficking. The law states, “No funds … may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”
Using financial aid as a means to dominate other nations is standard imperial practice; it has nothing to do with helping people. On the contrary, treating sex workers as outlaws makes it impossible to eradicate HIV/AIDS.
The sex industry would be starved for workers if one could earn the same amount of money doing safer work under better conditions. Capitalism does not offer this option and, until we have a society that does, prostitution will continue. The only question is under what conditions.
Few workers get to choose what they do. Most jobs are demeaning and many are dangerous. No one should be punished for doing what they must to survive.
If we truly want to reduce the number of people doing sex work, we need to fight for full employment, wages that actually cover the cost of living, wage parity for women, minorities and youth, fully-funded 24-hour child care, full employment rights for immigrants and refugees, affordable housing, fully accessible medical care, and free education and job training.
These reforms would benefit everyone in the working class. However, because they would disrupt the flow of profit, they are vigorously opposed by the capitalist class. Until that class can be removed, sex work will continue to be a survival strategy for sections of the working class.
*The red umbrella was first used as a symbol for sex worker solidarity in 2001, when Italian sex workers marched through the streets of Venice with red umbrellas to protest bad working conditions, discrimination, and prosecution. Four years later the red umbrella was adopted by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and became the international icon for sex worker’s rights around the world.