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Sex Work Without Apology

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‘I am not proud of being a whore, but I am proud of not being ashamed’,
~ L, sex worker activist, London 2008.

Sex work is selling sex (or sexual acts) for money. There is nothing inherently exploitative or degrading about consensual sexual behaviour regardless of its motivation. Yet many campaigners and lawmakers ignore the voices of sex workers and refuse to recognise that the vast majority work in the industry by choice. The stigma associated with selling sex structures the meaning and context of commercial sexual practices in fundamental ways. The anti-prostitution lobby define sex work as violence against women, campaign for the abolition of prostitution and for the criminalisation of clients. Invisible in the mainstream prostitution discourse are the men who sell sex – to other men and to women - and the women who are also clients. The focus remains primarily on prostitution – making invisible the thousands of men, women and trans people who sell sex on the phone, via the internet, dance in clubs or make films. Perhaps most dangerously, campaigners against sex workers’ rights present sex as something men do to women and enshrine women’s status as victims.

In contrast, support for the decriminalisation of sex work and the repeal of all laws related to the exchange of sex for money is premised on the idea that sexual behaviour between consenting adults requires no regulation by the state. Decriminalisation would mean that sex workers would be entitled to the full protection of the law. Fundamentally, everyone should have equal freedom to choose how they earn their living and freedom to choose what they do with their own body. In a neo-liberal capitalist society, how ‘free’ we are to choose to work can be debated, but this is true of all occupations, not just the sex industry. The struggle for sex worker rights’ must begin with sex work being recognised as labour and at the very least that those who work in the sex industry being entitled to the same labour rights as other workers and the same human rights as other people.

Shifting the analysis of sex work to labour relations and migration provides analytical tools to investigate the gendered nature of labour (not only in sex, but also domestic and care work), the role of border and immigration controls in maintaining and heightening exploitation as well as how these inequalities are negotiated, challenged and resisted. A labour analysis of sex work removes commercial sexual services from moralistic and paternalistic arguments that view sex as a fixed, privileged or natural site of human activity and places such activity within the realm of commodified labour relations.


‘When people deny sex work as labour it forces us to spend our time defending the existence of our work instead of struggling for its transformation’
~ Alice, IUSW, 2006.

Labour is both a practice in which gender and sexuality play important structuring roles and one that cannot simply be reduced to gender or sexuality. The same argument holds for commercial sexual services: gender and sexuality play important structuring roles yet are not the totality of the relation. In analysing commercial sex and the structuring role of gender and sexuality it is crucial to move beyond the neo-abolitionist approaches to prostitution that view all sex workers as always-already women and to broaden the framework of analysis so as to incorporate the experiences of the thousands of men and transsexuals who work in the sex industry in Europe and the increasing number of women who purchase commercial sexual services.

Borrowing from aspects of Marxism’s theorisation of the commodity-form and theories of labour relations, like the majority of commercial exchanges under capitalism, prostitution involves the sale and purchase of a commodity. The idea that a prostitute ‘sells her body’ is inaccurate, for at the end of the exchange the client does not ‘own’ the prostitute’s body. Rather, what the client purchases is a sexual service, i.e. an act or a temporary affective relation that the sex worker performs.

Using the Marxist definition of labour power, the physical and mental activities involved in producing sexual services constitute labour power. The definition of sexual labour as affective labour allows for a more complicated and useful understanding of the labour processes involved in producing sexual services. As well as involving sexual acts, analysis of sexual labour needs to include activities and capabilities such as satisfying people’s needs to be liked and sexually desired, to be entertained, for companionship and communication. To reduce the work of sex workers crudely to that of penetrative sexual acts oversimplifies and masks the actual labour involved in the production of sex as a commodity.

By situating sexual labour within the framework of affective labour (performed by both illegal and legal workers) alongside other forms of affective labour (domestic work or caring service work) in this way, the production, consumption and exchange of sexual services can be understood within an industry and labour market context. The categorisation of commercial sex as affective labour enables an analysis of sex work that highlights the gendered racialised labour market options available to women in general and migrant women in particular. For migrant women arriving in Europe with the intention of working, the jobs available to them are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types of ‘service’ work: domestic work, caring for people in their homes and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues in the sex industry. In the sex industry, migrants are now considered to be the majority of those selling sex in Europe. The reality of large increases in the number of migrants selling sex in societies in the ‘global North’ can be understood as one of the factors in the proliferation of trafficking campaigns and policies aimed specifically at migrants and sex work.

It is also necessary to investigate the intersection of labour and criminalisation that exists in trafficking and prostitution policies. Criminalisation operates in two ways: through immigration polices that criminalise the self-willed migration of people moving without official permission and policies that criminalise commercial sexual practices. Understanding the productive role of regulation and criminalisation is crucial in developing both an understanding of commercial sex and also current policies and campaigns to combat trafficking.

‘Criminalisation does not simply ‘repress’ a pre-existing thing called ‘prostitution’, nor is it irrelevant to a practice instead wholly determined by underlying features of male sexuality and/or capitalism. Instead, it aids in the production of a particular mode of sex work. Critics who overlook this productive role are at risk of getting their analysis precisely backwards. Concluding from current characteristics of prostitution that it is a bad thing, they may conclude that efforts should be made to deter and eliminate it. But if existing efforts to deter or eliminate sex work are themselves the causes of its oppressive characteristics, then the appropriate response might be to eliminate those efforts, not commercial sex’. (Zatz, 1997: 302)

A similar argument to that of criminalisation of commercial sex can be made in relation to migration, in that the criminalisation of people moving without official permission can be understood not as a practice to stop or repress such border crossings but instead as an aid in the production of a particular mode of migration. Far from the stated aim of stopping ‘illegal migration’, it in fact guarantees the existence of illegal migrants, people who through the production of their illegality have limited labour options available and recourse to remedies against exploitative labour practices.

In early 2006 several activists based in London, involved in sex worker rights activism, began to conceptualise and organise around the x:talk project – a project that seeks to explore and expand the ideas and confidence developed in criticising the mainstream human trafficking discourse, drawing on insights gained from sex workers', migrant and feminist struggles. On a practical level, the project involves providing free English language classes for migrant sex workers with particular attention and focus on the language skills required to sell sex for money.

Language and communication are crucial elements to directly challenge and change conditions of work and life, and to come to together and to organise. Communication is central to change. Language is a basic individual and collective power that improves both possibilities to work and possibilities of resistance. Central to the politics of xtalk, is the autonomy of all people moving across borders and the dignity of every gender employing their resources in the sex industry. Central to this understanding of gender and migration is an understanding of sex work as labour. A feminist analysis and practice is crucial to changing the sex industry. Women represent the majority of workers in the industry and gendered sexualised and reproductive labour have historically constituted a central part in the structures that subordinate and oppress women. The people that have taken the main initiative of this organisation and project are women. Starting from the ground up, in a grass roots way, x:talk nevertheless aims to work with the whole industry. Issues of gender and transgender difference - at their intersections with racial and sexual issues must be address in order to include people from across the industry and from diverse gender backgrounds.

The racist and anti-feminist trafficking rhetoric of 'protection' peddled by mainstream anti-trafficking campaigns, in which women are reduced to passive victims, under the control of organised crime or cruel men, produces and justifies the deportation of migrant sex workers and increases the criminalisation and exploitation of workers in the sex industry. It also creates divisions between migrants' and sex workers' forms of organisation and resistance.

The x:talk project has been an attempt to shift the praxis of the campaigns for sex worker rights by rethinking and reconfiguring what ‘labour organising’ can and should be about and address in a material way the realities and needs of migrants working in the sex industry. The political project of labour organising in the sex industry appears as one which involves the organisation of ‘workers’ and to also provide a collective voice for sex workers. The success of such projects rests on their ability to relate to the changing demographics within the industry and to the difficulties of organising within an illegalised and stigmatised workforce. To take seriously this task is to acknowledge that for the most part labour organising (and also radical political projects in general) involves representation and visibility. However many people working in the sex industry neither need nor desire to be visible. In an industry that has thrived in an unregulated and marginalised manner, many people work precisely because they can be invisible. The x:talk project has attempted to address this with the belief that through access to resources, knowledge and skills, people can make decisions about their own lives and work. Far from the mainstream practice of ‘rescuing’ or ‘helping’ sex workers, the x:talk project is a conscious effort to make contact with migrant sex workers communities, offer a practical and needed service and ultimately attempt to build political alliances and strengthen migrant sex worker networks.

An Aboriginal activist in Australia, Lila Watson makes the point clearly - “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.

This essay is written by “Ava Caradonna”, collective identity used by sex worker activists and allies. Ava is an attempt to find positive tools to combat whore stigma and to find radical and material ways to represent the collective organisation of people who work in the sex industry. Contact: xtalk.classes@googlemail.com