The rise of sex worker unionism

Is the performance and provision of sexual services a form of labour? And if so, what are the implications?

Since the early 1970s, a growing number of sex worker activists (initially, just prostitutes) have argued that the sexual or erotic labour involved in performing and providing sexual services does constitute an act of labour on a par with the physical, mental and emotional labour involved in many more conventional types of work. The force of this argument has grown as emotional labour – through ‘managing the heart’ – has now become much more obvious, with the rise of the private services sector more generally (and the attendant decline in manufacturing and heavy industries in most economies).

Through their own efforts to define and understand (in a sociological sense) what they do, sex worker activists drawn from prostitution, pornography, erotic dancing and sex chatlines (among others) developed what is known as the ‘sex work’ discourse.

The essence of this discourse is that their labour is regarded as being of a sufficient level of moral legitimacy and social worth as a form of employment to be comparable to other forms of labour and paid employment that are deemed worthy and acceptable. The perspective is of sex workers selling sexual services, and not their bodies and persons per se. A distinction is not especially made between acts that involve selling of sex and selling sexual stimulation, or between those acts which involve entering a body, acting on another body or entering personal spaces, and those that involve the production of such imagery.
Sex work is viewed as work that can be socially useful and can provide job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, empowerment and self-actualisation, so that becoming a sex worker can be a genuine life choice.

While sex workers are often responsible for the terms of the sale of their services, the ‘sex work’ discourse establishes that they are the labourers who create the service that can then be sold or exchanged.

That sex workers developed this discourse themselves, rather than it being created by those outside sex work, speaks volumes. Sex workers are beginning to understand the political economy of their own agency and environment, developing the consciousness that has made them capable of campaigning to establish both sex work as work and sex workers as workers. From this, sex worker activists have campaigned (with allies) for their own labour and economic rights.

Two developments have followed. The first is that sex worker activists have campaigned for the political and social reform of the regimes of regulation that govern sex work. The second is, they have attempted to establish union organisations for sex workers.

Initially, the prostitutes’ rights movement – and then the sex workers’ rights movement – campaigned for political and civil liberties such as freedom from arrest and harassment from the state, as well as the decriminalisation or legalisation of their trade-cum-profession. But it became clear that campaigning on these fronts alone meant that their economic exploitation and oppression by operators in the sex industry remained untouched.

Consequently, they developed demands for new regimes of regulation that would allow them to self-organise, especially though collective organisations like unions. So the demands for   decriminalisation and legalisation developed an additional significance. In tandem with making the appropriate calls upon politicians and government, the activists began to also organise on the ground, with the first attempts at union organisation made in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the 1990s and 2000s sex workers founded their own unions or joined the small number that were favourable to them, with examples of unionisation in Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. Since then, other unions have developed in countries like France, Turkey and Hungary.

None have made quite the impact that their founders hoped. Progress has been slow, fitful and fragile, despite many notable and heroic attempts. Collective bargaining agreements, whether industry -wide or by company, have been few and far between. Memberships has been small and the key resource – the activist base – even smaller. New regimes of regulation – apart from in New Zealand – have not been favourable to sex workers.

Yet, even where disintegration and collapse have occurred, more and further attempts have been made, suggesting an underlying impulse for social justice in work that compels sex workers to try again and again. Perhaps the key issue to be resolved is the most appropriate form of labour unionism (such as a mix of occupational and social movement unionisms) for the particular circumstances of the sex industry.

Gregor Gall

Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. He is currently writing a book for Manchester University Press called The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. It will be published in 2022 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Strummer’s death on 22 December 2002.

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