When we fail to talk about something, we allow certain injustices, prejudices and clichés to flourish. Emma Goldman’s observation of the marginalised topic of sex work in the public eye has hardly changed in any radical way since her publication of ‘The Traffic in Women’ published in 1910. Goldman skirts around the reasons for the marginalisation of the subject and  theorises that its disqualification from everyday conversation does not reflect the seriousness of the issues it could reveal, but rather an almost engrained desire to protect and perpetuate the types of gendered violence it reinforces. Cultural theorists of the Marxist persuasion, such as Marcuse, have suggested that marginalised topics have more influence over our present than those we are actively critiquing and trying to change. For Marcuse, revolution is only possible when we acknowledge that we are alienated from a series of certain truths and ways of existing that we take for granted. If ‘prostitution’, as it is still commonly referred to, and other types of sex work are divorced from mainstream trajectories and understood as being taboo, then surely such topics contain power or a possibility of understanding the dynamics which allow them to continue as realities.

Sex work is reality for a lot of women. It is ignored from legislation, only loosely policed, and the organisations which exist to support those who use it to sustain their existence are often underfunded, or don’t have the capacity to represent the plurality of values or positions that are required to bring major issues into light. The majority of organisations that support sex workers are unsurprisingly defenders of the industry. With so few resources and public exposure, it is undoubtedly a strategic stance for such organisations to opt for ‘pro’ sex work, and supporting those within it, rather than dedicating more resources to allowing people to understand the conditions which precipitate it, or even the complications or disadvantages faced by those who work within it.

Very rarely are topics such as rape in a brothel or the rights and responsibilities of sex workers as service providers discussed. To date, there are no laws or mandatory education provided to people who enter the industry. This means that inexperienced people with little knowledge of more complex safe sex practices are allowed to work, putting at risk both themselves and their clients. There are also too few services which provide discrete and thorough health check ups or medication, and many sex workers will argue that they have been victims of repeated discrimination by medical practitioners. When a sex worker is discriminated against, he or she requires the basic knowledge to identify the injustice and also an appropriate support network to complain to or take action. Because of the nature of the work and the sensitivity of laborers to the public perception of this style of work, the experience of discrimination or abuse can be isolating. Some women continue to work after they have been raped, or suffer quietly because they do not have access to unbiased medical attention which needn’t value but simply acknowledge the importance of maintaining health, and encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and those they come into close contact with.

Despite enormous reforms in anti-discrimination laws, mandatory education relating to workplace bullying and improvements in occupational health and safety standards, sex work in its many forms remains grossly ignored. In a recent publication by RheD, RED #30, a male sex worker details the types of abuse and discrimination he suffers from those within and beyond the industry. While it is difficult for any sex worker to find acceptance or simply not suffer persecution from others, male sex workers face discrimination for occupying what is recognised as a largely female role. Despite the growing number of LGBTQI narratives within the sex industry, many people are confronted by, rather than willing to accept, the emancipatory possibilities of imagining non heterosexual people offering ‘heterosexual’ sex services.

The culturally sustained silence around this ignores arguments that could be made about the professionalism of those in the industry, and that could challenge perceptions of sex workers, strippers and other positions, as well as of substance abusers or those belonging to other marginalised backgrounds. Clichés about people in these roles are only harmful insofar as their simplicity prevents people from understanding, or entering into new ways of observing, sex work more honestly, in all of its complexities.


Even before Goldman’s radical political-feminist critique of sex work, Marx postulated that ‘prostitution’ might be most basically understood as a signifier or a metaphor for the relations between labourer and capitalist in a capitalist system. The simplicity of this argument, as well as the very complex and sociocultural plurality of the relationship between men and women, makes it a less favourable way of understanding producer-consumer relations in contemporary society. Marx’s assertion that women were the best indicators of the state of a society means that their inferior position reduces them to a seemingly naturalised indicator of oppression. This also fails to take into account transgressions from typical male-female sexual relations and the growing acceptance of non heterosexual forms of desire. The term ‘prostitution’ has been loosely applied to any type of exchange of labour for money in which the autonomy or values of the laborer are disregarded in favor of acquiring capital. To ‘prostitute’ one’s talents, becomes, for example, a socially denigrated exchange whereby a talent or quality of a person is reduced to an explicitly profit based transaction. The term itself has become veiled in this double use, and the essence of the ‘prostitute’ is reinforced, ironically within a critique of capitalism!

Despite the problems with Marx’s reductive way of appropriating prostitution to make a point, his analogy is nevertheless an interesting and powerful way of observing the individual characteristics of the laborer and the capitalist. The labourer is required to tailor and taper their resources to respond to the demands of the capitalist. The capitalist does not prescribe these demands but internalises a socio-culturally fluid desire, the expression of which is the only variable in the equation. The capitalist, according to Marx, is more depraved than the laborer since the consumption of what he identifies as a basic capitalist interaction is driven more by the person sustaining or prescribing the nature of the work.

Sex workers are often accused of sustaining or maintaining relations which are at the expense of gender equality or which exist in conflict with the values of feminism. This not only posits the sex worker as a ‘victim’ of patriarchy, but it also refuses to acknowledge the colonisation of heterosexual male desire in an economy where women’s rhythms are ignored, their own desires are suppressed in favour of being ‘economically’ available (in a number of ways), and their bodies and opportunities are orchestrated by male desire. However radical feminist criticisms which target the sex worker as an obstacle to achieving gender equality mean that victims of inadequate welfare or resources are doubly victimised. They are not seen as being dangerous in themselves, but only insofar as they serve the imagined function of sustaining patriarchal economies.

Goldman detailed a growing distaste for difficult labour spanning long hours as being one of the reasons women flocked to prostitution in growing numbers. She cites industrialisation and progressing capitalism as reasons why it was no longer appropriate to understand sex work in the same way it had always been perceived. For Goldman, it was not that women were victims of male desire, but that their economic subordination meant that their labour would be expressed as an orchestration of the very system that oppressed them in the first place. The money to be made from sex work has remained much better than that which can be achieved by someone in a labour intensive or unskilled position. Is it any wonder then, that the stigma of the prostitute as being base and deficient of any refined desire of her own remains the way that people understand and judge sex workers?

I propose that anyone who is open minded enough to argue that they respect, understand, or do not discriminate against sex workers, extend that respect in a practical way to those who are in the industry. There is no reason that a job performed predominantly by women should be underrepresented or under attack from feminist groups.


Image: Emma Goldman addressing a rally at Union Square, 1916 / Wikimedia

Celeste Elizabeth

Celeste Elizabeth is an established photographer, writer and delinquent, with a focus on the body, space and identity politics. She is also a on the Women's Legal Service Board.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The old capitalist dictum, “find a need and fill it” prevails in the commodification of sexual desire. What makes Sammy run to buy-consume in the marketplace of sexual labour time? Need?

    What do we need to cease the commodification of our lives?

    I’d say it’s common ownership and democratic control over the collective product of our labour. Establishing same would free us all from the wages system of slavery and the restraints of class dominated civilisation. As Emma might say, “We need sex and we need freedom. We don’t need to force others to do our bidding because they need to sell their time to us in order to make a living.”

    1. Hi Mike!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment- I had hoped to inspire conversation about the issues surrounding sex work, so your response is personally appreciated.

      I sympathise and see Marxist critiques of the commodification of many aspects of our lives and agree it is helpful to some extent, but I also think that there is a lot to learn (ironically) by observing patterns of silence and speech, of visibility and censorship: these are determined by the same power structures that reinforce oppression. For instance, a speaker requires a listener, and though the person speaking is traditionally understood as having power over the listener (especially in authoritarian and fascist regimes), the two are interdependent- the listener creates or permits that silence that imbues the speaker with that power. I wonder if we forget to remember or understand that we are not at the mercy of the speaker, and that as listeners we are not passive receptacles: as individuals and collectively, we permit silences and speech. We are responsible for oppression individually and collectively because we veil or obscure certain truths and realities in favour of reinforcing one kind of privilege and power over another. By ascribing to a kind of formulaic way of observing realities we prove ourselves lazy and habitually incapable of creating new possibilities or ways of alleviating prejudice, poverty and oppression. I loved Simone Weil’s ‘analysis of oppression’ and it’s critique of power- to embrace certain rules or attitudes that prevent us from transcending the politics of privilege and power that permit cruelties or ostracisation of certain groups.

  2. I thank Celeste for this excellent article, which I will bring to the attention of the Australian Sex Party members.

    I have written, at the request of principal members of the Sex Party, replies to articles by Isla MacGregor of the Nordic Coalition that appeared in the Tasmanian Times.

    One such article quoted a ‘survey’ by someone whose name I don’t now remember which showed very heavy abuse of Sex Workers.

    In my reply I noted that:
    1) The survey was of a very small sample of indigenous sex workers who were attending a centre for abused sex workers and was being cited as an example of the experience of sex workers internationally;

    2) The so-called ‘Nordic Coalition’ defines sex work as abuse of women, but its most prominent members have also defined ALL genital contact between male and female as abusive of women;

    3) The prominent members of this Coalition outside of Sweden and France are virtually all over 70 yo radical separatist lesbian feminists, and as such believe that women should have sex only with women;

    4) The author of the survey during the 1970’s was arrested several times while touring the USA taking copies of Playboy from Newsagent shelves and destroying them;

    5) The author of the survey has been named by her research assistant, and in the NZ Parliament and Canadian Courts as biased and fudging her data;

    6) Isla did not state that the Study cited was by a fellow member of the Nordic Coalition who was personally known to and in regular contact with her;

    6) The Nordic Coalition is funded in large part by the Australian Christian Lobby;

    7) As an official report in Queensland noted, the ACL had threatened privately to oppose Tasmanian politicians of both parties unless on election they supported am inquiry into whether the Nordic Model work work in Tasmania.

    I note that ABC News recently also published a prominent article starting that sex work was inherently abusive to women. Only two authorities were quoted in the article, these being the leaders of the Nordic Coalition in NSW and Victoria. The ABC did not respond to my complaint about bias in my article.

    I don’t know if Overland permits links, but here is one to one of my articles:


  3. Oh, two small corrections:

    1) The ABC article did not state that the academics cited were state leaders of the Nordic Coalition;

    2) The ABC did not respond to my complaint over bias in ITS article.

    Leading members of the Sex Party stated in public on Facebook in reply to my thread that they were unsurprised that the ABC had run a biased article attacking sex work, as they had a record of this.

    Until recently, the Guardian also ran similar biased articles by the Nordic Coalition about every three months over a period of more than two years, with no articles giving an opposing perspective. The Guardian did not respond to my complaint over this either.

    A recent enquiry by the British Parliament found that sex work was not inherently exploitative of women.

    The 25% of sex workers that are men seem to be forgotten everywhere.

  4. I dont think the problem for sex work is ‘silence’ or lack of discussion, if anything its been too much discussion and talk that’s been the problem. In all this discussion- the voices and experiences of sex workers has been ignored or dismissed, and the work of sex worker organisations and collectives has been misunderstood and poorly characterised.
    Although this is demonstrated clearly within this piece- since sex worker organisations are first described as not dedicating time to much but ‘defending the industry’ and being pro-sex work; but in the next paragraph a sex worker magazine is described, including content of a sex worker’s piece which is about stigma, discrimination, isolation and stereotyping?

    I wish there had been a bit more robust research if the author wasn’t informed by their own experiences around criminalisation, policing and legislation. I wish it was true that sex work is ignored by legislation and only “loosely policed” but instead we are over policed and subject to unjust laws and policies which criminalise large parts of our work and lives- forcing us to comprimise on safety and other basic working rights as we work around, within and to the side of draconian laws in most states and territories of Australia.

    While I thank you for pointing out that sex workers should not be discriminated against, I wonder if you would be able to listen to a range of sex workers and do a bit more reading before writing articles on our industry and lives next time. There’s a huge amount of links and resources available if you know where to look. But since every man and his dog loves to have a yarn about sex work, these can often be hard to find- hidden under 100 news articles about how sex workers have no voice.
    Here’s a few to get you started:

    1. Hello Halo!

      Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate the different perspective you lend to the general theme.

      I would like to refrain from commenting on how or whether personal experience has influenced the views expressed, but I appreciate that it has! I absolutely agree that circumstance lends shape and form to any type of writing or art, and unfortunately, like Margaret Duras says, there is no such thing as objective journalism! I really like that you highlight the need to observe different types of experiences- I suppose the term ‘sex worker’ itself, is emancipatory in that it renews previous and more specific terms which can be violent or are quite negative. I certainly do appreciate your apprehension towards trying to reduce all experiences to a generalisation, especially because I think personal narratives are extremely important: but that’s part of the point I’m trying to make, I suppose.

      I note that many of the links you’ve listed are organisations which specifically represent sex work and sex workers, some peer based and others not. These are obviously wonderful resources for those who are considering working in the industry, already do or require information or assistance. Many of these groups are specifically ‘pro’ sex work, and I drafted this article from a kind of neutral perspective: in that I believe that there should be more state support and legislative support for people in the industry. Many people might wish to remain anonymous, or fear that the repurcussions of reporting abuse or unfair working conditions might affect them adversely. By ‘policing’, I use the term in keeping with the sentiments explored by Goldman which focus on the ‘neither here nor there’ attitude towards sex workers: that the state has a wavering attitude and benefits from rather than seeks to protect or represent through its extensions of authority/power (take your pick) sex workers.

      It’s difficult not to appreciate the underlying defensive tone of your response; it’s wonderful to see that kind of passion and a really great emphasis on understanding sex work as being quite unique and difficult to talk about as a whole! It opens up a whole range of questions- how do we speak about, represent and define sex work and the difficulties or problems we run into when we try to do so. This is partly what I mean in that there seems to be a kind of absence of cultural/mainstream media respect for discussions around it….and consequently, the lack of changes in legislation (with no disrespect to the wonderful and brave activists who have secured basic standards and rights- but like with many ‘sites’ of marginalisation or oppression, it cannot be unreasonable to expect and to demand more attention, more change or improvements in terms of both resources and representation).

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