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.
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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