This is a response to the authors of the leaflet distributed at the “Sex work and Anarchism” workshop at the London Anarchist Bookfair 2011. The leaflet was written and distributed by people who were in no way connected to the organising of the workshop. It did not clarify on the leaflet who the authors were or from what organisation they were from and merely said “London Anarchist Bookfair 2011” under the title. As it was handed to people coming into the room my comrade asked the woman handing it to her who had written it and the woman responded “We did.” This response was at best vague and at worst misleading. Most people handed the leaflet assumed it was written by the organisers and consequently it skewed the discussion until we were able to clear this up. I am a sex worker and was part of organising this workshop. The content of this leaflet concerns me and I would like to respond to some of what is written in it. I’m writing this purely in an individual capacity.
In my response I’m going to attempt to counter individually each argument which is used in the leaflet to undermine the collective organising of sex workers. My point overall is that critiques of sex work in no way amount to a justification to attack sex workers self-organisation as ideas about how things ideally should be do not amount to a rejection of attempts to deal with the way things actually are.
The title of the leaflet “Prostitution is not compatible with Anarchism” hints at a confusion between an anarchist response to the present conditions and a vision of what an anarchist society will look like, which becomes more explicit upon a further reading of the leaflet. Our appeal for an anarchist analysis of sex work, an anarchist mode of organising around sex worker issues, and the support of other anarchists when organising around these issues, in no way implies that sex work is in any way compatible with an anarchist-communist society. While most anarchists would consider the abolition of all work to be an eventual aim, we need to struggle within the system we have now to move forward and to improve our conditions in such a way that lays the foundation for this change. An anarchist analysis of the the problems in the sex industry and what problems in our society it feeds into, in no way precludes this.
The authors set up a straw man in the first paragraph. They attribute to us the claim that it is sex workers supposed choice to sell sex which justifies our concern for sex workers safety, ability to earn money, and their persecution by the state.
However, workers safety is important in and of itself. Sex workers are in no better a position to choose not to work than anyone else and many workers, including many sex workers, have had little choice in what job they have to do to survive. Though there are some people who may claim that sex workers have chosen this particular line of work, this obviously does not apply to all of us and even those who chose this job over others are merely choosing which form their exploitation is going to take. The authors claim that 90% of sex workers want to exit, and cite a reference that refers specifically to a 1998 study of San Francisco street prostitutes and is not in any way comprehensive. Even if we were to accept this statistic as generally applicable, it still changes nothing. As someone who has only ever worked in low-paid, unrewarding, service industry jobs, I am fairly confident that anyone asking my colleagues whether they would rather have been doing something else, would be looking at at least that percentage. However the need of workers to organise collectively to better their material conditions is one anarchists should support irrespective of whether the work is chosen or not. Workers who would rather be doing a different job are not in less need of better conditions.
The authors contrast sex workers unions with “workers unions (that) are necessary for essential production”. However, it is not for the sake of the work, or whatever commodities that we happen to be producing at a given moment, that workers should organise. If we are organising for the benefit of the production process, then we’re missing the point. We organise for ourselves. The work we are directed to perform is relevant mainly for tactical reasons – striking workers in ‘essential’ industries use this to their advantage, whilst managers try and use it to theirs. Whether or not the industry we work in is essential or in any way beneficial to us does not make our material interests as workers any less important. The leaflet begins by rightly criticising the liberal notion of choice when it comes to the work that we are coerced by capitalism into doing, yet the same notion is implicit in the authors expectation that workers should just choose to work in an essential industry to deserve our support in fighting to improve out conditions – a frequent argument trotted out by neoliberal ideologists when low paid or otherwise particularly badly treated workers seek to use collective action to improve their immediate conditions.
One argument the authors make is that sex is freely available even under capitalism and that therefore the act of paying for sex is not about sex. People pay for many things which they could find for free even within capitalism. They pay for a number of reasons, for example the convenience, or for the the ability to be more specific about the product they are after. While this may be generally problematic, and in the case of buying sex, arguably even more problematic, it does not mean that it is not about sex, even if other factors are present. The authors also claim that because sex is available for free that it is not a commodity. Sex is a commodity when it is being paid for, and it is not a commodity when it is free. Nothing is inherently a commodity. Rather it is commodified. As depressing as it is, under capitalism nothing is spared commodification. Exactly how disturbing it is when a certain thing is commodified depends on what that thing is and how we relate to it, as a society and as individuals.
The authors criticise those anarchists who fetishise the exchange of money for sex. The idea that there is something liberating or empowering about sex work is lacking in an analysis of the nature of work and is possibly a reaction against the stigma associated with sex work. This results in the sex worker being constructed by some as a subversive queer identity. As with most attempts to counter stigma by embracing the stigmatised behaviour as an identity, countering shame with pride, we become trapped by the structures that oppress us. Attempts to legitimise sex worker activism by insisting that sex work will continue to exist in a post-revolutionary society are neither promoting a desirable outcome nor one which is in any way a pre-requisite for support in the here and now. However the authors attack on these ideas doesn’t uphold their conclusions. Were the anarchist movement not to be infested with identity politics we could still reject the notion that we should be ashamed and we would still expect support from our comrades. The false dichotomy between “sex work is good and so sex workers should be supported in their struggle” and “sex work is bad and so sex workers should not be supported in their struggle” ignores the actual material needs of sex workers in and of themselves.
Attempts to abolish sex work before any other work is as naive as the war on drugs but with the additional logistical problem that it involves a commodity which can be produced at any time by anyone. Given that society is organised the way it is, with a large group of dispossessed wage workers, with poverty and unemployment, and with the gendered division of humanity and all that entails, its no surprise that some workers, overwhelmingly women, end up selling their capacity to perform sex work. While everything is infected and distorted by capitalism, an analysis of how sex is affected by this does not invalidate the need for sex workers to struggle to improve their conditions. We should be able to rely on our comrades support in this as solidarity between workers is a vital part of the struggle against capitalism.