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Blog, Theory & Analysis

Prohibition, the Sex Industry and the State

A response to The Morning Star’s “The Prostitution Debate…” by Rae Story

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The Morning Star has once again published a politically incoherent piece of writing which counters cherry-picked, neoliberal arguments that happen to reach favourable conclusions for a marginalised group, and once again undermines the safety of this group. It’s possible to find feminist arguments in favour of trans-inclusivity, or communist arguments in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work, but rather than grappling with nuance these authors choose to burn a reactionary strawman representing an entire group and declare themselves the most radical.

The article argues against a handful of unconvincing arguments that are in favour of decriminalisation. Of course it’s possible to have both good and bad arguments for a good thing, so this isn’t really enough. Decriminalisation, to be clear, is just the removal of laws that criminalise sex work specifically (trafficking, rape, etc would continue to be illegal within sex work as outside of it). So the least one might expect of an article making the case against decriminalisation, would be any arguments at all in favour of any type of criminalisation. However these are noticeably absent. Where are the arguments in favour of us being harassed by cops? There are none because there’s no country in the world where the cops are that well-disposed towards sex workers that giving them more powers has not resulted in worse conditions for us.

The author uses the terms decriminalisation and legalisation as if they’re interchangeable, indicating that they either understand approximately nothing about the legal models being discussed, or that they’re purposefully trying to conflate an option which benefits sex workers with one which doesn’t. Legalisation of sex work involves another set of laws criminalising specific parts of the sex industry by criminalising those sex workers that can’t or won’t jump through the various hoops demanded by the state. This criminalises the most marginalised and vulnerable sex workers – those without the right papers, those that can’t afford to pay fees to the government, those that can’t come out as sex workers, etc – and increases the power of the state and state-sanctioned brothels. It is entirely disingenuous to imply that this is what sex worker organisations are advocating.

Protesters-outside-Sheila-Farmer’s-court-case-January-2012The author also chooses only to slate examples of organisations which are essentially industry lobby groups. Many industries have lobby groups for their industry and also have unions comprised only of workers, and as you might expect, the sex industry is no different. The UK branch of the International Union of Sex workers is indeed an industry lobby group. It has kicked out members who argued for workers being permitted to organise away from our managers at any point. It represents the interests of certain bosses in the sex industry who aspire to a level of respectability. In an attempt to indicate that this is the standard, the author also refers to some speculation about Coyote, an American organisation. The author neglects to mention the existence of UK based, actual sex worker organisations, like the Sex Worker Open University, Scot-Pep, X-talk and the English Collective of Prostitutes, all of whom are in favour of decriminalisation and are far more active than the IUSW.

This is done to support the implication that decriminalisation favours brothel-managers in general. In fact, brothel-managers, sex industry bosses, pimps, often benefit a great deal from criminalisation. Many of them are opposed to decriminalisation as they are able to extort their workers to protect them from cops, as well as clients. Bosses have the resources to bribe the police that independent workers working from the same flat for safety just don’t have. Take, for example, the women in Bradford who left their long-running brothel on the grounds of bad working conditions, and shortly after setting up their own co-op were raided by cops. Irrespective of an understanding of the specifics of sex work, any grasp of the nature of criminal enterprises confirms that the criminal nature benefits the owners as they don’t want competition from legal enterprises. Does this author imagine that during the prohibition in the US, the Mafia running the alcohol trade wanted it to be made legal?

As for the weak neo-liberal arguments in favour of decriminalisation, yes they are frustrating, no they’re not representative. The sex industry is, for the most part, pretty fucked up. This is perfectly legal for me to say, and, contrary to the impression this author is under, sex workers are not trying to make it illegal for me to say it. I have nothing good to say about the experience of trading sex for money. I can confirm that sex work is not an expression of the workers sexuality, or at least that any attempt to express sexuality at work is impeded rather than bolstered by the “work” aspect of sex work, as any other self-expression at work is impeded by the “work” aspect of the activity being performed. This is the nature of alienation under capitalism, and I would expect nothing less than that sex worker advocates without a critique of capitalism would tend towards denying this. However critiques of the sex industry don’t translate to an argument for setting the cops on us.

The issue of “choice” and what it means comes up a lot in these discussions. Choice is apparently only something that the most privileged of sex workers have, which is why many advocates of the sex industry choose to only present these workers, and why many sex work prohibitionists argue that these are the only people arguing in favour of decriminalisation. In fact, those of us who are less privileged have no more desire to be locked up, stalked, deported, and harassed, by racist misogynists enacting state-sanctioned violence. The limited options of many sex workers are framed as simply a lack of choice. No matter that these sex workers will weigh up their options, between sex work and destitution, and make a conscious choice for sex work. Removing the option of sex work does not result in more options falling from the sky, and it’s disgustingly patronising to decide for a sex worker that the destitution they face is in fact a better option. While prohibitionists will claim that it’s the most vulnerable and marginalised workers who they’re advocating for, in fact the inevitable worsening conditions that come from criminalisation will drive workers with other options out first, and leave those with limited options hanging on as long as they can.

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Stigma is not the greatest issue we face, but it doesn’t help, and it’s very general issue which unifies the sex worker movement. Sex workers discussing their grievances with other workers in their workplace or specific role, will be talking about something else. Stigma against clients doesn’t bother me, neither would stigma against exploitative bosses in any industry. Stigma against sex workers, much like stigma against workers in particularly exploitative jobs, is not something to be condoned, as this author seems to.

I have no wish for the sex industry to develop and expand or be promoted. The fact that I think those of us working in it should be permitted to advertise independently, or work from the same premises, does not contradict this. The author makes a distinction between the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the industry, as if we’re all confused about the fact that our bosses interests are not the same as our own. Yes, selling sex is legal in the UK. Transactional sex in general is legal, and is in the nature of capitalist patriarchy whatever the laws surrounding it are. Hooking up so as to have a place to sleep will continue to be legal, staying in a bad relationship because you have nowhere else to go will be legal, sex with your dealer to sustain your habit will be legal. It is no surprise that for people faced with these options, putting a fixed price on the sex they’re willing to have, then taking the money and paying for a room, a home, some drugs, etc themselves, gives them a greater degree of autonomy. Many of us find it pleasanter to spend a fixed amount of time with a client than move in with him. Capitalism is horrendous, but it has some advantages over serfdom or slavery. People advocating for restrictions on sex workers ability to sell sex are pushing many of us towards the kind of transactional sex that gives us less control.

Just as we can critique capitalism while continuing to have jobs, we can critique the sex industry while continuing to work in it. And just as the struggle for better conditions in other industries doesn’t need to undermine our struggle for the abolition of work – in fact I would argue that it’s the same struggle and that collectively taking action empowers us to aim higher – so our struggle for better working conditions in the sex industry doesn’t need to undermine our struggle for the abolition of sex work. Sex workers’ struggles are often painted as uniquely short-sighted and reformist by those on the left that push for anti sex worker policies. But many of us long for a world where no one needs to have sex they don’t want to have, and are fighting for that, but in the mean time we don’t want to add dealing with the police to the many grievances and indignities that we face at work.

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