The question of prostitution, and sex work more broadly, is a surprisingly controversial one among self-described feminists and other supporters of women’s liberation. Bourgeois feminists, notably Gloria Steinem, argued in response to last year’s Amnesty International draft policy1 on sex work that any decriminalization of prostitution would be “catastrophic” and bring about a “gender apartheid.” And even on the revolutionary left, our movement has a historical tendency of proscribing sex work in the name of combating women’s oppression.
In my view, this is a mistaken approach. If communists are the enemies of gender oppression, we need a policy on sex work that aims to increase the organization of the sex workers themselves and integrate them with the broader working class movement.
To be sure, prostitutes face a number of dangers on the job. When included among occupations in the above-ground economy, prostitution ranks as having the highest death rate2. But illegality, far from being a protective exercise by the capitalist state, tends to increase these dangers. For obvious reasons it’s difficult to obtain accurate figures about the industry, but a study by the Urban Institute3 reported that a majority of prostitutes have faced violence on the job and that 38% had dealt with violent or abusive clients. Complaints that are brought forward are often dismissed by police as simply being a fact of the job. Left without legal recourse, they are compelled to seek the protection of lumpen-bourgeois pimps or handlers who may themselves abuse them. The periodic online “sting” operations carried out by law enforcement only drive more sex workers away from relatively safer Internet connections and toward more dangerous street work.
In addition to this general situation there are a number of irrational, moralistic laws passed every once in a while so that politicians can be seen to be ‘doing something’ about prostitution. For example, until 2014 the NYPD considered carrying condoms to be evidence in prostitution cases – thus incentivizing New York City sex workers not to practice safe sex. Currently the state of California considers not only the act itself but “loitering with intent” as a criminal activity.4 Louisiana mandates that convicted prostitutes register as sex offenders, which is sure to do wonders for their rehabilitation and reentry into the mainstream economy.
Sometimes the increased legal restrictions have a human rights or pseudo-feminist window dressing. In 2012, Alaska passed an anti-trafficking law that redefined those who sell sex as victims of human trafficking rather than criminals as such. Aside from its patronizing foundational assumption – the idea that all prostitutes are helpless victims and rejection of the fact that some people choose sex work just as much as you might choose to work in retail or hospitality – it has done nothing to change the actual reality for prostitutes in the state, who still find themselves subjected to mistreatment by johns and police despite the change in terminology. Another liberal variant of prohibition is the so-called ‘Swedish model’, where the criminal act is paying for rather than selling sex. This arrangement actually hands more power to the client, not less, as described by the International Union of Sex Workers5:
“Since paying for sex was made illegal, sex workers in Sweden report greater violence, rape and harassment by the police, being made homeless by threats to prosecute landlords for pimping if they accept rent money from by tenants who sell sex, discrimination and expressions of contempt by “support” services unless they present themselves as victims seeking rescue. Criminalisation of our consent has not even been successful on its own terms (seeking to eradicate commercial sex) with Swedish police recording substantial increases in the number of clients, massage parlours and estimations of trafficking.”
It should be clear that, whatever punitive policies are in place, the ‘world’s oldest profession’ will endure for at least as long as class society. Any attempts to deny this only drive the sex trade further underground and into more exploitative conditions, and robs those involved in the industry of their agency. What’s needed is an approach based on organizing sex workers (including not just prostitutes but porn actors, exotic dancers et cetera) to fight in their collective interest. This is exemplified by the International Union of Sex Workers, which through its affiliation to the main British trade union federation is able to link its struggles with the labor movement as a whole in addition to its own admirable work.
Alongside this is the demand for decriminalization of prostitution, the central policy named by the organized sex workers themselves. This is distinct from legalization, a situation in which the state acts as pimp, a new restrictive legal apparatus is introduced, and an artificial dividing line is drawn between sex work and other types of labor. Rather than the state stepping in as exploiter, decriminalization simply removes the act of prostitution from the criminal code and extends the already-existing legal protections against theft, rape, forced labor and trafficking to sex workers. More rational than pointless repression or the ‘Swedish model’ and a necessary precondition to greater collective action by sex workers.
- http://tasmaniantimes.com/images/uploads/Circular_18_Draft_Policy_on_Sex_Work_final.pdf (the Amnesty International report) and http://catwinternational.org/Content/Images/Article/617/attachment.pdf