Dr. Dawg

Sex/Work [updated]

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Sex worker.jpg

Cards on the table, first: I’m completely on-side with the sex trade workers in the current battle against the Harper government’s “made-in-Canada” Nordic model legislation. That legislation is dangerous. It will force the trade underground and leave these women (because all but a handful, distinguished by the term “male prostitutes,” are women) vulnerable to every kind of abuse.

We have here, first and foremost, an occupational health and safety matter. That is, or should be, everyone’s primary concern at the moment.

I have no time for priggish moralizers when lives are literally at stake, be they social conservatives or angry radicals. And that goes for the bizarre “john school” nonsense, too, where, in return for staying out of the criminal justice system, you get to be preached to for hours by the Salvation Army. Were I in that spot, I might well prefer prison.

Nor do I believe that all prostitutes are hapless victims upon whom unspeakable violence and degradation are perpetrated. Let us, for the sake of preserving their dignity, spare these women the Lady Bountiful treatment. They have agency. They are our equals. They are workers. Let’s think of them that way.

Framing the question thus helps us to avoid invoking pointlessly general issues of principle. Bare principle alone has never guided anyone through the complex issues of everyday life, and it is precisely with those issues that we must come to grips. Obtaining money or other considerations for bodily labour is, after all, not confined to prostitution per se. “Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker,” said Karl Marx, and he had a point. Why is selling other forms of labour power “moral,” as a general proposition? We are all in the belly of the beast: workers, through the alienated labour that they perform, perpetuate the very system that enslaves them. And yet—they must work.

Adding the gender dimension to this simply highlights the difficulty. Under patriarchy, the objectification of women is a commonplace. But within the all-pervasive gender power relations that mark and define our society, women still have to live. They make the (limited) choices that they must, within that oppressive context. Prostitution as commodification of women? Certainly. But all labour, whatever it might be, is a commodity. We (the “99%”, if you like) literally sell ourselves for money by entering the job market. And we are all, more or less, deformed, oppressed and exploited by it.

In the case of women, pay equity is still a dream for far too many. Sexual harassment in the workplace is hardly rare. Women are still ghettoized, and the work that many of them do remains undervalued. It’s no surprise, really, that an active minority choose the more lucrative sex trade. Porn actresses make much more money than the men they engage on camera. Strippers pull in more in one night than secretaries do in a week. High-priced call-girls can do far better than that. It’s the market, meaning that there’s a demand, and, under the twin yokes of patriarchy and capitalism, many women freely choose to satisfy it—within, of course, the limited frame permitted by the system to any of us.

Mrs. Grundy is, unfortunately, alive and well in the current debate. She infiltrates too many of the discussions, progressive or otherwise. This comes across more clearly on the Right, who can barely prevent their lips from curling as they describe those stereotypical poor, degraded and unwilling sex trade workers. But it’s there on the left as well, if more subtly (and I’m not referring here to the radical feminists who have been making common cause with the god-botherers). Many of those who decry the material use of women as fashion models (bearing on their backs the seasonal “collections” of male fantasists) or as advertising come-ons, or as “sex objects” in general, will defend the sex trade in the most liberated terms. Eager to overthrow oppressive conventional proprieties, some progressives put sexual objectification in parentheses for sex trade workers—or toss the notion out entirely. But there’s an obvious disjunct here, when such a glaring exception is created—even if it’s one that, at least in my view, should become the rule.

PETA, for example, gets no such break. It runs campaigns that I’m admittedly not comfortable with, and it has been the target of considerable venom from those of the feminist persuasion. But the only difference here is that the half-naked women labelling themselves as cuts of meat are freely choosing to do this for a cause instead of for cash. “Dehumanizing?” To an animal rights activist who believes that sentient animals are on the same plane as humans, that term would have little meaning. But setting that aside, why is this tactic more dehumanizing than most paid work? Including sex work?

OK, some will respond—as they do about the “Femen,” a mutant feminist organization run by a man—why is it only women who strip for political effect? An excellent question, one that calls for considerable analysis: but, as noted, the vast majority of prostitutes are women, too. Is there an element of condescension, perhaps, in their exemption?

Progressives, of course, instinctively reject the notion of human commodification. We strain, often clumsily, to achieve that possible other world, in which we are no longer bought and sold on the marketplace, but free—even if the latter concept is sorely vexed. But we also live in this one. Women and men use the master’s tools as the only ones ready to hand. Most times, whether we are sex workers or other some other kind of worker, our bodies are indeed tools of the trade. Allowing them to be used that way is not a force for change. But almost all of us do it in order to survive. We locate ourselves at the dictate of others. Our bodies are disciplined, skilled, re-shaped. Our brains and our muscles—and in the case of sex trade workers, sexual organs—are employed.

Yet even in that future cooperative, egalitarian, moneyless society that some of us dream of, there will still be exchanges of considerations, the oil that keeps any society running. We will help each other, in other words: but our labour would no longer be alienated, that is, owned by others. You repair garden implements, she’ll get the food, I’ll cook a meal. It’s hard to imagine that consensual sexual favours would be entirely left out of this free flow of social exchange. But, shorn of the ages-old baggage of moralism and patriarchy, why would anyone think twice about it?

Solidarity with the sex trade is just a specific instance of solidarity with workers in general. We are now addressing ourselves, as we must, to the danger that many of those workers face. In fact, we should rightly oppose measures that create, maintain or worsen danger for any workers, whether it’s a sketchy john or improperly secured overhead electrical wires. But true solidarity requires an inward appreciation of our own status as objects and bodily commodities in the barbarous economy of the here and now.

[NOTE: On the suggestion of a Rabble.ca reader, where this article is cross-posted, I have substituted the illustration, above, for the previous overly-stereotypical one. —DD]

UPDATE: An intemperate response to this piece by a supporter of the Nordic model has been posted here. I would urge readers to check it out. My reply to it keeps disappearing into thin air over there, so here it is:


(To: Ms. Elizabeth Pickett)

Let’s deal with the illustration first. You will see at Rabble that it was suggested to me by a reader who disliked the stereotypical illustration I had first used. It certainly fit my theme. After investigating further, I see that the McCormick connection has been made in a flashy scandal-sheet (your link). Many other commentators describe TurnOffTheBlueLight as a campaign led by sex workers. I understand the temptation of a nice ripe “gotcha,” but your apophasis, doubtless chosen to set the tone of your piece, is more than a little disingenuous.

Straight up, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the crux of the matter. I stated clearly in my article that all workers should look forward to the abolition of paid, alienated labour. But criminalization of sex work is NOT abolition. I simply won’t take the time to review here the literature on this subject that you and I have both read. Suffice it to repeat that criminalization drives the work underground, and exposes women to serious danger of exploitation, injury and death.

As I read, I looked in vain for a counter-argument. Instead, in paragraph after paragraph, I found little other than the character assassination that began, by innuendo, at the start of your piece. I’m allegedly guilty of sexism, racism, of being intolerably ignorant, etc., etc.—boilerplate denunciatory rhetoric with which many will be familiar. I am accused of offering a sermon with insults. If I did, may I point out that you have responded admirably in kind.

More than halfway through your article, however, you finally get down to that counter-argument. But it’s mostly strawpersons, and I found that disappointing. For example, my remarks about agency were, in context, to counter discourses that relegated sex workers to passive, mute victimhood. Now I am instructed that agents/actors can be exploited (oh, really?), and virtually accused of being a libertarian. Then, having given your straw a thorough mauling, you say “Nice going, lefty guy.” No: nice going yourself. You sure kicked the crap out of that caricature.

Then you seriously suggest I am denying that unspeakable violence and degradation happens to sex workers. That is such a stretch that I hardly know how to respond civilly to it. What I actually said, in effect, was that we should not patronize sex workers by assuming they’re all pathetic victims with no say in their own lives. And that assumption, I’m afraid, is not confined to the Right.

Take your remarks about Terri-Jean Bedford. One might be forgiven for imagining, reading them, that she was on the “abolitionist” side, instead of an enthusiastic proponent of decriminalization. But you dwell on the details of her personal life, gratuitously note that she has agency (and how!), and then, rather piously, I must say, express your concern for her. Given her own position, most recently expressed rather vigorously here, I would be interested in her response to that ripe bit of condescension.

And how about this: “We are arguing that men ought not to be allowed to exploit women’s bodies without penalty.” There we are yet again—men as active agents versus the mute, passive woman’s body, all victim, no agency. You make my point.

Anyway, my bottom line is this: The issue is to make sex work safe. So-called “abolitionists” help to make sex work dangerous instead, and, intentionally or not, you help to stigmatize both the work and the people doing it. And you inevitably end up cheek-by-jowl with people that you likely don’t socialize with—the same folks who claimed you can abolish abortion, too, by making it a criminal offence. No whiff of moralism in the air? I’m sceptical.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 19, 2014 5:20 PM.

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