Marxism for Whores
By Magpie Corvid
My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity; we are everywhere, subsisting on meagre benefits, part-time work and a few occasional jobs. Some of us go into business for ourselves; some of us make websites; some of us fix cars, and some of us do sex work.
I entered sex work, along with so many other people, as a straightforward solution to the awful risks of poverty. I am not a sex worker because of a poignant story. I am not a sex worker because I am mentally ill, or have a history of abuse, or have daddy issues, or because I want attention. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes difficult, and it’s not a job for everyone, but sex work is my job. It is a job that I can do, that I am good at; it provides for me. When I sell my sexuality as a product, the only difference between me and another service worker, or another performer, is in the sexual nature of the work. Of course, sexual labour can be intense, and dangerous, and of course making it illegal does nothing to alleviate these factors. Activist Jenny Pearl, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said;
I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them. Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is twenty-five, before I get the money to pay the bills.
• • •
I was not born into poverty; I was raised in a middle class family, and aimed by my parents like a rocket at the American Dream. But before I became a sex worker, I was broke, with a precarious hold on food and rent. Two years into sex work, I am living a decent life, in a wonderful marriage as a financial equal with my husband, and I am able to save up for a mortgage while having enough time to devote to writing and politics. So why, when it looks like, superficially, I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, like a stocking-wearing Horatio Alger with a crop, am I a Marxist?
I am a Marxist because the Whore Imagined* – the cheater, the deceiver, the trafficked, the downtrodden, the insane, the streetwalker, the courtesan, the dominatrix – is used as a tool to keep women in line, and under the thumb of patriarchal control. It is no wonder that the hegemonic, corporate feminism, the feminism of the Angelina Jolies and the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, so champions the rescue industry; that statistics-fabricating, lie-telling machine that conflates voluntary sex work with sex trafficking. If the corporate feminists would liberate women, why not start with the undocumented migrant workers of America? Why not start with those suffering appalling conditions legally, without the right to change employer, under the tied visa system in the UK? They will not, because they still want the marginalised and controlled cleaning their boardrooms, plucking their chickens and watching their children. But not as whores; never as whores.
The feminism of the rescue industry is a carceral feminism, one that strengthens the state, one that ‘rescues’ with arrests. The new raft of anti sex work laws and police tactics attack the screening tools of sex workers, like our advertisements online and identity verification tools, making all of us less safe under the aegis of stopping sex trafficking. The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act in the United States and the accompanying series of high-profile raids against internet-based sex workers, Canada’s Bill C-36, which restricts advertising and criminalises clients, along with the adoption of laws criminalising clients across Europe mean that sex workers are thrown into jail more often, and our work is more difficult, and increasingly dangerous.
Those in the very elite of the feminist movement – women like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer – are championing this work as noble rescue. They are captivated by the Whore Imagined and ignore the reality of sex workers. The police conducting periodic raids in Soho find many sex workers, but seldom those who have been trafficked, instead labelling sex workers working together traffickers and pimps. As new regimes settle in, in countries where clients are criminalised, work gets scarce, screening becomes more difficult and those who are truly on the margins of the sex work scene, where coercion might well be taking place, retreat even further into the shadows. It is because I am committed to solutions that address the plight of those who are indeed coerced into sex work, and am not willing to accept a superficial approach that merely pushes coercion offstage, I am a Marxist.
I am a Marxist because I know that women are expected to become avatars of male sexual desire, but that if a woman sells her skills and appeal, tunes them, hones them and sees her work as a challenge, then all of her art, drive and ingenuity is reduced to the sale of her body. And I am a Marxist because we all sell our bodies, our time and our will to our bosses, our families, our countries, our religions, our lovers and our friends, but it is the Whore Imagined who allows us to distance ourselves from all the countless ways that we whore ourselves. When we see them, the whores, lined up and filmed after a raid, exposed on television, we do not see the real sex workers – disrupted, outed, deprived of work, jailed, hounded, deported – we see the skirts and the heels. We do not see the ambition to cross an ocean or the drive to provide for a family.
• • •
People all over the world, mostly women, often mothers, become sex workers, often to support their families. If a radical feminist says to me that my work is an abomination, I say to her that all work is an abomination, and invite her to step down off her pedestal. Here on the ground, women clean fish, and toilets, and the bottoms of the disabled and elderly. And some of us do sex work. I stand with her against the coercion, degradation, and fear that is undeniably present in some parts of sex work, but if she wishes to end it, let her stand with me against austerity, and the indignity of so much of the labour of women. Let her stand with me for decriminalisation. The abolitionists offer the most harrowing stories of women kidnapped, tricked and drugged into sexual slavery, and posit themselves as the inheritors of the tradition of Wilberforce, but without a critique of capitalism, the coercive force of the market, we cannot end any form of slavery, which, of course, never truly ended at all.
I am a Marxist because I understand that the taboo, the marginalisation and the othering of sexual labour is not intrinsic, like the mass of a thrown rock. My work exists because of patriarchy, and many feminists feel that the abolition of my work would be a boon for women everywhere. But it is a misguided feminism that would jail and terrorise sex workers, and would sacrifice our safety, freedom and livelihoods for the empty trophy of a raided brothel. The carceral ‘feminism’ of the elites has no problem with raiding a brothel and forcing its occupants into a sweatshop to sew. But a socialist, intersectional feminism must listen to the voices of sex workers, rather than ignoring them and treating them as symbols. While American courts divert sex workers into faith-based programs, sex workers themselves organise to share safety and screening information. Surely we could do even more to improve our working conditions if police and society stopped targetting us.
I acknowledge that my work is privileged relative to that of many other sex workers. But as a Marxist I understand that if they are not free, to choose – or to not choose – sex work and to organise for better working conditions, than neither am I; and the ultimate freedom and safety of sex workers lies in our work being viewed as work. Millions upon millions of workers all over the world, the overwhelming majority of whom are not sex workers, work in appalling conditions under a greater or lesser degree of coercion. There are, in fact, many millions of actual slaves – more than there have ever been – and the vast majority work in trades other than sex work. The Whore Imagined is often a standard bearer for campaigns against modern slavery, but the solution to modern slavery, even that part of it that does involve sex workers, is not – as the rescue industry would claim – to criminalise the sale or purchase of sexual services. The solution may be a number of things, all of which would be wholly unacceptable to a mainstream government. What would end the scourge of modern slavery? For a start, a radical re-thinking of borders and migration, so that those who migrate for work have all of the rights and services that citizens have. Add to that a dramatic increase in the powers of trade unions and the full decriminalisation of sex work, without the restrictive legalisation of places such as Germany, which has merely subjected sex workers to the oppressive regimes of massive brothels. And a fundamental part of the solution would be a sustained effort to end poverty, starting with a guaranteed minimum income.
I hold out little hope that the traditional Left – in all its forms, from the Labour Party to anarchism – will wholeheartedly embrace the movement for sex worker rights any time soon. There are many leading voices in the sex worker rights movement who distrust feminism and anything that smacks of the state, and they are well advised to be wary; the Whore Imagined has made too powerful an imprint on the consciousness of the Left, and on its notions of its intellectual history. Dworkin invoked her when she said,
Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple … In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women's bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It's impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after.
And even those feminists who claimed to be more sympathetic to Marxism, like Gayle Rubin and Catherine Mackinnon, essentially wrote out class, condensing it into a mere attribute, rather than a dynamic relationship within society. As Brooke Beloso said in her 2012 paper, ‘Sex, Work, and the Feminist Erasure of Class’,
Absent Marx’s conceptualization of class as a dynamic relation under capitalism, feminists writing about sex work in the wake of MacKinnon and Rubin generally fail to distinguish between woman-as-laborer and sex as “the particular product of individual labor”. Instead, feminists tend to conflate the two, everywhere seeing prostitutes as victims who always happen to be women (or girls) but never workers.
Although there were many close alliances between the sex worker rights movement and the mainstream feminist movement during the early days of second wave feminism, the later predominance of essentialising ideas about sex work within radical feminism has broken that alliance. Today’s sex worker rights campaigners often use the language of intersectional feminism and privilege theory, and make their case in terms of social and economic justice, but, even in this recent year of feminism, the ideas of leading voices like Melissa Gira Grant have remained outside the mainstream. Similarly, even as people campaign against austerity, the issue of sex worker rights has remained on the outer margins.
The fierce, anarchic blessing of our age is the Internet, and through it, sex workers have the capacity to relate to the public without the mediation of activists, scholars or political parties. New York City's Red Umbrella Project recently made international headlines when it conducted a study of Brooklyn courts' diversion program for prostitution arrests; instead of jail it offered mandatory classes, from life skills to yoga. RedUP activists attended court proceedings, monitoring and analysing them, and determined they were racist and persistently marginalising of defendants. With their results they engaged directly in politics, taking for themselves the long privileged role of researcher.
In the UK, sex workers have taken politics by storm, decisively routing November’s attempt by abolitionists to slip the criminalisation of clients into the Modern Slavery Bill. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which spearheaded that effort, is pressing its advantage with a simple pledge in support of the full decriminalisation of sex work. They have long had a focus on the relationship between poverty and sex work, particularly for single mothers, and they hope that their campaign, aimed at trade unions, will make visible the broad support for decriminalisation, and will force a difficult but necessary debate. They’re already seeing some results; in his personal capacity, Austin Harney, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) representative to the Ministry of Justice, told the ECP:
It should never be in the interests of any Trade Union to allow the lives of sex workers to be endangered, especially as they are entitled to pay, terms and conditions in line with the human rights of all employees. Criminalising clients will, only, exacerbate the limited safety of sex workers who could face life threatening attacks in the criminal underworld and be subjected to false arrests by the police who are supposed to protect the innocent. Sex Workers are of no threat to society and should be welcomed to stand in solidarity with all communities that are facing destruction in an age of austerity!
Meanwhile, much of the Left’s been left behind. While the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and even some elements of the Labour Party have moved forward on the issue of sex worker rights, alliances like Left Unity and individual revolutionary groups are still debating whether sex work is work or not. By lending credence to outmoded ideas about the essential awfulness of sex work, they strengthen conservative moral panics and contribute to the marginalisation of sex workers as well as ignoring the voices of some of the people most affected by austerity. The Left hopes to take inspiration from the unprecedented victory of Greece's SYRIZA, and their successful election strategy of drawing connections between different types of marginalisation. But even SYRIZA has shown itself lacking on issues such as LGBT rights; while it has promised to open up civil partnerships, it backtracked on the issue of adoption by LGBT people. It remains to be seen whether Syriza will backtrack similarly on sex worker rights. That the British Left largely ignore or dismiss sex worker rights is a missed opportunity, but that ignorance will not stop us from making the connections ourselves. It is my belief that sex workers can rebuild the Whore Imagined in our true image, without the guidance of any sage or party.
Since I walked away from the organised Left, I have never done so much politics. Sex workers, and many others, are finding that we can build real world community, and effective campaigns, through the ferment of social media. Supporters of Monica Jones, a black trans woman who was arrested for ‘manifesting prostitution’ in 2013, built an international campaign that incisively exposed the intersections of race, class, trans identity and sex work. When the charges were overturned on appeal, her campaign victory had left a strong and organic network in its wake, with a politics and a feminism that is decidedly radical, with a robust critique of austerity. The brilliant upsurge of sex worker resistance to the laws and moralities that would criminalise us is a part of a broader resistance to austerity, but it remains to be seen whether the global movement against austerity will acknowledge sex workers as full comrades in that struggle. I am a part of both worlds, both movements, but in my hope that feminism and the organised Left will let go of the Whore Imagined and embrace the struggle for sex worker rights, I am a Marxist.
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*I owe this concept to Melissa Gira Grant's essential Playing the Whore
, whose most powerful concept is "the prostitute imaginary."