Sex Work: Moralism, Markets & Marxism

The issue of sex work and how it should be treated by society has long been controversial, particularly on the Left. While generally rejecting the conservative view that sex workers are themselves immoral (and filthy, dangerous, evil, etc.), progressives and liberals of various stripes have nevertheless struggled to find a common approach. Even in feminist circles, radically different views continue to clash on this subject. Meanwhile, as academics and activists debate morality, sex workers continue to be faced with violence and exploitation.

This is where the socialist – or more accurately, Marxist – approach to sex work becomes relevant.

It would be impossible to talk about every single political approach to sex work there is, but I think it’s fair to identify two broad streams of thought. In their extreme forms (which are common), they go like this:

  • [The Moralistic Approach] All sex workers are inherently victims. All sex work is inherently violent. There is no difference between sex trafficking, prostitution and pornography.
  • [The Market Approach] There is a clear distinction between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. Sex workers have agency and choose to do the work they do. Sex work is just another capitalist market.

Proponents of the former view (frequently radical feminists) favour a variety of solutions; many support laws that criminalize sex work, some support laws that semi-decriminalize it (like the Nordic model), while a few support fully decriminalizing it. Proponents of the latter (frequently sex workers or activists) generally favour decriminalization.

Both approaches present certain problems.

The flaws of the criminalization approach – including the Nordic model, which “only” criminalizes paying for sex – are fairly obvious: it utterly fails to protect sex workers, pushing their work underground and making them much easier to harm and exploit, stigmatizes them on a personal/cultural level, and even normalizes violence against sex workers (since it doesn’t distinguish between sex work and rape). Decriminalization allows for regulation, safety standards, legal recourse in case of violence, and has many other benefits that make a sex worker’s life safer and easier. Moralists who condemn sex work may argue that this normalizes an abusive practice, but not only do they utterly fail to account for women’s agency, they also fail to account for the fact that trying to ban sex work simply doesn’t stop it. Thus we have to ask ourselves whether the goal is to actually protect women – or to perform a ritual of public condemnation to prove one’s progressive credentials.

The second approach, while certainly far less hypocritical, does come with some flaws as well. In a capitalist economy where the basic rights of people are not guaranteed, where unemployment is high and jobs are scarce, a person’s choices are not necessarily as voluntary as they appear. When the alternatives are starvation or homelessness (for yourself or your children), freedom is an illusion. It is not a coincidence that increased austerity results in increased sex work: people need work, and when they don’t have a choice, they’ll do sex work as well. That’s not to say all people who do sex work do it for that reason; but it’s impossible to argue that it’s not a common reason. There is a danger of ignoring this aspect of the problem when (justifiably) trying to address the unjust socio-cultural treatment of sex workers.

Proponents of decriminalization disagree on another issue: legalization. It’s possible to get rid of laws that criminalize sex work without actually making new laws that control it specifically. While laws can create health and safety frameworks that make a huge difference to sex workers, some argue that this creates a two-tier system which leaves all those who don’t meet the correct criteria (such as illegal immigrants) in a vulnerable position. This is partially true, but even if sex work is treated as simply another job in the national capitalist system, without any specific regulation, that doesn’t make those particularly vulnerable groups (which, statistically speaking, are often involved in sex work) any safer. That the existing type of nation state is bad at regulating something does not mean that market-based chaos is a better or more humane alternative.

The Marxist approach to sex work is simple in its universality and humanism: the part of “sex worker” that matters to Marxists is worker. Marxism fundamentally rejects any and all attempts to impose moralistic beliefs about sexuality on people, and especially the notion that people should be categorized around such issues in political or socio-economic terms. It’s not that Marxism is pro-sex or anti-sex: it’s that it places the freedom of the individual above such concerns. As far as Marxist theory is concerned, sex workers are doing a job, and the purpose of Marxism is to end the exploitation of all workers, no matter what their jobs are. (Note, however, that “exploitation” here has a very specific meaning: not unfairness or immorality, but the capitalist’s theft of the surplus value produced by the worker. In other words, you don’t get paid for the work you do.) Whether the worker is being exploited by a factory owner or a strip club owner makes no difference – the economic mechanics are the same.

But Marxism also has no illusions in the nation state, and makes no distinction between workers from this country or that, legal or illegal. The scope of its vision is what makes it challenging to implement, but it’s also what makes it actually capable of causing meaningful change. Marxism isn’t trying to help this one group of sex workers as opposed to the rest. It’s not trying to make a moral argument to those in power that they should be nicer to sex workers. It is radically, steadfastly dedicated to the rights of workers, to organizing workers, to giving workers control over their own lives and their own jobs. Its power is precisely in refusing to exclude sex workers, much as it must refuse to exclude illegal immigrants or anyone else whose work falls into a category that makes them easier to exploit.

In the end, the needs of sex workers are the needs of all workers: self-determination, health, safety, leisure, social equality. Will people still choose to be sex workers once they have achieved these things? The Marxist answer is a shrug. Who cares? If the conditions exist for people to be able to freely choose, then it’s not up to anyone to judge them. If they don’t have that freedom, then the only correct attitude towards sex workers is the same we have towards every other worker, from the factory labourer to the programmer: unconditional solidarity.

This universalism is both goal and necessity for the socialist movement. Without rejecting divisions, it’s impossible to build a movement that can seriously challenge the fundamental structure of the global economy. But building this movement based on our common, objective needs is also our very best chance to overcome centuries of propaganda and prejudice. The fact that our lives are so defined by our work is what oppresses us, but it’s also what can free us, what can overcome the walls that have been built between us.

Any movement that calls itself socialist or Marxist that fails to embrace the full radicalism of such a universalist perspective is not only untrue to the systems of thought it claims to stand for, but also doomed to fail.