The socialist anthem “The Internationale” begins with the words, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation/ Arise ye wretched of the earth.” The song was written for the exploited workers under international capitalism, and few workers are more reviled, more “wretched,” than sex workers.
The term “sex work” is fairly new, having been coined in 1978 by activist Carol Leigh. A sex worker refers to people who sell sexual labor in exchange for money or other resources. It’s an intentionally broad term, covering stripping, porn work and camming, amongst other things. This column, however, will mainly focus on prostitution, an activity illegal pretty much everywhere in the U.S.
The criminalization of prostitution does nothing but endanger and impoverish the estimated one to two million prostitutes in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of whom are women. Proponents of criminalization are usually arguing from a religious standpoint and therefore can be dismissed out of hand. Religious tyranny has no place in government.
Harder to ignore are so-called feminist arguments against sex work and prostitution. There are some who call themselves feminists who support criminalizing sex workers, clients or both. They say the sex trade is exploitative and misogynistic, so they want the armed agents of the state to crack down on it. As we all know, police officers are the most famous feminist allies (not).
In all seriousness, these “feminists” are right in that the sex trade is exploitative and misogynistic. The average prostitute is physically attacked approximately once a month. Globally, sex workers have a 45-75% chance of experiencing sexual violence on the job. And as for law enforcement? One New York study found that 30% of street workers had been victims of violence or threats of violence from the police.
Moreover, nearly 11 percent of transgender people reported having participated in the sex trade, and sex work is even more dangerous for them.
Here is an example that illustrates the dangers trans sex workers face. In 2014, trans sex worker Jennifer Laude was murdered by a U.S. Marine in the Philippines. During his trial, the killer said he initially didn’t know Laude was trans and invoked the “trans panic defense” – a legal strategy in which a defendant blames the victim’s gender identity for the former’s violent actions. The strategy was successful, and the killer’s sentence was reduced by 27 years.
So, the point is taken about the violence and degradation of the sex trade. That Jennifer Laude was among the wretched of the earth is indisputable. But abolishing the sex trade cannot be done through incarceration.
A problem that this brand of feminism has — and it is important to note many other feminists disagree with criminalizing sex work and prostitution — is that it doesn’t listen to the voices of sex workers themselves and why they do what they do. Sex work is work, and it’s done for material reasons. To abolish it requires abolishing the material conditions which give rise to it.
Many sex workers are trying to feed their children and pay their rent. They are trying to pay off their student loans. And some of them are simply trying to escape the alienation and drudgery of an ordinary workplace – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Opponents of sex work might admit that prostitution is in fact work, but that it’s simply bad, exploitative work. This position is untenable. All work under capitalism is exploitative, much of it is unproductive, much of it is harmful. We should be criminalizing the Exxon Mobile executive and not the prostitute if we had any sense of so-called “good” work versus “bad” work.
The position of socialist feminists like myself is to decriminalize prostitution. This is our position not because we believe the sex trade is good, but because we believe workers having rights is good. As it stands, sex workers experiencing violent clients, or hostile landlords, have no legal recourse to go about fixing it lest they risk being convicted of a crime.
We believe prostitutes accessing labor rights will materially improve the lives of women especially and make their jobs safer. But ultimately, we wish to see an end to the sex trade, and decriminalization alone will not solve the problems women face. Socialists have long argued that to abolish sex work means abolishing the capitalist system which makes it an economic necessity for desperate people.
In their book “Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Work,” sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith write that, “To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.”
But all of that is a big political project, and in the meantime, decriminalization is the best and most immediate thing we can do to improve the lives of sex workers. But don’t just take it from me. I’m an outside observer. It’s important to listen to sex workers themselves and read their books; the one listed above is a good one. Today, sex workers are the wretched of the earth – soon enough, I hope they will be free.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and political science.