Solidarity: Sex Workers Are Workers, Too!
Politicians, media, pundits and some economists and sociologists must assume, based on what they say, that everyone worth talking about is in the Middle Class. “Middle Class,” in current usage, loosely refers to people who are “not rich; not poor.” What happened to the “Working Class?” Has it been erased? In a Working Class household, people have jobs, and the quality of life in that household is dependent on the income from those jobs. If the loss of one job would quickly diminish the lifestyle in that household, it is Working Class. Most Americans are workers. They may be well educated and highly skilled, they may wear a suit and work in an air-conditioned office, they may even be paid a salary instead of hourly wages, but they work — they are Working Class. Socialists know a worker when we see one … or do we?
Sex Complicates Everything
America is thoroughly sexualized. Our culture places inordinate importance on sex and sexiness. We tend toward the prudish, while maintaining a prurient interest in sexual scandals, sexualized adolescents, pornography, erections and how to get them. Sex confounds us. We cling to fantasies of the “happy hooker,” or the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Still, women and men, Socialists and Capitalists, feminists and misogynists are quick to condemn and exclude sex workers from consideration. Socialist organizations have yet to decide how sex work fits into the concept of “solidarity” or our slogans about the unity of workers.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) formed an industrial union, defined as:
Sex Trade Workers Industrial Union 690
All workers employed as dancers and models, telephone sex workers, actors and other workers who use sexuality as the primary tool of their trade (excluding all agents of the boss class able to hire or fire, or possessing equivalent coercive or punitive power).
When people think of sex work, they usually do not think immediately of models, but prostitutes. The IWW manages to write a definition of sex work that does not specifically mention prostitution. This indicates the discomfort around this topic. We can accept dancers and strippers (who perform sexually provocative acts), models (who display their bodies for income), and even actors in pornography (who have sex for viewing by others) as workers. They rightly exclude pimps, madams and agents, who are the capitalists of the sex industry, and depending on interpretation, may include prostitutes. We would rather not talk about prostitution.
One impediment to a rational conversation about prostitution is that women are primarily the providers of these services, and men are primarily the consumers. In Marxist terms, according to feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, the roles of women are always commodified, and are limited to Mother, Virgin or prostitute. As Mother, she is a “free gift of nature” and persistent use-value. As Virgin, she is entirely exchange-value. Irigaray writes that the prostitute …
… remains to be considered. Explicitly condemned by the social order, she is implicitly tolerated. No doubt the break between usage and exchange is, in her case, less clear-cut? In her case, the qualities of woman’s body are useful. However, these qualities have value only because they have already been appropriated by a man, and because they serve as the locus of relations — hidden ones — between men. Prostitution amounts to usage that is exchanged. Usage that is not merely potential: it has already been realized. The woman’s body is valuable because it has already been used. In the extreme case, the more it has served, the more it is worth. Not because its natural assets have been put to use this way, but, on the contrary, because its nature has been used up, and has become once again no more than a vehicle for relations among men.
Feminist philosophers, like Irigaray, and post-colonial philosophers, like Spivak, agree that while sex workers are a part of society, they are distinctly apart from it. The prostitute is doubly alienated from Capital because she has no power to control the price of the goods she produces, and she produces nothing good. She is sub-proletarian, or in Spivak’s terminology, subaltern (Spivak, 1988), wholly “other” and excluded, having neither subjectivity nor political status. In other words, the prostitute is not a worker, and in fact, she is not quite Human.
Karl Marx, in Private Property and Communism (1844), wrote, “Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer,” and suggested that prostitution must be abolished in order to abolish Capitalism. He viewed prostitutes both as victims of the Capitalist system and as a “complement” to the bourgeois family structure. He expected both prostitution and the bourgeois family to disappear eventually, but he was mistaken. The bourgeois family is now the generally accepted and only valid form of the family. This property-related family model is so pervasive and compelling that many in the lesbian and gay communities are demanding, and winning, the right to adopt it. Currently in the US and the entire developed world, prostitution is rising along with wealth inequality and the political shift toward economic austerity.
Socialist and other leftist organizations have grappled with recognizing prostitution as work. However, as with most aspects of the Human condition, there is no easy answer. Some simply call for criminalizing the purchase of sex, instead of keeping the practice of prostitution illegal. The prostitute is dismissed as anti-feminist (promoting the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies), a non-worker (she “sells her body”), a Capitalist (since she owns the means of production), and not fully Human (she is producing nothing). Such a thing cannot be included.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
Prostitution is often excluded from consideration because prostitutes are assumed to be victims. There is a popular notion that prostitution is dangerous and soul-crushing. This is true. All alienated work is dangerous and soul-crushing. We should recognize that prostitution is an escape from something, rather than progress toward an end. Without exception, the prostitutes I know or know of, including myself, are getting out of something: poverty, abusive homes and relationships, gender and sexual norms, capitalism, or other constraints. Then the goal becomes getting out of hooking, dead or alive, but it is better than whatever we escaped.
I was fifteen-years-old when I turned my first trick. It was a while before I had acquired the terminology, or became aware of the social significance of what I was doing. However, making five times my hourly rate at McDonald’s for a simple sex act seemed like a good deal at the time. Being intersexed and transgendered, I understood that no one would want me anyway. As it turns out, there is a fetish for that! I hooked through college and continued to hook until I was past forty. Prostitution gave me an immediate community, a sisterhood perhaps, of other prostitutes. People talk about rivalries and territorial disputes, but I found the community warm and comfortable. There were rarely disputes, and these were usually handled appropriately. Having a “day job” made me popular with the other girls, as I was the one they would call if they were arrested, because I could post bail. I was never arrested, but I was chased a few times. Outrunning a Chicago cop, while wearing heels, is not as difficult as it sounds. Giving freebies to the beat cops was usually enough to keep the vice cops from bothering us.
We considered ourselves feminists, and some of us would show up at rallies and protests, although sometimes the organizers would ask us to leave. We respected work and workers and never crossed a picket line. No one had to explain to us how toxic inequality is, or how Capitalism and a misogynistic, patriarchal society oppress women. We may have referred to each other and ourselves as “girls,” but we felt empowered and in control of our bodies. However, it is true that we had no control over the price. There was always a “going rate” for our various services, but no one ever knew how that was set, or by whom.
Whether sex work produces any good depends on one’s point of view. “Good,” “bad” or “evil” are subjective concepts attempting (and failing) to describe an experience. Why must the prostitute justify the value of her work? Do workers in mines or on oilrigs have to answer for the environmental damage caused by the products of their labor? Has anyone ever asked my dates if I did them any good?
There was a man whose ejaculate tasted like honey. I had him pee in a cup, and did a quick urinalysis. Somehow, I convinced him to come to my office the next day. (I was working as a Physician Assistant in Family Practice at the time.) I ran some blood tests, diagnosed him with Type II Diabetes, and started him on a course of treatment. There were men who were struggling with problems in their marriages, who felt they had no one to talk to except me. There were men who were suffering with aging and impotence, who complained that their wives just laughed at them, instead of being patient and understanding. There was a man who came to me when his mother died, because he wanted someone to hold him while he cried, and he had no one else to turn to for that. I had a lot of repeat customers. Some of the other girls would tease me, “Samantha doesn’t do dates; she gets married.” Some of those men really “loved” me, and said so. Maybe the “hooker with a heart of gold” is not a mythical creature, after all.
I am not unique, and every prostitute has stories. Some are scary and horrifying, but many are funny, silly, heartwarming, endearing and lovely. Any job or workplace has its good and bad aspects, depending on one’s point-of-view. Being nice to dates is a survival strategy, but it is just the same as being nice to any boss.
Some say that prostitutes sell their bodies. But my body remains mine. The commodity I produce is mostly fantasy, and I work to produce it. I sold my labor and sometimes the work was not pleasant. As a socialist, I view the social relations of my work during the day as essentially no different to those of my work at night. Did I somehow become less than Human after dark? Throughout my days and nights, I remain authentically Human. I do not know what being a prostitute “means,” nor can I say with any certainty. This much, I know: sex workers are Human Beings, and we work!
[Author’s Note: As a writer in Philosophy, I frequently use non-standard capitalization, punctuation and grammar for nuances of meaning or poetic, emphatic or expressive effect. The editors have graciously allowed my stylistic eccentricities to stand.]
Industrial Workers of the World. Retrieved from http://www.iww.org/unions/dept600/iu690 January 12, 2014.
Irigaray, L. (1985). This Sex Which Is Not One. (Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, Trans.). Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University.
Marx, K. (1844). Private Property and Communism. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm January 12, 2014.
Spivak, G. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-313.