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Are Sex Workers Labor?

[ 100 ] September 25, 2012 |

Wendy Lyon with an interesting piece about the Irish labor movement explicitly excluding sex workers from its definition of labor. It’s hardly surprising, both within the Irish context of discomfort over such matters and within labor writ large excluding those outside of “respectable” forms of work. But it also leaves some of Ireland’s most marginalized workers exposed to danger, violence, and exploitation. I know that recognizing sex work as work means that we are legitimizing the sex trade. But does not legitimizing that trade accomplish anything positive at all?

Comments (100)

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  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Of course they are labor and they should be unionized. But, since Loomis disagrees with everything I ever write I assume he will now argue that they should not be unionized.

  2. Laobaixing says:

    Relatedly, I was talking to a friend who researches sex workers in China, and she observed that most Marxists she talks to have trouble accepting sex workers as labor (This being Western academic Marxists). My sense is that this shows how engrained the stigma against sex workers is – rather than viewing them as labor in need of empowerment, they’re viewed as something entirely separate – whether as helpless victims, or as criminals.

    • Lee says:

      The relationship between Marxists and sex has always been fascinating. The academic Marxists, the ones just involved with theorizing rather than organizing, tend to be Bohemian/Free Lovey in their views on sex. The more activist Marxists, including nearly every succesful Marxist revolutionary, are much more prudish. Some of them were outright Victorian. Lenin and Kollontai had some rather different views about sex.

      • ajay says:

        The more activist Marxists, including nearly every succesful Marxist revolutionary, are much more prudish. Some of them were outright Victorian. Lenin and Kollontai had some rather different views about sex.

        Lenin (born 1870) and Kollontai (born 1872) both had a good reason for being outright Victorian, given that they were actually Victorians.

        • Lee says:

          Very funny. I meant Victorian as a more colorful sononym for prude. Lenin’s attitudes towards teenage sexuality or sexuality in general was more than a little prudish. Kollontai was rather libertine in her views on sex.

        • djw says:

          I know Vladimir’s family was upper middle class and all, but is it accurate to say that “Victorian” norms and mores extended geographically to provencial towns far to the East of European Russia?

          • Lee says:

            Vladimir’s family was actually heritary nobility by virture of his father’s civil service rank. Of course in Russia there were nobles that were basically farmers with titles.

    • bob mcmanus says:

      http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/03/29/prostitution-marxist-analysis

      Marxist Analysis of Prostitution. Workers Liberty, March 29, 2010. Long. by Helen Ward

      “a PR supporter, is a public health doctor and researcher who has worked with sex workers in London and Europe for over 20 years. Together with anthropologist Sophie Day she has researched HIV and other health risks, occupational mobility and life course in sex work, and established one of the largest projects for sex workers in the UK. She is a supporter of the International Union of Sex Workers.”

      Quotes from Marx, Engels, Bebel. Lots of links.

      • bob mcmanus says:

        My first thought is that Capitalism always needs to keep commodity production and social reproduction very separate, in order to aid accumulation.

        Marriage, children, and prostitution (e.g., etc ?) are mystified and decommodified as a means of pushing the costs of social reproduction and control onto the worker.

  3. Murc says:

    I’m curious; how have labor movements dealt in the past with representing/taking into the fold people who work in industries where the only two options in a given locale are illegal worker, and outright slave?

    I know that in many industries (the garment industry and the agricultural industry spring to mind) that sliding scale has extended beyond those two to legal worker; that is, someone whose employment breaks no laws either on the part of themselves or their employers. In those situations my understanding is that generally the moral option on the part of unions and the labor movement in general has been to win greater rights for the legal workers, legalize the illegal workers, and free the slave workers.

    But what do you do when there’s actually no option to become legal workers? I mean, if your entire job is illegal, that seems to make things tricky. I’m in favor of a heavily-regulated sex worker industry, if for no other reason than it would go a long way to eliminating the sex trade, but until that exists, how do you do things like win better working conditions when doing so makes you an accessory to a crime?

  4. Linnaeus says:

    Yes, they are labor. Yes, the sex trade/industry has, to put it mildly, a lot of problems associated with it. But I don’t see how abjecting sex workers will make that situation better.

    • DrDick says:

      There have been efforts to unionize sex workers in Nevada and the Netherlands (and some other European countries, I believe), where it is legal, but these have not been very successful.

  5. Keaaukane says:

    I had never heard of that blog before. You cast a wide net, Sir.

    That said, just legalize and unionize. It is not of the Governments’ concern what I do with my money and that consenting, age appropriate, walrus.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      It’s all about Twitter. That’s now how I find 90% of my links, outside of links to major news sources.

    • Anonymous says:

      In my own mind, there are sort of three tiers of blogs, at least in politics/policy arena.

      You have giant hydra-headed monsters like DKos or Redstate, along with individual bloggers who have absurdly large readership and write professionally for established publications (Greenwald, Sullivan, et al.)

      Then you have the second tier, what I call bloggers blogs. LGM is one of these, as is CT and Radley Balko. These guys don’t have nearly the readership of the huge players, but they’re widely read by people who take the online commentariat seriously and often to linked to and discussed by the bigger blogs. The people writing them are usually professionals or policy wonks of some sort whose day jobs AREN’T blogging.

      Finally you have what I call feeder blogs, what are the second-tier blogs but on a smaller scale. Single-issue blogs (feminism, environmentalism, global warming denialism, fisking a bigger blog, a single sport, etc) blogs run by one person, blogs dedicated to weird shit, blogs dedicated to a single geographic region, etc. This also includes blogs that OUGHT to be second-tier but for some reason never got there; late adopters, people who just never built an audience, that sort of thing. Their readership tends to be very small indeed but they provide, in aggregate, a lot of the “Hey, that’s cool/amazing/interesting” links that float around the internet on any given day.

      This is just in my own head, of course, and far from a formal taxonomy.

  6. Jeffrey Beaumont says:

    The problem here is that unionizing prostitutes does indeed legitimize the work. This is a step toward legalizing the work, making it real and respectable.

    This is a problem because the work in and of itself is probably not so good, physically or psychologically for the workers. If it is legal, and legitimate, then it will be a real employment option. How long will it take some smarmy, up-by-the-boot-straps Paul Ryan type to look at woman applying for WIC or food stamps and ask if she has tried to make a living giving blowjobs? How will that possibly be OK?

    • Xof says:

      This is a problem because the work in and of itself is probably not so good, physically or psychologically for the workers.

      Neither is cleaning toilets for 12 hours a day.

      • Karen says:

        No. Toilets have to cleaned unless we all want cholera. No man ever died becuase he didn’t get a blowjob. Sex workers serve the foulest people on the planet.

        • bradp says:

          Source?

          In high school I worked at a Hardee’s in a small midwestern town, and was regularly tasked with cleaning the bathrooms.

          Those were some foul people (admittedly there may be some overlap between the two groups).

        • Auguste says:

          Speaking of casting a wide net…

          (I’m not here to stand up for a typical “John” who doesn’t give a shit who he exploits and who he hurts. But “sex workers” cover far more than streetwalkers being patronized by men too craven to be responsible with their own sexuality; just to take an example off the top of my head, ask a disability activist whether sex workers sometimes fill a role more than serving the “foulest people on the planet.”)

          • thebewilderness says:

            That is part of the problem. Pimps and traffickers are sex workers according to the pimps and traffickers.
            In OZ the legalization of prostitution saw a dramatic increase of illegal trafficking and slavery.
            Decriminalization appears to work best as seen in the Swedish model.
            So far all of the sex workers unions that have been organized have been what labor organizers call company unions. That is very bad for the workers.

          • DocAmazing says:

            If you consider strippers to be sex workers, check out the Lusty Lady in San Francisco–a worker-owned business (not sure if it’s a cooperative).

        • Xof says:

          Sex workers serve the foulest people on the planet.

          In the exploitation-of-others sweepstakes, I am not sure I would automatically put the customer of a call girl below that of the owner of the typical office-cleaning business.

          • Karen says:

            The owner of the cleaning service benefits everyone who uses the building. Maids and janitors do an unpleasant job that anyone who doesn’t like filth can appreciate. There work enhances human dignity and deserves a decent wage and respect.

            Sex workers, by contrast, do nothing that benefits anyone but their customers and quite often harms third parties by passing STD’s or taking the money Dad spends on lap dances instead of on housing, shelter, or food for his real family. Sex workers who come into the field through coercion, including addicts and abuse victims who turn to prostitution out of desparation, need help to get out. The workers who choose to do that for a living are nothing more than thieves taking money from better people and encouraging bastards to think they deserve a world of subsurvient young women.

            • bradp says:

              The owner of the cleaning service benefits everyone who uses the building. Maids and janitors do an unpleasant job that anyone who doesn’t like filth can appreciate. There work enhances human dignity and deserves a decent wage and respect.

              Why don’t the users of the building’s facilities clean up after their own filthy damned selves?

              Why is it more acceptable for someone spread their biological filth in public areas and pay people to clean it up than for someone to pay a person for sexual service in private?

            • spencer says:

              The workers who choose to do that for a living are nothing more than thieves taking money from better people

              But I thought you just said their customers were the foulest people on the planet.

            • Xof says:

              The workers who choose to do that for a living are nothing more than thieves taking money from better people

              Emphasis added. Better people? Really?

              I would guess, just from this comment, that you have never actually met or interacted with a sex worker, since it is clearly important that they be The Other here.

              And “Dad”? “Real family”? My goodness.

            • herr doktor bimler says:

              Sex workers, by contrast, do nothing that benefits anyone but their customers

              My bar-tending friends have a sad.

            • wengler says:

              Now this is the strong point-of-view I was looking for. You are completely wrong, but thanks for making it.

              Sex work is high-paying, unskilled work that is mostly done by women. Now of course the pay is relative to who you are and who the customer is that you are serving, but for the time involved it can be extremely lucrative.

              Rather than castigating prostitutes, it would be rather more helpful to set up a regulatory environment in which they are safe from violence and disease. The nature of the industry makes it less likely to be unionized, but all workers could use some protection.

      • L2P says:

        Paul Ryan stump speech, 2016:

        “She’s too good to earn her money like an honest American, [insert graphic sex act], so why should hard-working taxpayers give her food stamps to feed her children?”

        I dunno, to me it sounds worse than “make her clean toilets.” And I’ve spent two summers cleaning toilets.

    • JL says:

      IIRC that happened in one of the European countries (Germany?).

      The thing is that stigmas don’t go away because people declare that they’re gone, anymore than something like racism does. Even if sex work is legalized and sex workers are unionized, it’s going to carry a harmful stigma (and, I would expect, often-poor working conditions) for quite some time, and so it’s unreasonable to pretend like there’s no baggage attached to it (not that what is reasonable is much of a constraint on Paul Ryan).

      I do think that sex workers are labor and should have access to unionization.

      Xof also makes a good point but I don’t feel the need to reiterate it.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      If all work that is potentially unpleasant or exploitative can’t be “labor,” there’s not going to be a lot left to unionize.

    • mpowell says:

      Yeah, this is a problem. I think assymetric decriminilization is the right way to go. This is something like what they do in Sweden, I think.

      • Lee says:

        How is the Swedish experiment in partial legalization working?

        • Xof says:

          The Kvinnofrid law wasn’t partial legalization, except in a very particular use of the term: It made the selling legal, and the buying illegal.

          The evidence has been highly mixed. The National Board of Health and Welfare has reported, to date, that there has been no significant decrease in prostitution overall.

          • Wendy Lyon says:

            Which is only logical, since it doesn’t address the reasons people go into sex work to begin with.

            Sex workers themselves in Sweden and Norway are pretty much adamant that the law has had negative consequences for them – driving the industry underground and thus making it more dangerous, deterring only the “normal” clients but not the dangerous ones, and forcing them to accept dangerous clients and risky practices because of the loss of income. I’ve blogged extensively about this; check out the “Sweden” and “Norway” tags on my page.

      • AcademicLurker says:

        This is not a subject I follow closely, but my impression from reading discussions on various feminist blogs is that the Swedish Model is not uncontroversial in terms of whether it really improves matters or not.

        That said, it would probably be better to hear from someone who actually knows something about the subject (i.e., not me).

        • L2P says:

          The issue isn’t so much whether it improved matters in Sweden; the evidence is kind of mixed, although it appears that prostitution has decreased and there’s pretty strong evidence that street prostitution decreased. The bigger, and completely unanswered, question is whether Sweden’s model can be used outside of the Nordic countries.

          We’ve tried doing similar things in California with diversion for first and second time defendants, but it didn’t have any noticeable effect. San Francisco tried it for several years, and (except for some VERY IMPRESSIVE statistical wonkery in the first year) had zero change from strictly enforcing 647b’s.

          The nutshell version is that in California at least that there so many men willing to pay for sex that the only effective way to address it was by arresting the prostitutes. (Male prostitution never seems to be that big a problem for some reason – maybe that’s a problem all on its own.) You would be shocked at the Johns we can pick up in a 2 hour operation. Or maybe not.

  7. bradp says:

    I know that recognizing sex work as work means that we are legitimizing the sex trade.

    Why should it not be legitimized? It isn’t the trade itself that is a problem.

  8. njorl says:

    I suppose they run the gamut from unskilled labor, to skilled labor, to craftsmen, to professionals. They should have a mix of unions, guilds and trade associations.

  9. bradp says:

    And if the question here is about unionization we are getting as fundamental as rights get, and I don’t see why classifying something as labor or not is even relevant.

  10. Fake Irishman says:

    The real question is WWNKD? (What would Nicholas Kristof do?)

  11. Wendy Lyon says:

    Hi, thank you for the link, and the interesting discussion.

    To address one of the points that was raised, there is no country I’m aware of in which making sex work legal has led to people being ordered to engage in it or lose their social assistance. There was a British tabloid claim that this had happened in Germany, but it turned out to be no more than a tabloid claim. Similarly, I’m not aware of any US state that’s compelled women to take topless dancing jobs or lose their food stamps.

    It is interesting to note that in Britain, where the prostitution laws are virtually identical to Ireland’s, sex workers are organised under the GMB union.

    • NonyNony says:

      To address one of the points that was raised, there is no country I’m aware of in which making sex work legal has led to people being ordered to engage in it or lose their social assistance.

      To be fair, though, there’s American Exceptionalism to consider.

      We’re some of the biggest assholes in the world when it comes to making (some) people degrade themselves in order to convince us that they “deserve” assistance. So while I think it could take a generation or so for it to catch on, it could happen here.

      Still not an argument for not regulating it though. There are a lot of jobs that are physically and psychologically damaging (like coal mining, for example) and even other jobs that are damaging AND done to people for no good reason other than other people’s pleasure (like football, for example).

      • Lyanna says:

        I have heard people in the US griping about homeless women begging on the streets, because hey, they have a gold mine between their legs! So what are they doing bitching about it?

        However, we do ban jobs for being physically and psychologically damaging and for being dangerous to the public heath, especially if they have no great redeeming social value. We don’t ban ALL such jobs, but we do ban many of them. So I do think a ban on sex work (at least, prostitution) is a good idea, provided that prostitutes themselves aren’t arrested. Coal mining theoretically has enormous social value for energy production (though yes, you could say it’s not enough to outweigh the environmental damage or worker safety issues), and football doesn’t directly affect nearly the same number of people that prostitution does–it’s not by any means a pervasive public health issue.

  12. thebewilderness says:

    The average age of entry into prostitution is 14.
    The euphemism “sex worker” includes the legal and the illegal, the willing and the unwilling.
    I can’t quite bring myself to call a 14 year old prostitute a sex worker. Can you? Nor the 50,000 people trafficked into the US every year for slave labor in brothels and sweat shops “workers”. They are slaves.

    • NonyNony says:

      Regulation would actually help with that in many cases (though not all).

      And declaring it illegal and not regulating it certainly hasn’t made much of a dent in stopping it.

      • DrDick says:

        Legalization and regulation will never eliminate all of the problems, but it could reduce them and make things better for many of those involved. as you say, prohibition simply does not work, whether it is alcohol, drugs, or sex.

        • Lyanna says:

          Eh. I wouldn’t equate sex work to drugs or alcohol. It’s more like other types of labor that are banned for worker safety reasons.

          I think “prohibition doesn’t work and therefore we should legalize it” is inaccurate as an across-the-board assumption. Especially since, with respect to sex work, we have a possible solution that’s not quite prohibition or legalization–i.e. the Swedish decriminalization model.

        • L2P says:

          Prohibition absolutely does work. It’s not 100% effective, but it certainly works. We don’t say that the prohibition on rape “doesn’t work” because some people still get raped every year. We don’t say that the prohibition on bribery “doesn’t work” because people get bribed every year.

          That’s a different question from “is prohibition a good idea.” If the costs of prohibition (including the difficult of enforcement and ineffectiveness of enforcement) aren’t worth it, than it might be a bad idea. If there’s good things from what you are prohibiting, than you might want to reconsider.

          Prostitution is . . . difficult. From everything I’ve seen, it’s much more harmful to participants than exotic dancing, and (despite what you might think) 647b arrests are easy and plentiful. You can enforce the law, if not perfectly. I think it’s far from clear that you can regulate it in any meaningful way that will do anything except make some privileged few better off.

          Reasonable minds can differ.

          • wengler says:

            There is no blanked prohibition on prostitution in the US. It is legal in several counties in Nevada, which I should note means its more legal than restricted drugs. Rape isn’t legal in any part of the United States.

            Furthermore, it should be recognized that sex trafficking and sex work is not the same thing. One is a horrible unjustifiable crime and the other is a way to earn a living.

        • DrDick says:

          To Lyanna and L2P:

          I was using “prohibition” in terms of trying to legally ban vice, which demonstrably does not work. The demand for and profits from it are simply too high. I do not necessarily favor legalization (I am ambivalent about the issue), but what we are doing now is definitely not working and establishes the conditions for greater abuse and exploitation of the women. FWIW, I have known a few sex workers (one was my sister-in-law).

    • DocAmazing says:

      Like any form of prohibition, abuse thrive in the dark. Legalize (or decriminalize), regulate and inspect, and you quickly pick up on abusers.

      Bootlegging hasn’t been a huge problem in the US since the late thirties, n’est-ce pas?

      • thebewilderness says:

        Prostitution works the opposite way. If it is legal it gives rise to even more illegal prostitution and trafficking as can be seen by what is happening in Oz. Partly because law enforcement no longer needs to concern themselves with prostitution at all since it is legal. Mainly because the consumers or the johns if you will do not want what is for sale legally.
        Child porn and child prostitution.
        Porn being legal has not reduced the amount of child porn.

        • L2P says:

          That’s true, but more importantly licensing and regulation all limit supply.

          For example, a large city may license only 30 establishments for prostitution, and offer only 100 independent licenses for “at large” work. That’s similar to a proposal that was made for exotic dancers in Los Angeles. Obviously, there will be more than that much demand for paid sex. So there will be unlicensed and unregulated prostitutes out there.

      • L2P says:

        Bootlegging in what? Alcohol, no. Cigarettes, yes. Prescription drugs? Hells yes!

        Alcohol hasn’t had a big bootlegging problem because legal booze is cheaper than illegal booze and you can get whatever you want legally. There’s no money in it. Cigarettes have a bootlegging problem b/c illegal cigarettes are slightly cheaper. Other things have even worse bootlegging problems because the price difference between legal and illegal products is even greater. Bootleg viagra is a thriving market.

        So look at a similar industry like exotic dancing. That’s legal now. But you can get an unlicensed stripper. Do a web search and she’ll come right to your house in 30 minutes. And you can probably get more than a show (wink wink, nudge nudge) which a licensed place wouldn’t allow. And they don’t get a place to change or rules about getting touched or have bouncers to make sure they don’t get beaten up. What makes you think prostitution is going to be different?

        So which way is prostitution likely to go? Given how things work in the only market I know (LA), we can probably look forward to a thriving black market, a “gray” market of putatively legal operations that will have plenty of abusive crap going on under the table, and some regulated stuff going on that is basically legit. That’s basically how all other vice stuff works, and I have no idea why anybody thinks prostitution will be any different.

        Legalization and regulation might help solve some problems, but prostitution is likely to be an ugly, dehumanizing, nasty business no matter how regulated it is.

    • Malaclypse says:

      The average age of entry into prostitution is 14.

      I’m willing to bet that a country like the Netherlands, which has both legalized prostitution and a functional safety net, particularly for children, has a different statistic than this.

      • Lyanna says:

        I would take that bet–apparently the Netherlands has had a significant increase in black-market prostitution, specifically because many want underage prostitutes.

        • wengler says:

          No, it’s because tourists want to take advantage of the Dutch’s sensible approach to the issues of prostitution of cannabis by having Vegas-style blowouts.

          The best thing about prohibition is that it allows you to conveniently lump everything into one category and then throw it away on some place like Amsterdam.

      • thebewilderness says:

        Sorry Mac, that is in the US, and the age at entry has gotten younger year by year.
        I’m unsure of the stats in other countries, but I am guessing they are about the same.
        Keep in mind that is the average age at entry.

    • Chuchundra says:

      Almost all the stats put forward by anti-sex worker advocates are either based on some very dubious methodology or completely made up.

      Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science

      In fact, the group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.

      “We pitch it the way we think you’re going to read it and pick up on it,” says Kaffie McCullough, the director of Atlanta-based anti-prostitution group A Future Not a Past. “If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate—I mean, I’ve tried to do that with our PR firm, and they say, ‘They won’t read that much.’”

  13. Heron says:

    I’m not sure if sex-work as labor is really that conducive to unionization. Public opinion regarding the nature of sex-work is pretty far off-base. Honest, procedurally rigorous academic studies on the topic have shown a very different picture than that produced by moral scolds and crusaders; sex-work(the exchange of sex for money) across all income-levels is far more common and varied than widely believed, trafficking is largely insignificant outside of a few trouble-spots(Turkey, Russia), sex-work is less class-work than time-of-life work(by which I mean, less poor people take up prostitution out of desperation than young people take up prostitution for good early pay and new experiences), most prostitutes -rather than being ran by a pimp- are self-employed, and the male-male side of prostitution is far more robust than people often realize.

    That isn’t to say being a prostitute is a bed of roses. Prostitutes face a greater exposure to abuse and disease than most workers, if wronged by a client they lack any practical recourse to legal redress, given the nature of the work -spending an hour or more in seclusion with an individual or individuals they don’t know- they are frequent targets for violent criminals, and there’s always the authorities to worry about as well. Of course, all of these dangers are far more significant for the small minority of sex-workers who actually street-walk, and Brothel-work mitigates some of these dangers, but it obviously adds the negative of direct labor-exploitation in establishments not run as co-ops(and those are more common than you’d think).

    My point though is that most sex-workers -whether rent-boys, call-girls, escorts, or “sugar babies”- are self-employed in some manner or another. When prostitutes organize they tend to do so as policy reform movements seeking better public health policies and some manner of official recognition so they can benefit from legal protections. Labor organization, going back to when the old guild system started to break down, has always been about getting a fairer shake for the people actually doing the work from the people who handle the money; employers are necessarily middle-men, and they gather rents from their choke-point-position like middle-men always do by taking a bigger slice. In an industry that’s mostly self-employed, that problem doesn’t exist.

  14. Dave says:

    Prohibition of most activities that people want to do because they’re fun is ineffective – people still hold dog-fights, fer crissake.

    Where activities don’t involve non-consenting participants: Legalise, regulate, and focus police resources on the real exploitation that will continue to take place around the edges – that goes for sex-work, gambling, ‘the war on drugs’, and most other stuff you can imagine. Unionisation of work in these areas is then the same as in any other.

    Thinking you can ‘defeat’ any one of of these, let alone ALL of them, betrays a complete ignorance of history, anthropology, and pretty much any other evidence-based study of actual human behaviour.

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