Sex work, like all work under capitalism, is shaped by exploitation and oppression

BY:Scott Hiley| April 10, 2019

This piece is in reply to Prostitution is not sex work…

The way the argument is framed at the beginning of this piece—exploitative, oppressive prostitution vs. legitimate sex work—gets us off to a bad start.  All work done under capitalism is exploitative, and the vast majority of it is done in conditions shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression.  Sex work—whether or not one considers it to be the same as retail or other wage work—is no exception.  [I will use the term ’sex work’ throughout, precisely to insist that capitalism and capitalist exploitation are part of the problem].

There are two questions here.  The first is whether the sex trade is inherently oppressive and exploitative.  In other words, can we imagine a society—perhaps eventually under socialism, when the material and legal basis of patriarchy has long since been dismantled—where sexual services could be bought and sold in a way that is truly free, fair, and equal for all parties?  On this point, I’m doubtful, especially since paying for sex seems at odds with equality and enthusiastic consent.  It sounds like a libertarian fantasy.

But I also don’t think that’s the most important question.

Whether or not one considers sex work as qualitatively different from other forms of work, the facts on the ground don’t change.  Sex work is done in our society.  Sometimes, but not always, it is done under coercion or threat. Because sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, people who do it face extortion and violence without legal recourse.  Health care inequalities and the right’s war on Planned Parenthood exacerbate the danger even more, especially for low-income people who use sex work to make ends meet.

In other words, sex workers face a concentrated form of the insecurity and violence faced by all workers and oppressed people under capitalism.  That’s why we should include their needs and voices in the class and democratic struggles around sex and work in our society, such as:

—the fight against rape culture and victim blaming, since taking money isn’t the same as giving consent;
—the fight for universal healthcare including full reproductive and sexual health services;
—the struggle for healthy, inclusive, science-based sex education in schools;
—the fight to make food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care basic human rights, guaranteed for all;
—the struggle against intimate partner violence;
—the struggle for community control of police;
—the struggle for the rights of gig (and all) workers.

While the author is right to insist that liberation lies beyond capitalism, which constantly reproduces inequalities, we should be wary of taking demands for equal treatment or progress here and now as a distraction from revolutionary struggle.  In fact, they are the substance of it—the place where the unity and political organization necessary to overthrow capitalism are built.


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