Prostitution is not sex work. Let the Party stand behind women’s liberation, not oppression.

BY:Lowell B. Denny, III| April 1, 2019

A raucous debate persists in social media and in the pages of many political magazines. It persists between radical feminists with good intentions. The debate is whether prostitution is a scourge of exploitation against women by capitalist patriarchy or something to be organized as a workforce with trade-unions. The former call the phenomenon prostitution; the latter deem it sex work.

My radical feminism informs me that this is a scourge, and that a communist party that truly believes in liberating women [and men] from the chains of capitalism and exploitation must come out squarely opposed to prostitution as an equally abhorrent phenomenon as chattel slavery or child labor.

My radical feminism, and the radical feminists who’ve influenced me, inform me that the advocates of so-called sex work have lost their way.

How did they get there, and what do the anti-prostitution proponents want to remind all of us about?

The first- and second-wave radical feminists who fought for women’s liberation against capitalism struggled in a very different labor force than the recent feminists, which I more or less date after 1980 and Ronald Reagan. Those earlier, pre-Reagan radical feminists, who comprise over a 100 years of struggle, faced legal and cultural bans from the traditional labor force. Their labor force was not even recognized as such by the broader community. The Communist Party should be proud that up until the Popular Front period, it provided the terrain for women and men members to explore these liberatory tactics [unfortunately, the Popular Front diversion silenced this counter-cultural, anti-patriarchal narrative and turned on women members who dared push it]. I refer to traditional labor force because as the earlier radical feminists will remind you, so-called “women’s work” was integral to the labor force and moreover it was free labor [see Selma James, Silvia Federicci].

The traditional labor force was dominated by men, be it the farm or the factory. Women were barred from these areas and whatever meager status that came with it. Even those women who fought their way into higher education to attain medical and law degrees faced legal boundaries.

It is in this context, which persisted into my lifetime, that prostitution was viewed as a social evil because it showed in great contrast how women had to resort to selling their sex for wages with no other recourse. I used to have to remind my high school students that a single woman, living in many major cities of this country, could not rent an apartment or purchase a car in 1970 without the co-sign of a male relative.

The post-1980 radical feminists have struggled in a different world. Civil Rights laws have broken down the legal barriers; in fact, many have been demolished and whereas affirmative action has had a bad rap for Black and Brown people, its greatest beneficiaries have been women. Women are now in every sector of the labor force and are even CEO’s or major weapons manufacturers.

The question is now: is this breaking of barriers an advancement or a regression? The first- and second-wave radical feminists argue this is a further regression. And I agree.

But it is within this context that the post-1980 radical feminists argue on behalf of sex workers instead of struggling to upend it. The post-1980 radicals see this as just another of the spaces women deserve equality.

We first- and second-wave radicals would argue that the exploitation has just been more generalized. This is why radical feminists, like early heroines Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Sylvia Pankhurst, or later ones like Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin, argued against fighting for Equality. Further, this is why gay liberation’s prouder days also argued against it. None of us wanted access into capitalism but rather its obliteration, or t find ways outside of it [see Harry Hay].

The post-1980 radicals are actually accommodationists. If you understand and accept the construction of femininity [Greer] within a capitalist patriarchy, this is the reactionary image that prostitution/sex work promotes. This is what we still teach our little girls [and our little boys]. The post-1980 radical feminists miss this fact and argue that sex workers are like any workers: they are like retail workers having to sell their labor.

I maintain if we argue that sex work is work on that level we as a communist party are promoting a gender role that was invented by men to disadvantage women.

Of course, everything in this narrative has to contain the parenthetical that it references the white world. The labor forces mostly referred to are white. Within Black and Brown communities, Black women have always worked and for many more years than not our labor, both male and female, was unpaid labor. Worse, the horrors visited upon Black women’s bodies by white settlers is domestic terrorism; the fact it was unpaid is inconsequential at this point. And first- and second-wave Black women radical feminists, inside the Communist Party USA and outside, have fought for liberation over accommodation [see Grace Campbell, Williana Burroughs, Claudia Jones, Audely “Queen Mother” Moore, Bea Richards, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde].

The Black and white examples of first- and second-wave radicals are the examples the Communist Party should draw from if it is to garner and maintain a stature of a radical party and not one that further seeks accommodation not only with capitalism and patriarchy but also promoting the gender and racial castes designed by the master class for its subject workers. Opposing prostitution is not equal to vilifying its victims; this is not about advocating incarceration. But we should take a principled, radical position on the range of ways capitalism oppresses women, Black, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Island, and white workers, physically and psychologically. We should always seek liberatory forms, even rhetorically. And of course this includes our discourse around retail workers too.


    Lowell B. Denny, III, has a degree in political science from Washington University. His political education began with his membership in Queer Nation-San Francisco, spending two months of work and study in Cuba in the early 1990s, then three months hitchhiking around Mexico where he got to spend a day in jail, and now living in Hawaii where the sovereignty movement is strong. He has worked in publishing, retail, as a school teacher and restaurant waiter. He is a member of AFGE Local 1234.

Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer