One of the fundamental premises of sex-positivity is that prostitution should be called “sex work.” In doing so, they hope to normalize prostitution as just another kind of work, and thus proving that abolitionists are misguided.
Sex-positive leftists are special offenders, simply because they should know better. Being against work in a capitalist society, calling prostitution “sex work,” and yet being pro-“sex work,” is just baffling. The contortions people will go through to defend prostitution and pornography can be quite incredible.
The Jacobin is a leftist news site which I used to read regularly, until I was made aware of this article trying to frame the issue of “sex work,” by Laura Agustin. Her efforts are, if anything, considerable. Unfortunately, things turn sour before they even begin:
Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious. Efforts to repress, condemn, punish and rescue women who sell sex rest on the claim that they occupy a place outside the norm and the community, can be clearly identified and therefore acted on by people who Know Better how they should live.
This is a bizarre claim. 90% of women in prostitution say they want out: don’t they know better how they should live? Or does Agustin think that her perspective is the only valid view on how prostituted women should live?
The belief that they occupy a place outside the norm is not part of the abolitionist position, but it is part of the “sex work” position. The fact that they feel intellectually safe in gaslighting prostituted women (by calling the violence done against them a form of work) and not, for example, rape victims who are not prostituted women, shows how little they actually think of prostituted women.
Is the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex obvious? It’s certainly far more obvious than sex-positive advocates want us to believe. Their ambiguous attitude towards rape, sexual slavery and verbal violence against women, amongst other things, proves that they are utterly unable to make the difference between harm and non-harm. They are in a state of complete non-confront and, like all people who are in such a state, they must find a target, any target, as long as it’s the wrong one.
So let us skip ahead now to the justification for the term “sex work.” As it turns out, Agustin uses the same old story that people who use and abuse prostituted women are just lonely joes who need some good healthy sex, with a dose of “women do it too!”. When you read this, keep in mind that, like anyone else expounding a political position, Agustin has to establish a narrative which triggers the right feelings and frameworks in other people’s minds.
The partner wanting sex and not getting it at home now has to choose: do without and feel frustrated? call an old friend? ring for an escort? go to a pick-up bar? drive to a hooker stroll? visit a public toilet? buy an inflatable doll? fly to a third-world beach?
People of any gender identity can find themselves in this situation, where money may help resolve the situation, at least temporarily, and where more than one option may have to be tried. Tiring of partners is a universal experience, and research on women who pay local guides and beach boys on holidays suggests there is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex…
We don’t know how many people do what, but we know that many clients of sex workers say they are married (some happily, some not, the research is all about male clients). In testimonies about their motivations for paying for sex, men often cite a desire for variety or a way to cope with not getting enough sex or the kind of sex they want at home.
There is a lot to unpack here, because this is where the whole narrative of prostitution is being set up for the rest of the article. Once you accept this narrative of johns as good folks who just aren’t getting enough sex, you’re primed to see prostitution as “sex work,” fulfilling a need, providing a service, to the poor sex-starved men.
The first interesting point is that the narrative both relies on gender stereotype (men are sex-starved) and goes against gender stereotype (women do it too!). Actually, both these maneuvers have the same aim: to normalize johns. If women do it too, then it’s not just deviant men doing it (women, according to the stereotypes, are more pure and less depraved, unless they are prostitutes); and men are doing it because they are not getting enough sex at home (from women, presumably, so it’s still women’s fault), not for more deviant purposes.
So we start with a man who’s not getting the sex he wants and is faced with a choice. Note that of the options listed, three involve prostitution, most of them adultery; there’s also one option missing, the one that most men would naturally go to because it’s simple and does not involve an exchange of money: masturbation.
An interesting omission, no? But it fits perfectly well with the prevailing pro-prostitution argument that men physically need sex and will try to get it through any means. People want orgasms because they feel good, but no one, man or woman, physically needs sex. No one has ever been in poor health, fallen ill or died from not having sex. No man’s health depends on access to hookers, escorts, glory holes or third world slaves.
The last paragraph seems to act as a confirmation of the narrative. Agustin reiterates that many johns are married; it is true that johns are roughly similar to the general population, but that does not confirm the narrative presented. Agustin also says that johns “often” don’t get enough sex at home. What percentage is “often”? One thing we do know is that insufficient sex is only the third most frequent reason for johns to frequent prostituted women.
Just so I’m clear, I am not saying that Agustin’s writing of a narrative is particularly sinister: everyone either does it or invokes an existing narrative, no matter what your political position. But all narratives can and should be deconstructed, because we are prone to accept what we can imagine without critically examining it.
The first thing you should think when looking or hearing a narrative being used is: how typical is it? The speaker may be making up a story that has little connection to the reality of the situation. The second thing you should think is: who is being designated as the “good guy” and the “bad guy”?
Having established her narrative of the poor married but sex-starved john who’s just looking for some sex, any sex, Agustin examines the question of whether sex is necessary… and concludes that it isn’t.
The argument against sex work as reproductive labor is that sexual experiences, while sometimes temporarily rejuvenating, are neither always felt as positive nor essential to the individual’s continued functioning. Humans have to eat and keep our bodies and environments clean but we don’t have to have sex to survive: the well-being produced by sex is a luxury or extra. Sex feels as essential as food to a lot of people, and they may be very unhappy without it, but they can go on living.
I’m not sure what the point of that whole section is. But at least there’s one pro-prostitution advocate who doesn’t lie about men needing sex, so that’s nice.
So when is she going to justify “sex work”? Well, here it is:
The variability of sexual experience makes it difficult to pin down which sex should properly be thought of as sex work. My own policy is to accept what individuals say. If someone tells me they experience selling sex as a job, I take their word for it. If, on the contrary, they say that it doesn’t feel like a job but something else, then I accept that.
And there you go: the answer is that it’s entirely subjective. If a woman identifies as a sex worker, then she’s a sex worker. This is a wonderful demonstration of the complete departure from reality people must take in order to defend prostitution.
In real life (not in pro-prostitution la-la-land), whether someone is a worker or not is not subjective. Who is a service worker, a factory worker, an IT worker, is not determined by subjective self-identification. We don’t take scam artists at their word when they say they’re doctors, businessmen or lawyers. We determine that by looking at what people actually do for a living.
It’s rather bizarre that a supposedly leftist group would put out such a desperately bourgeois liberal piece of nonsense.
But she continues to tell us how to determine whether we feel like we’re a worker:
* I organise myself to offer particular services for money that I define
* I take a job in someone else’s business where I control some aspects of what I do but not others
* I place myself in situations where others tell me what they are looking for and I adapt, negotiate, manipulate and perform – but it’s a job because I get money
Presumably Agustin classifies “sex work” as being in the third category, or so we are left to imply because she certainly does not. So now we get classifications; whatever happened to “I take their word for it”?
Either way, is that what we’re supposed to believe? “It’s a job because I get money?” Slaves sometimes get money. Pets have been known to inherit money. People on welfare get money. Are slavery, being a pet, and welfare jobs?
Agustin may reply that it is not only the “getting money” part that makes a job, but the “adapt, negotiate, manipulate and perform” parts as well. But this is exceedingly vague. What does that mean in reality? What is the prostituted woman adapting to? What does she manipulate? What kind of performance makes it a job?
Here’s one last quote:
To imagine that the worker is always powerless because the client pays for time makes no sense, since all workers jockey for control in their jobs – of what happens when and how long it takes. This is a simple definition of human agency.
You may have noticed that I chose this quote because of the word “agency.” I’ve already discussed how the term “agency” is inherently reactionary and a more sophisticated way of blaming the victim. Agustin telegraphs this by claiming to refute the position that the prostituted woman is powerless, therefore you know she’s going to blame prostituted women. If prostituted women “jockey for control,” and then get abused, it must be a result of their failure to successfully “jockey for control.”
It’s hard to make sense of the view that all workers “jockey for control.” Capitalist businesses thrive by treating workers as resources which can, within limits, be controlled spatially and temporally. In most mundane jobs, a worker “jockeying for control” would be considered a nuisance at best, and mentally deficient at worse; if such behavior persisted, she would be targeted for firing. Agustin seems to live in a state of total unreality regarding most jobs.
But most workers do not have to worry on a daily basis about being raped, beaten or killed. Prostituted women have to negotiate because their lives depend on it. Nothing to do with “work.”
I think the argument has been more than adequately debunked at this point, but I do want to come back on the fact that Agustin admitted that men do not need sex.
That is a huge admission which, in my opinion, tears apart the pro-prostitution argument. Without it, there is no more pragmatic justification for the violence and abuse inherent in prostitution; if it doesn’t serve a basic need, then why does it exist?
Equating it with work does not help the case, since we do question the existence of many forms of work which do not serve human needs, not just “sex work.” And for a leftist, calling something work should make it particularly suspicious, not the opposite! But it seems that, by some magical process, leftists forget all their arguments against capitalist labor when they talk about “sex work” (for a satire of this, see the comic I put as the header of this entry).
I would even go so far as to say that sex-positivity is greatly harmed by denying the validity of male sexual entitlement, since it seems that a lot (not all, by far, although the rest is not much better) of sex-positive talk consists of women adapting themselves to male sexual entitlement. But to be fair, sex-positivity is such a vacuous ideology that it’s hard to imagine it being even less justified than it already is.
“An important aspect of the school is certainly the range of ages and interests represented in a community of under a hundred people, similar in size to a traditional extended family… The student population goes from seventeen right down to five years old. The structure provided by Summerhill includes both the democratic form of self-government and a hierarchical structure of social expectation by age. This pluralistic variety of age, sex and interests helps keep the school from being what Margaret Mead once asserted that it was, a ‘tyranny of the community’ over the individual.” (from the Editor’s Introduction)
“At Summerhill we have proved, I believe, that self-government works. In fact, the school that has no self-government should not be called a progressive school- it is a compromise school. You cannot have freedom unless children feel completely free to govern their own social life. When there is a boss, there is no real freedom. This applies even more to the benevolent boss than to the disciplinarian. The child of spirit can rebel against the hard boss, but the soft boss merely makes the child impotently soft and unsure of his real feelings.”
“There is a great amount of good fellowship and love in humanity, and it is my firm belief that new generations that have not been warped in babyhood will live at peace with each other- that is, if the haters of today do not destroy the world before these new generations have time to take control.
The fight is an unequal one, for the haters control education, religion, the law, the armies, and the vile prisons. Only a handful of educators strive to allow the good in all children to grow in freedom. The vast majority of children are being moulded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.”
“Many psychologists believe that a child is born neither good nor bad, but with tendencies towards both beneficience and criminality. I believe there is no instinct of criminality nor any natural tendency towards evil in the child. Criminality appears in a child as a perverted form of love…
Crime is obviously an expression of hate. The study of criminality in children resolves itself into the study of why a child is led to hate. It is a question of injured ego.
We cannot get away from the fact that a child is primarily an egoist. No one else matters. When the ego is satisfied, we have what we call goodness; when the ego is starved, we have what we call criminality. The criminal revenges himself on society because society has failed to appreciate his ego by showing love for him…
It is only thwarted power that works for evil in a child. Human beings are good; they want to do good; they want to love and be loved. Hate and rebellion are only thwarted love and thwarted power.”
“Teachers from Israel have told me of the wonderful community centres there. The school, I’m told, is part of a community whose primary need is hard work. Children of ten, one teacher told me, weep if- as a punishment- they are not allowed to dig the garden. If I had a child of ten who wept because he was forbidden to dig potatoes, I should wonder if he were mentally defective. Childhood is playhood; and any community system that ignores that truth is educating in the wrong way…
We must allow the child to be selfish- ungiving- free to follow his own childish interests through his childhood. When the child’s individual interests and his social interests clash, the individual interests should be allowed precedence. The whole idea of Summerhill is release: allowing a child to live out his natural interests.”
“Possibly the greatest discovery we have made in Summerhill is that a child is born a sincere creature.”
“I might define myself as a true believer in humanity. My message has been this one; a child’s emotions are infinitely more important than his intellectual progress. I have tried, with I fear little success, to show that schools, by ignoring emotions, leave them to outside influences, the press, the kitsch of radio and TV, commercial TV ads, a plethora of magazines geared to a mentality of ten. Teachers cannot see the wood behind the trees, the wood that means life abundant, freedom from character moulding.”
“Many people believe deep down ‘If children have nothing to fear, how can they be good?’ Goodness that depends on fear of hell or fear of the policeman or fear of punishment is not goodness at all- it is simply cowardice. Goodness that depends on hope of reward or hope of praise or hope of heaven depends on bribery…
There is no case whatever for the moral instruction of children. It is psychologically wrong. To ask a little child to be unselfish is wrong. Every child is an egoist. The world belongs to him. His power of wishing is strong; he has only to wish and he is king of the earth. When he is given an apple his one wish is to eat that apple. And the chief result of mother’s encouraging him to share his very own apple with his little brother is to make him hate the little brother.
Altruism comes later, comes naturally if the child is not taught to be unselfish; probably never comes at all when the child is taught to be unselfish. The young altruist is merely the child who likes to please others while he is satisfying his own selfishness.
By suppressing the child’s selfishness the selfishness becomes fixed. An unfulfilled wish lives on in the unconscious. The child who is taught to be unselfish will remain stuck being selfish through life. Moral instruction thus defeats its own purpose.”
“We adults were corrupted in infancy; we can never be free about sex matters. Consciously, we may be free but I fear that unconsciously we remain to a large extent what conditioning in infancy made us.
The taboos and fears that fashioned sex behaviour are those same taboos and fears that produce the perverts who rape and strangle small girls in parks, the perverts who torture Jews and Negroes.
In Hitler’s Germany, the torture was inflicted by sexual perverts of the Julius Streicher type; his paper Der Sturmer was full of vile, perverted sex long before concentration camps were erected. Yet many fathers who berate the sexual perversity of the prison sadist do not apply the same reasoning to their own minor sadisms.”
“Religion says, ‘Be good and you will be happy’, but the adage is truer the other way round: ‘Be happy and you will be good.’ Forty-five years of Summerhill has convinced me that the latter version is the true one. Happiness is the right of all children, and it is evil to give them a hard life in order to prepare them for a life that may not contain much to make them happy. For too many parents still believe that a child is born in sin and has no right to happiness, only to mercy- when it repents. One cannot be bound and happy at the same time. The necessity for a child’s happiness should be the first tenet of all educational systems. A school should be judged by the faces of its pupils, not by its academic successes.
A recent visitor said to me, ‘Why don’t you teach your pupils about the life of Jesus, so that they will be inspired to follow in his steps?’ I answered that one learns to live, not by hearing of other lives, but by living; for words are infinitely less important than acts.”
“An incident that occurred at Summerhill during a spontaneous acting class one night emphasizes a child’s natural sense of reality if his reactions have not been warped by fear.
One night, I sat down on a chair and said: ‘I am St. Peter at the Golden Gate. You are to be folks trying to get in. Carry on.”
They came up with all sorts of reasons for getting in. One girl even came from the opposite direction and pleaded to get out! But the star turned out to be a boy of fourteen who went by me whistling, hands in pockets.
‘Hi,’ I cried, ‘you can’t go in there.’
He turned and looked at me. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are a new man on the job, aren’t you?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘God,’ he said, and went whistling into heaven.”
“I personally have nothing against the man who believes in god- no matter what god. What I object to is the man who claims that his god is the authority for his imposing restrictions on human growth and happiness. The battle is not between believers in theology and non-believers in theology; it is between believers in human freedom and believers in the suppression of human freedom.
The battle for our youth is one with the gloves off. None of us can be neutral. We must take one side or the other: authority or freedom; discipline or self-government. No half measures will do, the situation is too urgent.”
“Why have not more Christians followed the path of their master? Roman Catholic and Protestant schools have long been beating boys as if Jesus had said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me and be beaten.’ Can anyone imagine Christ beating a child? Catholics and Protestants give tacit support to our inhuman prisons and our cruel laws. I often wonder how much juvenile crime stems from the disillusionment of children taught scripture at home and in schools…
I am not going to argue about religion. I could tolerate it if its adherents lived their religion and turned the other cheek and sold all they had and gave it to the poor. I could admire it if the Vatican and Canterbury symbolized the poverty of the life of Jesus instead of parading their golden images and their capital investments. And I just sit and wonder why Christ’s followers became so anti-life, for they are disciples of the man who asked if any man was pure enough to cast out the first stone at a woman of easy virtue. Jesus gave out much love and charity and understanding but among his followers were John Calvin, who had his rival Servetus roasted over a slow fire, and St Paul, who hated women. In fairness I must grant that many a Christian has given out of love and charity, however.
One questioner at a recent lecture said, ‘You are a Humanist. Why don’t you teach Humanism?’ I replied that it is as bad to teach Humanism as it is to teach Christianity. We do not mould children in any way; we do not try to convert them to anything. If there is such a thing as sin it is the propensity of adults to tell the young how to live, a preposterous propensity seeing as adults do not know themselves how to live.”
“Communism was to do away with the one-man show… and it gave us Lenin and then Stalin. It looks as if one-man-ness is a branch of religion. Most people want a god to lean on and follow; most Britishers want a monarch to bow before. The question arises: can humanity ever do without leaders?
I am not a leader. I am a member of a community government. All I can say here is that I dislike leaders of any kind. I should define a leader as a man who is primarily self-centered, seeking power for its own sake. My reward is not praise, not a title, not followers, it is the simple one- joy in having done a job with all my heart and energy.”
“When such a challenger comes along, society will destroy him, as it did Homer Lane or Wilhelm Reich. It did not destroy Freud primarily because it could not find a valid reason. Both Lane and Reich were accused of crimes and made to appear in court, and therefore to society they were wicked men. It is the mud that sticks. Even today Oscar Wilde is rarely the brilliant and kindly wit; too often he is the homosexual.”
“But how can anyone be free when we were all moulded in our cradles? Freedom is a relative term. The freedom we think about in Summerhill is individual freedom, inner freedom. Few of us can have that inner freedom. In our school freedom means doing what you like so long as you do not interfere with the freedom of others. That is the outer meaning, but deeper down we strive to see that children are free internally, free from fear, from hypocrisy, from hate, from intolerance.”
“In fifty years of free children I have detected not only an absence of the competitive spirit, but also a total indifference to leaders. One can reason with free children, but one cannot lead them. True, my pupils lived in their own herd, but not with leadership.
A headmaster can be, indeed is, a father-figure but no child can make its school self-government a father-figure. I say that the future success of the world will come from the rejection of the father, the crowd leader. Most people accept father and mother, meaning that the great majority joins the Establishment, the anti-progress and usually anti-life [anti-vitality] majority. Our school systems, whether capitalist or Communist, foster this early moulding of the masses because wolf leaders are tough and powerful and ruthless, and their main aim is to kill and eat. In the human herd we have it in replica. The wars for gold or whatnot, the takeover bids which often make thousands unemployed, the bludgeoning of the young by sadistic cops. If the people were free such barbarities could not live.”
“It is of more value to understand children than to love them.”
The fanatical opponents of radical feminism are always trying to coin new words to further attack, marginalize and slander radical feminism. First there was TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and now there’s SWERF (sex work exclusionary radical feminists).
Now the term TERF is easy enough to understand. Radical feminists are trying to make female-only spaces, which are, as history proves, the main means of female liberation. Anti-feminists must therefore attack these spaces with urgency, and they do so by accusing radical feminists of “excluding trans people.”
I do want to point out that, although the term is used as a slur, the accusation is partially correct. Female-only spaces must exclude trans women, even though they call themselves women, because they were socialized as men and therefore still think and act like men. The aggressiveness with which they threaten and attempt to silence women is a testimony to that fact. They cannot cooperate with radical feminists because they were born with male privilege and have no understanding of it.
It’s also important to point out that regardless of it’s origins, “terf” is used to demonize women who prioritize women. End of story. Women deserve spaces free of males, and apparently we deserve to die for saying that?
The incorrect part lies in the assumption that there are some radical feminists who are “trans exclusionary,” which seems to posit a distinction between those and the radical feminists that aren’t (“trans inclusive,” one assumes). To my knowledge, apart from a rare unicorn (as unlikely as it seems, there are trans people who claim to be radical feminists), the latter simply do not exist, which makes the attempt to divide-and-conquer all the more puzzling. Who are these “trans inclusive” radfems who must be differentiated from all the others?
The use of the term “exclusionary” is very matter of fact. It is therefore puzzling to me why it was chosen as a slur. Any movement must exclude people, otherwise it wouldn’t be a movement. The radical feminist movement must exclude people who were raised as men, if it is to be a feminist movement at all.
Unlike anti-feminists, I do not feel particularly vexed by this fact: in fact, I’d be rather worried if radical feminism was not “exclusionary,” because no movement can survive by incorporating its enemies. Liberal feminism accepts with open arms rapists, pedophiles, pimps, porn directors who spread HIV and other STDs to women, and other women-haters, therefore it cannot fight for female liberation.
So now we have a new term, SWERF, which stands for sex work exclusionary radical feminists. This is a much more muddled term than TERF, for many reasons. First, there is no such thing as “sex work.” Prostitution and pornography are not “work,” insofar as “work” does not involve exploiting people’s bodily integrity (and any job that does is just as evil). Therefore using the term “sex work” assumes as its premise the validity of the exploitation of women’s bodily integrity.
But most importantly, no radfem wants to exclude female prostitutes or porn actresses from female-only spaces, from feminism, or from anything else, by virtue of being prostitutes or porn actresses. So the slur, in this case, is simply false; there is no such thing as a “sex work” exclusionary radical feminist.
The term SWERF, I think, comes from the following rhetorical attack used by anti-feminists: radical feminists claim that “sex work” is the exploitation of women’s bodily integrity; this is a personal slight against “sex workers”; therefore radical feminists are against “sex workers.”
If you don’t see the problem with this attack, then compare this with the following “reasoning”: libsocs claim that wage labor is unjustifiable and exploitative; this is a personal slight against employees; therefore libsocs are against employees.
The “reasoning” is preposterous because it equates an attack on an unjust system with an attack on the innocent people who are trapped in it. In fact, the opposite is true: attacking an unjust system is an act of solidarity with those people who are trapped in it. It’s incredible that such a large number of people have been indoctrinated so thoroughly that they believe fighting a system of oppression means fighting its victims. Here we’re going beyond the province of lying and into the state of delusion.
Radfems support the Swedish model against prostitution and sex trafficking, which consists of decriminalizing prostitutes, helping them integrate society, and criminalizing pimps and john. Since 90% of prostitutes want to leave their situation, they should be helped in doing so: anything else is a direct silencing of their voice, and supporting the system that keeps them trapped is violence against women.
This makes it even more ironic when anti-feminists claim that radfems don’t listen to prostitutes’ voices. What they really mean is: radfem don’t listen to pimp organizations when those organizations preach the legalization and the moving indoors (out of prying eyes) of rape and abuse. But radfem do listen to the voices of the ex-prostitutes who speak up against the rape and abuse inherent in prostitution. To pimps and their anti-feminist supporters, those voices must be silenced at all cost.
The terms TERF and SWERF are used by the most hateful anti-feminists, the vast majority being male, out there. Do not mistake these people for innocent bystanders. Their objective is clear: to silence women, prevent the continuation of female-only spaces, and by doing so destroy feminist awareness.
It has been a historical constant that every time women come close to understanding the nature of their oppression, they must be isolated, gaslighted, invalidated, told to practice thought-stopping, and so on. Women’s issues must be compared to other issues and declared trivial, a waste of time, made-up, or even the proof of “female privilege.”
And yes, I include trans advocates in the anti-feminist category. As fanatical genderists, trans advocates are guilty of participating in gendered oppression.