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.