A Celebration of Whores at Work – On Being a “Good Ally” and Supporting Workplace Organising (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.

By Vita.

Aotearoa’s sexual services industry is yet again in the international media spotlight, this time because our country’s sex work lobby-group, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, described New Zealand as “the best country in the world” to work as a sex worker.  Given this quaint pride that Aotearoa is now world-famous happy hookers as well as hobbits, it’s not surprising that activists and progressive thinkers are examining our collective understanding of how a commercialised exchange of sexual services for money fits in with our beliefs surrounding class, power, labour relations and the commodification of sexuality and human bodies.  What’s disappointing is that this rhetoric seldom goes beyond arguments that classify prostitution as empowerment and that every sex worker lives the life of glamour portrayed in Secret Diary of a Call-Girl, pitched against tropes of trafficking, under-aged workers, poverty and drug and alcohol dependence.  

The quiet, but genuinely exciting truth, is that while (often male-presenting) activists argue on internet about whether there will still be demand for transactional sex in a post-revolution utopia, in private homes, street-front brothels, escort agencies and hotel rooms, sex workers are on the frontlines of negotiating complex power dynamics all across Aotearoa.   Every day, sex-workers use their bodies and minds to provide companionship and pleasure to another human-being, usually a total stranger, within a set time-frame.  Whether the individual workers who do this are empowered or victimised, working by ‘choice’ or coerced, or occupying the myriad of grey areas in between, sex workers do extraordinarily skilled work that demands a labour of both body and mind.

Despite this, many activists, while arguing that their problem with sex work, and by extension sex workers, lies not in moral prudishness but in an ‘objective’ assessment of power relations under capitalism between men and women.[1] Aside from such an ‘objective’ analysis overlooking the way that gender, race, class and other situated perspectives inform the power relations in every working environment (and seemingly overlooking the fact that many sex-work providers are men or trans* workers, and that many service consumers, particularly of pornography, are cis-women), it attributes a ‘false-consciousness’ to sex workers – that at a fundamental demographic level, sex workers lack the ability to understand the power dynamics they work under, and continue to perpetuate their own oppression.

Such a patronising attitude towards a group of people whose job literally relies on subverting the power dynamic of human’s entitlement to sex would be endearingly funny if it wasn’t coming from a group of people supposedly committed to supporting workplace organising.  If you, as a person who is committed to worker’s struggles, understands that the fast-food worker is the person who best understands the nuances and dynamics of his/her work-site, and that that person, in conjunction with other fast-food workers, is the best person to organise and agitate for change in that particular site and in the industry as a whole, then you can extrapolate that sex workers should not be dismissed as having ‘false consciousness’ or ‘lacking true understanding’ when they talk about their working lives.

As activists who want to support all workplace self-determination and organising, I believe there are two things very simple things we can do to support sex workers.  The first is to support a model of full-decriminalisation of prostitution – where the transaction of sex for money is legal, and not the so-called Swedish/Nordic model, which criminalises the client/purchaser and therefore drives the entire industry underground and submits the transaction to police regulation.  The second of these is to listen to sex workers – with studies estimating the number of prostitutes/escorts alone at between 40 and 42 million,[2] it is simply inexcusable for sex worker voices to be missing from activist debates about sex work.  If we cannot find allies to speak to and educate our movements, the onus is on us to examine ourselves for why this may be.

[1] See, for example Lisa Macdonald et al. “Is Sex Work Just a Job like Any Other? A Contribution to the Discussion” Socialist Alliance no. 1 April 2015 < http://www.socialist-alliance.org/&gt;

[2] Gus Lubin, “There Are 42 Million Prostitutes in the World, And Here’s Where They Live” Business Insider, 28 Jan 2012 <http://www.businessinsider.com.au

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