Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines, Talk to Me About Workers’ Rights! A Call to Action for Socialists from a revolutionary hooker

Greta de Graves

 The question of how to relate to sex workers (in this article, I will use the term ‘sex worker’ to refer to workers in commercialised sexual encounters, including, but not limited to prostitutes, strippers, go-go dancers, and pornographic actors of all genders) has been a topic of contention for many Marxist and other radical activists, and the New Zealand left has not been exempt from this struggle.  The rationales that I have heard as to why the left is often ambivalent towards sex worker struggles are diverse, ranging from “all commercialised sex is inherently sexist and politically incorrect – it is a tactical mistake to ‘normalise’ sex work” to “sex workers are unintelligent and non-political – it would be a waste of our time and energy to politically align ourselves with them.”

Such attitudes (voiced to me by experienced and hard-working activists) are in direct conflict to my experience as a sex worker.  My experiences that lead me into the sex industry conformed to every sad stereotype prevalent in popular culture – I was left in a huge amount of debt at the break-up of an unhealthy relationship, and was struggling to come to terms with the suicide of a close friend.  I experienced poor mental health and was unable to find work that would allow me to pay off my debts and fit in with my existing job and study.  I felt depressed, un-attractive and had a low sex drive.  I didn’t believe that anyone would ever love or even sexually desire me – a crazy, neurotic failure – ever again.

And then a friend told me that she was thinking of working as a prostitute – and it occurred to me “well, why couldn’t I do that?”  While I had a fairly sheltered upbringing, I had always had a fascination with what I perceived to be the glamorous “underworld” that sex workers occupied.  Of course, the reality proved to be far different.  In my experience, the vast majority of consumers of commercial sex in New Zealand can only be described as normal. Of different races, different personalities, different apparent socio-economic and educational backgrounds, different ages, some married, some single, but none of them the type society would classify as “deviant,” or who would arouse suspicion in their friends, families and colleagues that they paid for sexual services.

 While the circumstances that saw me beginning to work as a sex worker conformed to stereotypes of the woman in desperation – my experience of doing sex work has been completely different.  To make myself completely clear; I enjoy being a hooker.  I make enough money to support myself, I have overcome a huge amount of shyness and self-esteem issues, I feel comfortable with my body, and I feel appreciated and fulfilled in my work.  I have met some fantastic people in the sex industry – workers, pimps and clients.

That is not to glamorise or gloss over the bleak realities of this job, of which, even in a country such as New Zealand where sex workers have their legal right to work recognised, there are many.  A life-style of quick cash and unstable incomes.  Violent clients, misogynist clients.  Rape.  Debasement.  The experience of intense social stigma when your job is discovered by friends and family members.

These stress-trigger problems are exacerbated by the working environments experienced by sex workers.  Imagine every time you showed up to work, your boss demanded that you pay a small amount for the privilege of working for him – say $30 each time you worked, ostensibly to cover the materials necessary to do your job.  Now imagine that each shift you worked was a minimum of 9 hours long (sometimes up to 12 or 13 hours) without a system of formalised breaks, and that you weren’t allowed to leave the premises to get food, pick up your kids from school, or make a phone call.  If you got sick, or had to leave because of childcare or other family commitments, you had to “buy-out” of your shift, no matter how legitimate your excuse.  That you were pressured into performing unsafe and illegal acts by your employer on a routine basis.  That your employer insisted that you were an “independent contractor” and thus not covered by work-related ACC, not able to have tax deducted by PAYE, not able to join a union, not automatically signed up to Kiwisaver, and not able to secure a wage for all those hours you spend sitting around waiting for clients.  These aren’t third-world horror stories touted by anti-trafficking activists, but commonplace occurrences in brothels in Wellington, New Zealand.

This is why, whatever our views on the commodification of sex, of the objectification of human bodies, that we should align ourselves with sex workers.  It is our political responsibility to ensure that New Zealand sex workers are entitled to the same benefits as any other New Zealand workers – the right to take rest breaks, the right to be part of a union, the right to work in an environment in keeping with OSH guidelines, the right to a fair and transparent disciplinary and disputes process, and the right to say no to any person or practice in their jobs that they feel violates their physical or emotional safety and well-being.

Sex workers provide services to people with disabilities, people with mental health problems, married people, single people, lonely people, sex addicts, and many others.  To dismiss this work as unimportant, and to refuse to stand in solidarity with sex workers, is a disservice to working men and women everywhere.  While perhaps an uncomfortable reality, the fact is that sex workers are mothers, daughters, brothers, fathers, sons, sisters and fellow activists, and for too long, many on the left have refused to acknowledge this.  For too long, the left has ignored the realities of working life for women and men who work in the sex industry – because the idea of commercialised sex makes them uncomfortable, or because they do not see sex work as a valuable form of work.

Beginning a discourse between activists and sex workers around worker’s rights is a difficult task.  When talking to sex workers, it is important to treat us as any worker – self-organising, politically aware and self-determinate, not as passive victims.  Don’t equate sex trafficking, a real problem of local and international significance, with legal and consensual prostitution – just as you wouldn’t equate coerced/slave forms of domestic work with compensated domestic work.  The commodification of sex and sexuality that exists under capitalism is manifested in transactional sex – but it is not limited to the sex industry, and it is as offensive to suggest that individual sex workers are contributing to their own oppression by practising sex work as it is to suggest that any worker who works for a capitalist boss contributes to his/her own oppression.

So long as activists continue to ignore and minimise sex workers’ struggles, the status quo continues.  The New Zealand Prostitute’s Collective, while advocating for the rights and safety of sex workers as well as providing practical help such as access to condoms, medical care, clean needles for drug users etc, can only place so much pressure on major sex industry operators while they are under-resourced and operating in isolation.  To stand in solidarity with hookers, strippers and porn stars, we must put aside our preconceptions of sex work and the people who practice it, and stand together for a culture that is anti-rape, pro-education and queer-positive, where all workers can demand safety, fair treatment and solidarity.

3 Responses to Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines, Talk to Me About Workers’ Rights! A Call to Action for Socialists from a revolutionary hooker

  1. Maia says:

    Thanks for this post. I think it’s great to see someone engage in anti-sex-worker arguments from a Marxist point of view. Usually during these debates I start waving my hands and shouting “It’s not that I disagree with anyone’s particular view on sex, it’s that I agree with everyone’s view on work.”

    I do have one hesitation about the language used. I’m really not sure about the use of the term “legal and consensual prostitution”. We don’t talk about consensual argricultural labourers, consensual factory workers, or consensual university tutors. Consent is a term that is grounded in the analysis of sex, not the analysis of work (certainly not Marxist analysis of work). Using it in this context seems to be making quite a specific claim that suggests paid work can be consentual in a structural way. Isn’t there better language to describe sex-work that only uses the same level of coercion as other paid work than ‘consensual’? (I generally stick with ‘sex-work that only uses he same level of coercion as other paid work’ - because I feel that that’s making a political point - but I’m sure there are snappier ways of saying it).

  2. Joel says:

    I think Maia has got into a point that I have been trying to get at, she’s just got there more clearly than I have. I think there is a much more nuanced discussion that can develop out of here. Starting from a point of not blaming sex workers for being sex workers in the same way we don’t blame workers in general for being workers. There are multiple aspects to sex work and the issues of consent, sex and wage labour all converge in a particular way. I’m not saying that buying an hour of sex is somehow less pure than not paying. It just sets up a bunch of contexts that operate both within and outside the technical framework of the wage labour relation.
    Something to ponder.

  3. Maia says:

    I deliberately tried to limit my comment to a semantic question, rather than opening up to much larger theoretical debates.

    The strength of this article is that it it focuses both on ‘what is to be done’ and on how socialists (and I would argue radicals more broadly) can stand in solidarity with sex workers. You can have very different answers to the theoretical underpinnings of sex-work, but still support the jist of its article.

    I find the questions about the interaction of a feminist understanding of meaningful consent, and an analysis of the coercive nature of work under capitalism (how I see the key questions - obviously how you see the key questions is a political statement) to be quite fundamental. However, for sex workers, those debates are not abstract. There are so many people, many with positions of power, who use discourses about coercion and exploitation to try and criminalise sex workers and make their lives worse (and at the moment the ‘re-criminalise poor sex-workers’ bill is still on its way through the house). A discussion about how to be in solidarity with sex workers does not have to become a discussion about Johns. And I don’t think it’s useful that it does

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