Since no job is exactly like any other job, what are we really asking when we ask is sex work “work like any other”?
I think there are two important things that are being conveyed in the statement “sex work is work like any other work.”
The first is that sex work is work, not the sale or rental of the sex worker's body or self (any more than any other work constitutes the sale of the body or self). To indulge in the use of Marxist language, sex workers who work for a boss sell the commodity labour power, as do all wageworkers in a capitalist economy. Their labour power produces sexual services, a personal service commodity different from others in use value (as all commodities differ from each other in use value), but still a commodity like other personal services under capitalism. To skip the Marxist language and put it simply (which to be honest, I prefer), sex workers work for their living, like other wage-workers and self-employed people, and are not selling themselves but their ability to provide a sexual service of some kind(s) to their clients.
The second thing this slogan conveys follows from the first: since sex work is work like other work (and not the sale of self or body any more than any other kinds of work), violence, rape, objectification and disrespect are no more acceptable when directed towards sex workers than they are when directed towards any other workers in any other industry – whether by clients, bosses, police, intimate partners or random strangers.
Like all work in a capitalist economy, sex work exists in a society marred by sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism. Workers are forced by economic need to enter the marketplace to be exploited for capitalist profit and in the course of this they experience alienation. This context – of experiences of poverty and oppression – shapes and pervades sex work just as it does other work,work; it shapes the options available to sex workers like all workers. But it is not the cause of sexism, misogyny and the sexual objectification of women, any more than nursing or social work as professions are the cause of women being cast primarily in caring roles. The preponderance of women in each of these and other industries indicates what kind of roles are generally assigned to women in the gendered division of labour, but is not the primary cause of this division.
Like every phenomenon, this statement can be contradicted. As I began, every job is different from every other job, and sex work is also like this. Mining is different from teaching; dentistry is different from cleaning; sex work is different from working in a textile factory. All have distinct risks, forms that alienation takes, rewards, and pressures to take part. Sex work is like other work in having distinct features. Unlike most work, sex workers are stigmatised; in many cases they or their clients are criminalised; because of the stigma attached to their work and the misogyny and transphobia in society at large, they are frequently the victims of violence, including sexual violence; because of the diversity of human experiences of sexuality, they may find the work itself harmful; they may be excluded from traditional forms of working class organisation like unions. In this, they face a particular form of oppression that makes their struggles for their rights at work harder.
Sex workers who are organising for their rights, in diverse countries with diverse laws, are finding this slogan a useful one for mobilising to organise for and assert their rights. Rather than clinging to a formulation and ways of labeling commercial sex and the workers in the industry that reinforce the stigma sex workers face, and the assumptions that clients, bosses, police and strangers are entitled to perform sexual acts to sex workers without their consent, socialists who wish to engage in solidarity should revisit their theoretical approach and use the formulations found by sex workers to be most useful in asserting their rights.
This approach can be likened to the campaign to end intimate partner violence – a campaign that doesn't locate the problems of intimate partner violence in the existence of intimate relationships, or heterosexuality, but which struggled/s to identify and assert that no matter the origin of marriage as an institution, women do not now accept being male property, and to identify that rape in marriage is a thing: that women don't lose their right to withhold consent to sex by virtue of getting married. In a similar way, locating sex work as work helps sex workers in the practical struggles to end criminalisation, stigmatisation, violence and the other barriers to living with safety and dignity.
A final point is the impact of getting this wrong. We have developed our policy on solidarity with sex workers struggling for their rights in collaboration with sex workers who are members of the Socialist Alliance, and others from the main activist network of sex workers in Australia, Scarlet Alliance. The discussion contribution by comrades Macdonald, Brewer and Hinman was treated as problematic in many ways by these collaborators. Among the numerous issues raised by sex workers concerned about the piece were;
Sex workers are the ones who will fight for their rights, and they'll do it with or without socialists. Socialists are the natural allies of sex workers, since we are opposed to all sorts of exploitation and oppression, and of course we want a world in which sex workers and all workers, women, the LGBTIQA community, Aboriginal people, the poor and marginalised, have full rights and social inclusion. If our analysis and the language that flow from it put us on the opposite side of the barricades to sex workers in their struggles, they should be re-examined, and in this instance, rejected in favour of an approach that strengthens solidarity.