Is sex work just a job like any other? A contribution to the discussion

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By Lisa Macdonald (Sydney West branch), Pat Brewer (Illawarra branch) and Pip Hinman (Sydney Central branch)

The 2014 Socialist Alliance national conference made some changes to our policy on sex work and the women’s rights charter. The changes strengthened our support for the full decriminalization of sex work and affirmed our opposition to the “Swedish model”.

While the changes to the policy were adopted unanimously, the debate was confused as it focused on the rationale for the changes presented by Farida Iqbal, Beck Davies and Kamala Emanuel (“Rationale: Rethinking Socialist Views of Sex Workers”, at:

A particular assertion by the comrades – that sex work as simply a job like any other – generated considerable debate.

This contribution aims to take up that discussion and argues against two key assertions made in the “Rationale”, that:

  • sex work is not necessarily oppressive; 
  • sex work is a job like any other.

In so doing, we are responding to Kamala’s suggestion (Socialist Alliance sex worker rights amendments and women's rights charter) that Socialist Alliance should have a deeper discussion about the relationship between sex work and women’s oppression.

First, a couple of points to avoid some potential straw arguments.

  1. This contribution is not taking a moral stance on any sexual practices or on sex work. It’s about politics and our struggle as socialists for freedom and equality, including between men and women, and striving for a society with the fullest possible choices for all, including in the area of sexuality.
  2. This is not a critique of sex workers themselves. It’s a critique of the institution of sex work based on an analysis of power inequality and oppression specifically in capitalist society, not all other forms of class society. Socialists do not blame the oppressed, whether that is women, people of colour, workers, youth, etc. − we strive to involve them in the struggles for liberation.

Sex work for survival

Around the world, sex work is gender specific: almost all sex workers are women and almost all customers are men. Only a small proportion of sex work is lesbian or trans sex work, and the small minority of sex workers who are men more often service male than female customers.

Sex work arose and continues, not as an expression of womens sexuality, but as a consequence of women’s relative economic powerlessness. This powerlessness is institutionalised in the capitalist family system with its sexual division of labour that makes women responsible for most of the unpaid labour of reproducing workers, and consequently leaves them with fewer life choices and less opportunities for economic independence.

Despite the formal gains for women, made by the second wave of feminism, in workforce participation and better wages, the labour force is still gender segregated, women’s wages remain around 20% lower than men’s in the same job and industry (more than 30% lower in female-dominated industries), and women are adversely affected more than men by the increasing job insecurity.

This is the framework within which Frederick Engels analysed sex work (then referred to as “prostitution”) as the “shadow” of monogamous marriage (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884, at:

Big business

The sex work industry (also referred to as the “sexual commerce” industry) is very big business. A 2014 European Parliament report states that “prostitution revenue can be estimated at around $186.00 billion per year worldwide”.

According to a 2012 report by Fondation Scelles, “prostitution” involves around 40-42 million people worldwide, of which 90% are dependent on a procurer (whether a pimp, a male head of family, a brothel manager or owner, etc.). Seventy-five percent of sex workers are between 13 and 25 years' old.

The European Parliament report states that, “The most conservative official statistics suggest that 1 in 7 prostitutes in Europe are victims of trafficking, while some Member States estimate that between 60% and 90% of those in their respective national prostitution markets have been trafficked. Moreover, the data available confirm that most trafficking in Europe is for the purposes of sexual exploitation, principally of women and girls.” (Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality, European Parliament, at:

With neoliberal globalisation from the 1970s onwards eroding the quality of working-class people’s lives, and women’s lives in particular, the sex work industry increasingly fills poverty gaps left by low wages, the lack of secure, paid employment, and the shortage of social services (child care, aged care, etc.). This will worsen under capitalism’s current austerity drive. In Australia, for example, the federal Coalition government’s efforts to impose a long waiting period before young people can receive unemployment benefits forecasts many more youth being driven into sex work to survive.

In the context of the struggle of many women to keep a roof over their head, feed their children, etc., the stigma imposed on sex workers is profoundly hypocritical. Shaming/stigmatising women who are impelled by the gross injustice of this social system to engage in sex work – sometimes the least worst option available to them – blames the victim and compounds their oppression

Supporting the decriminalisation of sex work and advocating for sex workers' rights is a powerful expression of opposition to society’s stigmatisation of sex workers, and can assist in reducing it.

However, because sex work under capitalism is a product of gender oppression and its accompanying misogynist ideologies, the eradication of the stigma will require fundamental economic, political and cultural change.

Commodification of sex

Alongside economic hardship pushing millions of women into sex work has been an increasing commodification of sex and sexuality as the capitalist marketplace forces its way into the most intimate aspects of our lives.

In 21st century capitalism, the commodification of sexuality is endemic. Sex is used everywhere, to sell everything. Today we have become so used to a situation where all our human needs and desires have been transformed into commodities to be sold for a profit that it seems almost “natural”.

Money can buy anything, including the simulation of love and/or sexual desire. Our ability to experience sexual pleasure is alienated from us and turned into a commodity, which we then desire to consume.

Women, in particular, are alienated from their bodies to such an extent that, alongside the epidemic of eating disorders among women in the Western world, more and more women are prepared to pay for someone to cut and stitch them into a shape they are told will make them more desirable to others.

In 2013, women in the United States had more than 10.3 million cosmetic surgery procedures, 90.6% of the totalfor men and women. This was an increase of more than 471% from 1997 (“The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Reports Americans Spent Largest Amount on Cosmetic Surgery Since The Great Recession of 2008”, at:

In Australia and the UK, labioplasty and vulvoplasty (female genital cosmetic surgery) is on the rise, having increased approximately four-fold between 2000 and 2011 (Women and Genital Cosmetic Surgery, Women’s Health Victoria, 2013, at:

This is the context in which men buying access to women’s bodies for sexual gratification, anywhere, any time, can be “normalized”. Indeed, in a society where everything is made into a product that can be bought and sold, sex work is, in a perverse way, the ultimate “normal” sex under capitalism.

This is illustrated in relation to sex workers in Elizabeth Bernstein’s observation that, “For some women, particularly those operating in the uppermost tiers of the industry, body and appearance were described as ‘company assets’, and their diligent care was calculated directly into the monthly budget.” (Monet, 1994, cited in Bernstein, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex. University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 100).

The changing face of sex work

Globally, it is estimated that 80-90% of sex workers are controlled by pimps.

Within Australia, however, due to legal reforms, brothel-based sex work is much higher than in other countries (First and Third World). The Law and Sexworker Health (LASH) team’s 2012 Sex Industry in NSW: A report to the NSW Ministry of Health ( states that street-based sex workers now represent approximately 5% of the sex industry population in NSW, with approximately 45% working in brothels and 40% working in private premises or as “escorts”.

The report notes that Aboriginal women are disproportionately represented (estimated at 21-23%) in street-based sex work, and there are no accurate figures for the number of women working “independently” in rural and regional areas, such as at truck-stops.

There is increasing documentation that, in the advanced capitalist countries, what some researchers call “middle-class” sex work is growing as a proportion of all sex. Bernstein, for example, documents how white, native-born and relatively class-privileged women have recently found their way into sex work in increasing numbers in the USA and some European countries as a result of global economic restructuring.  She states, “(even in the white, middle-class, upper tiers of the sex industry) incentives for engaging in sex work remain intricately tied to unequal relations of class and gender” (2007, p. 181).

Clearly there are women – particularly in the advanced capitalist countries – who choose to do sex work and who feel empowered by, or at least not unhappy about that choice. However, the perspectives of these relatively organised/safe sex workers do not reflect the experiences of all sex workers.

There is not yet equivalent Australian research, but a 2003 report titled Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, found that:

  • The majority of sex workers had post-traumatic stress disorder on a level comparable to people who have been tortured (68% of 854 people in strip club, massage, and street sex work in nine countries met the criteria for PTSD).
  • 71% of sex workers had encountered physical violence in sex work, 62% had been raped.
  • 85-95% wanted to escape sex work but saw no way out or had no other options for survival.

(Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M.E., Alvarez, D., Sezgin, U. 2003, at:

The nine countries surveyed were Canada, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States and Zambia (not only poor, Third World nations).

In one study of street-based, drug-using sex workers in Miami, 37.4% were classified with moderate or severe anxiety symptoms, and 52.9% had symptoms of moderate or severe depression (“The Connections of Mental Health Problems, Violent Life Experiences, and the Social Milieu of the `Stroll’ with the HIV Risk Behaviors of Female Street Sex Workers”, by Surratt, et al, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, Vol 17(1-2), 2005, at:

In a 2006 Australian study, Roxburgh et al found that 66% of street sex workers in Sydney reported that they found sex work very stressful and just under half met the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cited in the 2012 LASH NSW report).

The research undertaken by the LASH team for their 2012 NSW report found that, “In general Sydney brothel workers enjoyed levels of mental health that were comparable to the general population. However, 10% of the Sydney women were found to be severely distressed on psychological testing (the Kessler-6 scale): twice as often as the general population”. Psychological distress was strongly associated with injecting drug use.

A 2004 article by Potterat, et al in the American Journal of Epidemiology documents the mortality rate of sex workers as 10 to 40 times higher than the average population. One study of 1,969 sex workers over a 30-year period found that violence was the leading cause of death and most violence was committed by clients (“Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women”, American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol 159,Issue 8, pp. 778−785, at:

Between 1990 and 2003, 87 street sex workers in the UK were murdered (Kinnell, H. “Violence and sex work in Britain”. In: Day, S. & Ward, H., Eds. Sex work, mobility and health in Europe. Kegan Paul, 2004).

According to the LASH NSW report, 5% to 10% of brothel-based and private sex workers in Sydney have reported some form of violence in their work, including robbery with violence, rape, bashing and stabbing, and 85% of street sex workers reported violence at work.

Choice and individualism

The notion of sex work as being a job like any other emerged in the 1970s, mainly through sex work advocacy groups in the United States, in particular COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). COYOTE activists argue that, in a world in which all sex is commodified, “erotic labour” is just another service to be bought or sold like any other.

Some advocates of this view go further, arguing that sex work is actually superior to other jobs available for women, with benefits in terms of income, working hours and self-direction.

Farida, Beck and Kamala’s “Rationale” acknowledges that “some people are compelled by economic circumstances into the sex industry, and find it destructive”. But they then argue that “for many women sex workers, the economic independence that comes with the work, the time to do things other than work, and the autonomy of being able to decide/control what sex acts/with whom they participate, is massively liberating in their personal lives. $300 an hour is an enormous amount of money in a society with such a persistent gender pay gap.”

Taking this argument to its logical extreme (Farida, Beck and Kamala do not argue this), female sex workers have also been presented as not just making a better life for themselves financially, but also being subversives and liberationists: "I've always thought that whores were the only emancipated women," says COYOTE founder Margo St. James. "We are the ones who have the absolute right to fuck as many men as men fuck women" ("The Reclamation of Whores" in Bell, L. Ed., Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face. Seal Press, 1987). COYOTE has sought to emphasise sex work as a liberatory leap over the "Madonna"/"whore" divide.

The fact that the choice to do sex work is very much shaped by economic privilege (as well as gender, race and national origin) is revealed in Bernstein’s research.

She states: “For COYOTE’s sex workers … there is a crucial—and only occasionally denied—distinction that is enforced between ‘professional sex workers’ and those who walk the streets. It is not just the distinction between trained professional and unskilled labor that is at stake here, but a fierce reluctance to hover anywhere near (let alone to cross!) the class divide.”

Regardless, being paid very well to conform to the social stereotype of women as sexual objects for sale does not equal empowerment. Neither does a woman’s personal choice to be more financially independent equal feminist practice.

Since the advent of neoliberalism, it has become “normal” to speak about choice in terms of individual, rather than collective, choice.

Further, the postmodernist perspective that has accompanied neoliberal individualism emphasises subjective definitions of oppression (that is, if you think about your oppression differently it is not oppressive) and individual/ “do it yourself” solutions to oppression.

Feminism has not been immune from the influence of these perspectives. Attempts by some feminists to redefine sex work as non-oppressive under certain circumstances has been reinforced by this post-modern, individualistic notion of choice.

This is very different from the notion of women’s empowerment through choice that was campaigned for by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Choice was about freedom from oppression for all women, and indeed all marginalised people. Only conservative feminists, then and now would interpret the notion of choice to be only about themselves as individuals.

The collective (as opposed to individual) rights approach also implies an acknowledgement that individual women’s choices can, in a self-critical feminism, be challenged politically. We fight for women’s right to make choices about their lives, but not for an abstract “freedom of choice” regardless of the impact of the content of those choices on others.

While there’s no doubt that a significant (and apparently increasing) number of women in the wealthier, advanced capitalist countries do choose to engage in sex work rather than doing some other available work, and do not feel oppressed by it, this does not change the fact that the very existence of sex work is based on and thrives on gender inequality and womens relative economic powerless.

The subjective experience of these women is far from an adequate basis to generalise from and understand the fundamental nature of sex work and its impacts on sex workers and women in general.

In the words of Julia O’Connell Davidson (Prostitution, Power, and Freedom, Polity Press, 1998, at: “Those who wish to defend the institution of prostitution often state that there are individuals who enjoy working as prostitutes … I think that we can allow for the possibility that these individuals are providing a faithful account of their own subjective experience without this in any sense undermining the more general argument that prostitution is an institution which founders upon the existence of economic and political conditions that compel people to act in ways in which they would not otherwise choose to act.”

Just as importantly for our purposes as socialists and feminists, some sex workers’ choice to engage in sex work does not challenge or undermine the material conditions that give rise to, or the sexist ideas that justify, the objectification of womens bodies and sexuality.

So, while one woman’s ability to choose to engage in sex work may well represent her feelings of personal empowerment in her own life, it in no way “liberates” anyone but her. Her individual choice does not improve all other women’s job choices, or make the sex work industry empowering of women collectively.

If “choice” is going to continue to be a valuable demand for feminists and socialists, it needs to be posed in collective, rather than individualistic, terms.

False counter-positions and resisting oppression

For the same reasons as we reject the right wing’s stigmatising of sex workers – collectively and as individual women – as “immoral”/”bad” women, we also reject the counter-position that sex workers are somehow free sexual agents who are liberated from conservative norms and have made a positive/empowering employment choice.

This dichotomy is false and apolitical because it obscures the key point: that institutionalised sex work in capitalism is about power, not sex.

The fact is that the demographics and views of sex workers are extremely heterogeneous (see Harcourt, C. & Donovan, B. “The Many Faces of Sex Work”, Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2005, Vol 81, pp. 201−206, at:; and Sarah Ditum, “Who do you listen to?” (

Sex work – wherever it occurs – cannot be understood by generalising from some individuals’ personal experiences and views.

The unequal economic, social and political power of men and women under capitalism, and all the ideologies regarding gender roles that accompany that material inequality, is the framework in which to have a discussion about some practical steps to fight sexism and gender inequality.

Sexual relations that take place outside a framework of “love” or domestic companionship are no less valid than sex within relationships. There isn’t anything inherently “immoral” (across all societal forms) in the employment of an individual to provide sexual gratification for another.

In an historical sense, any type of sexual relation contains potentially empowering, oppressive and morally neutral meanings, and any analysis of sex work has to ask historically contextual questions such as who becomes a sex worker and why, etc.

Under capitalism, deciding to engage in sex work because it pays better money than most jobs available for women and doing so may temporarily solve an individual womans financial problems does not automatically or permanently remove womens economic dependence on men – neither on the individual customers nor on men as a whole.

It is an attempt to find the impossible – an individual solution to a social problem. Neither does it contribute to the struggle for gender equality and a decent income for all.  Our aim, as socialists and feminists, is to strengthen the collective struggle against womens oppression by convincing people that seeking individual solutions is no solution.

Farida, Beck and Kamala’s “Rationale” acknowledges that engaging in sex work is not a strategy for women’s liberation. But they also argue that socialists should refrain from making an assessment that a sex worker who finds their job enjoyable or satisfying, or at least acceptable, is still being oppressed by it.

This is not about judging sex workers themselves, but is a recognition that oppression is an objective social relation in which one group of people is systematically denied economic, cultural and/or political opportunities that are available to another group regardless of whether or not they perceive this as an unequal relation.

Being determines consciousness

Of course, under capitalism all women are constantly exposed to ideas and practices that denigrate them and objectify their sexuality.

However, the degree of impact of these constant assaults on individual womens sense of self-worth is significantly influenced by whether or not they accept or resist their treatment as sex objects.

It is not clear how a woman’s choice to do sex work contributes to that women’s capacity to resist her own and other women’s oppression.

In The German Ideology (1845), Karl Marx explained how our being/life determines our consciousness, not vice versa.

No matter how well a sex worker believes they are “handling it” psychologically, in an unequal and misogynist social structure, choosing to be a sexual commodity will have an impact. (In this context, it is noteworthy that, whereas the average length of time spent in sex work by street-based workers is 12 years, the LASH team found that women working in brothels in NSW – who could be said to have more choices than street-based sex workers – stay in the job for an average of only two years.)

A specific aspect of the oppression involved in sex work is not just the women’s sale of their labour power, but the sense of loss of ownership of their bodies that sex workers experience in the course of receiving money for sexually gratifying another. This is different to a worker devoting their intellect, emotions and energy to a boss in any other workplace.

Bernstein alludes to this when she states: “To survive in the trade, prostitutes learned to develop strategies to distance themselves from their labor, to treat their commercial sexual activity as ‘work’. Many streetwalkers whom I spoke with gave evidence of this strategy when they stressed the importance of maintaining a division between public and private selves and of keeping certain sexual practices, aspects of the self, and segments of the body off limits” (p. 102).

While these strategies employed by individual sex workers may be more or less effective, they are necessitated by the fact that the customer has ownership, for whatever period of time, of the woman herself, separated to greater or lesser extent from her emotions, ideas and desires. She is by definition, and regardless of the specific boundaries she is able to put on the interaction, the instrument for someone elses sexual gratification.

Bernstein points out that “in contrast to the quick, impersonal ‘sexual release’ associated with the street level sex trade, much of the new variety of sexual labor [that is, what she calls “middle-class sex work] resides in the … sale and purchase of authentic emotional and physical connection”.

In this type of sex work, she says, “the sexual labor that is performed within the transaction is more likely to involve emotions and eroticism that had formerly been relegated to the private sphere” (p. 102).

While the research documenting that some woman perceive engaging in sex work as an avenue for expressing their own emotions/eroticism/sexuality is undoubtedly accurate, the sex work transaction/interaction remains one principally based on unequal power: she gets paid only if she does what he wants.

While the labour exploitation involved in sex work can be eradicated through the formation of cooperatives (in which the sex workers keep all of their earnings and do not pass a proportion on to their pimp or brothel), the oppression involved is not. Because sex work is premised on gender inequality, wherein women as a group are sexually objectified, it involves a relationship of power (in which the male customer has the power), irrespective of the specific labour relations involved.

Support for sex workers’ rights

Socialist Alliance’s policy on sex work is not about “rescuing” sex workers, but about helping them organise for their rights.

Socialist Alliance supports the full decriminalisation of sex work – that is, the abolition of all laws that make sex work a criminal offence – because such laws invariably operate against the oppressed, not the oppressor in the sex-work relationship.

This includes opposing the Swedish model (criminalizing the clients of sex workers), a strategy that increases the risk of violence against sex workers, as well as other negative outcomes including increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (see

However, our opposition to the criminalisation of sex workers and support for their rights does not equate with support for/advocacy of, or neutral acceptance of, the sex work industry. The analogy with marriage rights may help to clarify this.

While recognising that marriage is an institution that buttresses the capitalist family form and is a fundamental pillar of gender inequality and oppression in class society, Socialist Alliance does not demand that marriage be abolished.

Socialists have always actively supported campaigns to reform the institution of marriage to improve the rights and quality of life for women within that institution (divorce rights, economic/property rights, laws against domestic violence, the rights of LGBTIQ to formally marry, etc.).

But in doing so, we do not advocate marriage (or heterosexuality, or monogamy) as such.

Likewise, in relation to sex work, we do not demand that sex work be abolished, and we are and should continue to be actively engaged in campaigns to improve the rights and quality of life of sex workers – full decriminalisation, health services, rights to safe practices, etc.

But that does not mean that we advocate/support the sex work industry – in particular helping make the commodification of sexuality and sex work a more “rewarding” choice for some women.

Rather, we should support sex workers’ self-organisation with the aim of raising the political understanding, self-confidence and organisational skills of all sex workers and winning them to the revolutionary struggle to eradicate womens oppression altogether.