The Folly of Sex Work Advocacy

(This article originally appeared on Leila Mechoui’s substack. It has been edited and reproduced here with the author’s permission.)

A few months ago, Canadian Conservative Party MP Arnold Viersen had to apologize after asking sex work proponent and New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Laurel Collins if she had ever considered sex work as a career path. Collins was visibly offended, and shouts of “shame on you” came from other House members. Collins then tweeted:

I’m glad @ArnoldViersen apologized to me, but I invite him to extend his apology to all women. Denigrating sex work & criminalizing the very things that would keep sex workers safe contribute to increased violence.

Other prominent members of the Canadian left joined her in denouncing the interchange while affirming that “sex work is work.” In its righteous indignation, the left missed the irony of the whole affair. The visceral negative reaction that many have to the idea of themselves or their loved ones engaging in sex work suggests that the left position of sex work being work is neither intuitive nor desirable. Nonetheless, the contemporary left has joined hands with liberal feminists, capitalists, pimps, and bourgeois academics in insisting that sex work is wage labor like any other.

But is sex work really like any other wage labor? If we look at the sex trade and compare it to other jobs on the basis of violence alone, it would seem that prostitution differs in an important material sense—harm to the physical body. Rates of violence are meteoric amongst sex workers, with between 45-75% of all sex workers experiencing “workplace” violence over their lifetimes. In one study conducted in the UK, 81% of outdoor-based prostitutes and 48% of indoor-based prostitutes had experienced some form of violence at their clients’ hands, including a high proportion reporting attempted or perpetuated vaginal and anal rape. The mortality rate suffered by prostitutes in the U.S. is much higher than the rates experienced by women-at-large.

Just because something can be commoditized and a worker may gain a “job” by selling it, does not make the job itself “work” in the Marxist sense.

But sex work proponents will counter that these ill-effects are the result of criminalization and stigmatization. They interpret these alarming numbers as evidence of the need for further “destigmatization” and extending labor rights and protections to sex workers. There is no amount of empirical data that can convince leftists that sex work is not work like any other. Theirs is a normative position—that sex work counts as work by virtue of the fact that people are being hired and paid; and a utopian outlook—that unionization and destigmatization, can make sex work safe. We must address the argument on its own normative and utopian premises.

Sex work is unnecessary labor

That sexual services are sold as a commodity is nothing new—after all, commoditization is what capitalism does. But just because a thing can be commoditized and a worker may gain a “job” by selling it, does not make the job itself “work” in the Marxist sense. For most socialists historically, prostitution was not considered a form of labor that could rightfully be accepted in a society working towards human betterment and freedom. From Krupskaya, to Kollontai, to Lenin, to Eleanor Marx—when the socialists of the past asked themselves whether prostitution was labor that they wanted to offer up as “work” in a socialist society, the answer was an emphatic “No.” As Alexandra Kollontai explained in 1921:

And what, after all, is the professional prostitute? She is a person whose energy is not used for the collective; a person who lives off others, by taking from the rations of others [. . .] It cannot be allowed, because it reduces the reserves of energy and the number of working hands that are creating the national wealth and the general welfare, from the point of view of the national economy the professional prostitute is a labor deserter.

Except for the most extreme liberal feminists who claim, for instance, that sex should be a “right” for disabled persons, few serious people claim that sexual services are socially necessary. Rather than accepting capitalist logic that sex work is a legitimate venue for workers, Marxists should demand and fight for socially valuable jobs for all, for a reduction of the working week, and democratizing workplaces. Whatever human time is invested into work should meet human needs and enable human flourishment.

The left was successful in fighting for better working conditions earlier in its history. It was a vibrant labor movement infused with socialist politics that successfully eliminated child labor and limited the working day. While capitalists remain dismayed, any working person would agree that the world is better for not having child labor and 14-hour workdays. These were never necessary to make society run and diminished human freedom.

Of course, what work constitutes “necessary labor” is to some extent debatable. After we’ve fulfilled our needs for nutrition, health care, shelter, and the like, what is next? In a democratic society, the “what is next” would be up for discussion and collective decision-making. Nonetheless, the inherent uncertainty of the term “unnecessary labor” shouldn’t dissuade socialists from pushing back against clear cases of misused human time and life, and demand good, meaningful jobs instead.

Sex work is unproductive labor

Marxists recognize that not all wage-labor is created equal from the point of view of Capital—after all, Marx did distinguish between productive and unproductive labor. Those are not value judgements; instead, those categories are strictly concerned with the use of the final product of labor, and the relation of the laborer to Capital. Productive labor is that which is transformed back into a source of profit for capitalists. Unproductive labor, on the other hand, produces a final commodity directly for consumption.

For example, an independent gardener who produces a mowed lawn as a final product for a client is an unproductive worker, but the factory worker who assembled the pieces of the lawnmower is a productive worker, due to the profit that selling the lawnmower produces for the capitalist. Marx further identifies unproductive work as labor which is inseparable from the laborer himself or herself. Examples include some kinds of doctors, who can only render their services through direct contact. Because the product cannot be completely detached from the laborer, it is difficult or impossible to apply capitalist production techniques to increase productivity and surplus value extraction.

In short, unproductive laborers do not have the same relationship to Capital and thus are not exploited in the same way as productive workers. Marx, again:

A schoolmaster who instructs others is not a productive worker. But a schoolmaster who works for wages in an institution along with others, using his own labor to increase the money of the entrepreneur who owns the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker. But for the most part, work of this sort has scarcely reached the stage of being subsumed even formally under Capital, and belongs essentially to a transitional stage.

Sex work belongs to the same transitional stage as the schoolmaster in Marx’s example. The majority of sex workers work either for themselves, for individual pimps, or small brothels. For those sex workers who work for themselves, it is a clear case of unproductive work: their commodity is consumed directly as a service in exchange for money—not to generate more capital. For those prostitutes that work for others—individual theirs is still unproductive work. In these situations, sex workers pay a portion of their wages to access clients, receive protection, and/or a physical workplace. 

This arrangement is better characterized as rent-seeking—like a landlord and tenant—rather than as capitalist social relations. A capitalist business generates capital which is reinvested into better technology, more laborers, a rationalized productive line, etc. This is done in order to generate more of the commodity in question in less time and/or with fewer resources, in order to generate even more capital. Prostitution in the above-cited cases is not and cannot be conducted in this way. 

Sex factories, in the form of mega-brothels, sex drive-throughs, and sex store chains are emerging throughout Europe and Oceania, generating billions

That said, as legalization, decriminalization and “normalization” spread throughout the developed world, sex work is increasingly being subsumed into capitalist social relations. This means that sex work will be carried out in more and more exploitative conditions. Sex factories, in the form of mega-brothels, sex drive-throughs, outdoor sex store chains are emerging throughout Germany, Netherlands, and New Zealand, generating billions. Prostitution is openly advertised on buses and other public spaces.

Competition puts downward pressure on sex worker wages. But like our schoolmaster, this subsumption must remain at a transitional stage. The service rendered by a sex worker cannot be separated from the worker and into a commodity independent of him or her. This puts limits to the amount of profit that can be extracted from a worker since efficiency through technological innovation is limited. Sex rent-seekers are left only with the option of increasing the length of the working day, increasing work intensity, or diminishing wages in order to increase profit at an ever-growing rate. However, there is a physical limit to how many clients a prostitute can service an hour, how much sex her/his body can physically take; not to mention the minimum wage floors that exist in most countries. This is consistent with what Marx has said of other services inseparable from the laborer:

“On the whole, types of work that are consumed as services and not in products separable from the worker and hence not capable of existing as commodities independently of him, but which are yet capable of being directly exploited in capitalist terms, are microscopic significance when compared with the mass of capitalist production. They may be entirely neglected, therefore, and can be dealt with under the category of wage-labor that is not at the same time productive labor

Sex workers cannot improve the world

Socialism is a political movement. Thus, socialist analysis and prescriptions should serve the empowerment of the working class. Although it may be controversial, socialists should not shy away from assessing which work is and is not productive, and therefore politically useful, in this current day. Which work holds the levers of power in capitalism? Which workers, when organized, can deal a lasting blow against capitalist social relations? In the past, when socialists asked themselves whether prostitution had a place in the future that we are building, their answer was, once again, an emphatic “No.” Lenin himself once said, Take them back to productive work, bring them into the social economy.

Sex workers cannot apply meaningful force against capitalism as such. The effects of a sex worker’s work stoppage could be compared to the effects of a rent strike. Rent strikes can certainly reduce the amount of rent extracted by landlords, and even reduce the amount to zero. However, rent strikes, whether by tenants or prostitutes, do not challenge capitalist social relations.

Indeed, it is debatable that such a sex rent-strike could ever occur. Unionization of sex workers is almost non-existent. In germany, where prostitution has been legal since 2002, only a minuscule number of have joined unions. A mere 300-600 prostitutes out of the 400,000 that work in the country (fewer than 0.15%) have joined Ver.di, a public-sector union that actively recruits workers in the sex trade. Nearly 20 years later, the fantasy of sex worker union power that so many leftists conjure in the pages of Jacobin has not materialized.

Many leftists claim that promoting the idea that “sex work is work” empowers women and validates their choices. But clearly, sex work is extremely disempowering. Where a woman worker could acquire gainful employment in another domain, join a union, and fight for improved conditions for herself and her whole class, she is instead relegated to a highly dangerous and violent line of employment, where her ability to do any of the above diminishes with her age.

Socialists should argue against sex work in the same way that the left promotes it: with one eye on the present, and one eye towards the future. The political utility of sex work is nil, and valorizing and cementing the position of working-class women in the trade weakens the working class as a whole. At best, a few women may make a great living while they are young and considered valuable on the sex trade market. At worse, sex work provides a convenient release valve for governments to funnel unemployment and poverty, further enabling states to shed their responsibilities. Socialists should not be satisfied with the former, and should actively fight the latter.