Letter to the Editor: On Sex Work

The bulletin editors picking up your correspondence

We have received insightful commentary from readers on articles published in the first and third editions of our bulletin, on our articles on the Russian Revolution and Sex Work. The comrade who wrote to us with amendments to our Russian Revolution article indicated they would prefer for their contribution not to be published, but we would like to acknowledge that it was received and taken into account. The criticism we received on our article on sex work was thoughtful and useful, and is included below.

While we may be slow to respond as we are a collective of active organisers, we appreciate your thoughts and commentary deeply.

A response to “Sex work is Work! Analysing Stigmatised Labour Under Capitalism”, by Robbie Mason and Honey Christensen, from Bulletin #3

By Hayley Fox

While the article makes good points in regards to criminalisation and stigmatisation of sex work, there are some highly dubious arguments that are made elsewhere.

1 – That sex work has “subversive potential” under a hetero-patriarchal capitalist system (by quoting Sylvia Rivera???)

I’m not even sure where to begin with this. The quote is framed by the idea that when SWERFs characterise the sex work industry as patriarchal oppression of cis women in need of being saved, they deny the existence of LGBT+ people in the industry. OK, so far, so good. But then the article seems to imply that because Rivera says that one part of not having a civvie job is that she “[does] not want to go to work looking as a man”, that sex work has some liberatory potential for those wanting to express their gender identity in the workplace, despite Rivera also saying it was “the only alternative we have to survive”. The article also cuts off the earlier part of the quote in which Rivera says she doesn’t even want to wear what she wears while working, and also more evocatively says “we don’t want to be out there sucking dick and getting fucked in the ass”. Not exactly a strong statement in support of the hetero-patriarchal capitalist system being subverted. Personally, I don’t think that even if my gender identity is affirmed in sex work better than in civvie life (which early in my transition was true) that it still subverts any larger structure in a positive sense. Sex work commodifies trans women’s bodies so that straight men can privatise their desire for us, somewhere to discretely dump their financial and libidinal excess while still maintaining a wife and two kids.

You don’t have to counter SWERFs with empowerment narratives, especially if they just aren’t there. An honest appraisal of sex work can be done alongside giving oppressed groups self determination as opposed to repression.

2 – That sex work is an avenue for oppressed classes to overcome economic barriers through direct extraction of profit (?) from typically wealthier men, which is a radical act (!)

The first part of this argument, that sex work can help overcome economic barriers, is true in a sense but hardly a communist argument. It is particularly strange that this argument would be made right after Sylvia Rivera’s quote, considering the consistent barriers she faced still while doing survival sex work. The article continues to say that in NSW at least 60% of sex work is intervened by a manager/boss of some kind and that unionisation does not exist. With such exploitation and unevenness in who overcomes economic barriers, its a reasonably flaccid celebration of flowers blooming in concrete cracks.

The second part of this argument is so laughable that I am amazed it was made (twice!) in a serious communist journal. Let’s break down the idea that sex workers “extracting profit from typically wealthier men” is a radical act.

a. Selling a commodity is not extracting profit from the buyer, profit extraction comes from labour exploitation

b. Extracting profit is bad, anyway

c. Selling goods and services to rich people is not radical simply because of the identities of the buyer/seller (its not even radical in any circumstance)

The use of the phrase “extracting profit” is particularly galling considering how sex workers are exploited by bosses, many of whom are wealthier men by that process. And the idea that rich men have been made poorer to the benefit of sex workers is just a weird, liberal fantasy of gender equality and economic redistribution. It’s like thinking Mackenzie Scott is a radical feminist communist hero for divorcing Jeff Bezos.

The rest of the article is positive, although I wish under the formulation of revolutionary sex work, it went past the prefigurative politics of creating sex work co-ops.