Marina Strinkovsky explores the arguments surrounding ‘sex work’.
Photo used under creative commons licence by anm4a
It is difficult to add anything new to the debate surrounding the ethical & legal status of sex work or prostitution (the very terminology one uses is heavily freighted with political meaning). The conversation is voluminous, highly polarised, and tends to lack nuance. A relatively minor, though still highly contested, area for debate is that which surrounds consent.
On their face the claims of both sex work advocates and abolitionists or Nordic model supporters are logical. On the one hand, it is a nonsense to suppose that all women engaged in selling sex are coerced beyond any capacity to give informed consent. To deny women (and men) agency to this degree is in some sense to deny their humanity, and is bad progressive politics. On the other, it is equally undeniable that in any other context sex that is engaged in without desire, or even contrary to desire or sexual attraction, is not fully consenting sex and the addition of economic coercion will often push even sexual transactions that don’t involve out and out force or trafficking into the category of rape.
The irreconcilable nature of these claims comes, it seems to me, from a lack of exactitude in using the word “consent”. In the pro-sex work narrative, consent does the work of describing the sex worker’s actions – whether or not she or he knowingly & consciously entered into an agreement to perform certain sex acts. In the abolitionist view, consent stands for the internal state of wanting or desiring sex; a psychological condition similar to appetite or tiredness, not susceptible to generating on demand & therefore not tradable for money.
A useful example from another area of life where people enter into an agreement – usually by signing a document – that we talk about in the language of informed consent is the medical context. Onora O’Neill describes consent to surgery as a temporary withdrawal of the norm by which we do not accept people doing physical harm to each other. It is only in a very specific set of circumstances that we would allow anyone to cut us, remove parts of our organs and so on. Consent in this context signifies that we are prepared to temporarily give up out right to bodily non-harm for the purposes of some greater good to ourselves.
Feminists and sex positive thinkers talk about consent in a very different way. For them, the lack of a “no” is not consent; simply saying (or implying) “I allow you for the time being to use my body in a way that would, without this act of consent on my part, constitute rape” is not enough. The enthusiastic consent model advocates for an active desire of behalf of both partners to engage in sex, not just a lack of or temporary withdrawal of reluctance.
These two ways of thinking about consent collide within the sex work context. I would like to quote Charlotte Shane, a sex worker writing for the blog “Tits and Ass”:
“It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it. […] Explicit instructions that I be enthusiastic on top of being willing is one of the worst parts of the job for me. It’s the closest I ever come to feeling humiliated while working, because my enthusiasm in this case isn’t about me at all; it’s about their egos and their need to feel desired. But I’m a real human being, and my personal, authentic desires deserve better than to be exploited by a man I’ve just met.”
The tension here is the one feminists have often pointed to, between the desire to perform a job for money (which is really a desire or need for the money) and a desire to perform the actions that job consists of for personal pleasure. One such example was given to me by another sex worker, and is the title of this piece: “I wouldn’t do your filing for free, so why should I have sex for free?”. I think there is a nuance in Shane’s position that this view lacks:
On the one hand, filing doesn’t hurt me; on the other, there is no scenario in which I would simply perform filing for pleasure. Certainly I would not perform it for the pleasure of anyone else. In fact it is difficult to conceive, except in very specific fetish situations, situations in which most if not all of the “regular jobs” sex work gets compared to would be performed for pleasure without the need for either a wage (in the case of the worker) or a profit (in the case of the capitalist). It is very difficult, if not impossible, to truly find an occupation analogous to sex work within the realm of wage employment.
If we apply the medical consent model to the selling of sex acts, the analogy becomes even more strained; since very few if any jobs implicitly require that the worker suspend their right to avoidance of harm. Of course on some views all alienated labour is harmful, but in that case sex work is no different and we are back to square one; in reality most jobs are either not harmful by design, or, if they contain elements of potential harm, employers and the state mitigate against those harms with various initiatives and regulations. It is true to say, as sex work advocates often do, that all wage workers to a degree “sell their bodies” to their employers, in the narrow sense that the physical presence & functions of our body are at the employers’ disposal. However it does not seem to me correct to stop there, and we should distinguish between selling our labour and giving up our right to the avoidance of harm by providing consent in the medical sense.
This relies on agreement that sex in which one does not wish to engage is a harm in itself (without interrogating whether it is necessarily harmful, a rabbit hole of claims & counter claims of psychiatric conditions and traumas that leads nowhere and gets emotive very quickly). A feminist view, and indeed a human rights view I think, would say that yes, involving our body in an intimate activity we would normally do for pleasure when we do not wish or enjoy it is a harm. This does not deny sex workers the agency of waiving their right to the avoidance of this harm, and is not in itself at all a sufficient argument for abolition of the sex trade, but it is nevertheless an important way in which sex work is not “just like other job”, and is something we should think closely on before we rush to normalise it.
Space does not allow for a full examination of a different analogy, that between sex work and art. It would be a better comparison to say that artists can and do involve their bodies in strenuous activities that they and others would also perform for pleasure, such as dancing, playing instruments etc. There is an intimacy to creating art that is a better fit for sex work than regular engagement with the wave employment of the consumer economy. However here we encounter different challenges, in that art, in stark contrast to sex work, is a high status occupation to which people mostly turn as a vocation and not because of economic need. So while the fundamentals of what is going on with our bodies – and therefore the nuances of consent – may be more similar, the social and economic contexts are sufficiently different to make a close comparison problematic.
Even more problematic is the gender context of sex work; for while advocates of full legalisation like to speak of it in gender neutral language, in reality it is a business that exists almost entirely for the service of men (even when those providing the service are men themselves) and relies deeply on the usually unspoken assumption that men have a “right” to have their sexual needs fulfilled. That this assumption is almost never explicitly applied to women speaks of a deep inequality at the basis of the sex industry that, again, we would have to deeply and critically examine and possibly dismantle before the full legalisation and normalisation of sex work would be advisable. There is of course a view on which if the belief that men’s sexual urges are fundamental, urgent and have a right to be satisfied disappears, the demand for the trade will disappear with it; it’s hard to speculate however on whether prostitution can exist in the absence of the kinds of power imbalance that colours it at present.
Another area where rights rhetoric is applied to sex work is the right of consenting adults to engage in what occupations they like and to do with each other whatever they like as long as they are not hurting anyone else. To go back to Onora O’Neill’s argument about surgery for a moment, this is an excellent example of where society absolutely does and should limit the ability of consenting adults to engage in certain activities. We don’t and shouldn’t just let people operate on each other, or decide that they are Formula 1 drivers and the local school run is their Monaco. Working in a specific job is not a human right – consenting adults are forbidden to do all kinds of stuff by custom and law. The custom underlying the criminalisation of prostitutes themselves is clearly based on a misguided moralistic tradition, and we should look to supplant it with a more measured policy approach that does not stigmatise or harm women and men engaged in the industry; however, what exactly this approach should be in its details is a more complicated question than the campaigners for no-strings-attached full legalisation will admit.