Sex Work and the Problem with Normalising It

12 Feb

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about sex as a need and a right (which someone, by extension, has to supply).  I think this kind of talk lends extra weight to the argument I’m trying to make here.  I regret, though, that it’s disabled people’s struggle being used to make sex work seem like any other service you might be supplied.  But supporting disabled people’s rights doesn’t mean supporting the idea that *anyone* has a right to another person’s body.


Anyway, sex work.  As someone who has not and does not exchange sex for money, why do I care or think it’s my place to say anything about it?

I don’t actually think it is my place to say anything about how those who do exchange sex for money organize themselves, try and offset the trade’s occupational hazards or fight the market forces which strip any worker of agency (by setting prices and determining the products on offer, etc).  I’ve repeated the best practices outlined by a sex worker at a conference I attended before, but beyond this I just don’t have the knowledge to be useful.

I’m always peeved, though, to be told that it’s not my place to have an opinion on sex work itself.  Any opinion that isn’t approbation is prejudice against sex workers, apparently.  Except I disagree.

I admit that the only sex workers I have ever been on going-for-a-coffee terms with have been men and one of these I met at Church, so I imagine they are probably not representative of sex workers in general.  But I don’t have an opinion on sex workers in general.  It seems like a bad idea to have an opinion on any group of people in general.  I have an opinion on sex work and given that sex work is considered ‘women’s work’ at least to the same degree as other low paid, low status jobs such as cleaning, then my opinion, as the opinion of a woman who must always work to live, is the opinion of an affected party.

Basically, we live in a society in which work is not organized according to the principle of fairness, but for maximum profit.  In such a society, as much work as possible is always going to be given to as few people as possible, for as little as possible.  Which means there is always going to be unemployment, which is always going to have a deflationary effect on wages.  There is always going to be poverty in such a society and the way out of poverty is to exchange something for money.  For most people, certainly for me, that something is always going to have to be work.  And the kind of work I can get is going to be determined by market forces.  As a woman, one thing I can supply for which there is always going to be a greater or lesser degree of market demand, is sex.

This makes me uncomfortable.

The discomfort isn’t just based on the abstract knowledge that the market could ask me for sex and I could have to supply it or starve.  It’s based on the fact that I’ve been dancing in a club and had a man ask me for a blow job and reassure me that he’d pay.  The discomfort is based on a very real knowledge that the market is asking and I’m relatively lucky to be able to refuse.  Luckier than the woman in this story, anyway.

Of course the market, as I’ve mentioned, also asks women to clean toilets for money and I haven’t always refused to do this.  But sex is different to cleaning toilets and a good case has been made for why here.

Even in socialist feminist utopia, toilets will have to be cleaned.  They will probably be cleaned by more people.  There will probably be an office rota for cleaning the office toilet.  But I fucking hope there is not a sex rota.

Which is why I am so aggravated whenever socialists and feminists and socialist feminists tell me that we have to accept sex work as some kind of inevitability.  It’s the oldest profession going, they say.  There has always been sex work, there always will be.

If it’s historically prevalent, we have to accept it.

I call bullshit.


I have to admit that the only sex worker whose views I have heard unadulterated by anyone else’s bias (apart from my own) was in favour of full decriminalisation.  I’ll take it from him that that’s what would make him and his colleagues safer.

But I feel vulnerable in a society which increasingly thinks that sex is an ok demand for the market to make in the first place.

I realise that a lot of the people who think sex is an ok demand for the market to make only think so in so far as they think the market is ok, which is not at all.  But whilst they’re working to dismantle the market, we’re working within it.

Right now, there is no alternative.

If the market pushes me into sex work, I don’t want to live in fear of the police, I want to be able to unionise, I want all the rights I have right now.

What I don’t want is anyone carrying out a sex work normalisation campaign and making it easier for the market to push me into sex work in the first place.  But that is what most ‘sex positive’ feminists are doing at the moment, from where I’m standing.

4 Responses to “Sex Work and the Problem with Normalising It”

  1. jemima101 April 2, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    I think you need to examine your basic premise. No one, except the antis argues that sex is a right, indeed it if it were no one would pay for it, we do not expect to pay for our rights.
    Sex is a nice thing,like ice cream or a bottle of wine, things we know we neither need, nor have a right too, but choose to buy.

    I am also uncomfortable with your comparison with cleaning toilets, as if sex work is only someone desperate and dirty would do. Where is the place in the socialist feminist Utopia for the person who is good at sex and sells those skills ?

    • sehaf April 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

      Thanks for your response. I’ve personally heard the casual idea of sex being a right, an integral part of being human etc, worryingly often (it also comes up in the Guardian article I link to at the beginning and in the comments under the Feministe piece I link to which makes the case for how sex is different to other activities for which you might be paid).

      I agree with you, though, about how sex is a nice thing (ideally) and not a right – although sadly, we actually are expected to pay for many things which *are* rights – like food and shelter.

      I also see your point about how the comparison to cleaning toilets might be seen as degrading, but that is sort of the point – sex work often is, like cleaning, low paid and low status. It is also, like cleaning, overwhelmingly women’s work. And, to be honest, I do think that women generally view sex work as a last resort or a lesser evil. I admit that I do, which obviously biases my opinion, but anecdotally and culturally, my view seems to be quite normative. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that we should treat people who feel differently as deviants but we should ask why this thing which is overwhelmingly done by women is something women generally feel quite negative about and not pretend that they are simply being irrational and prejudiced because they (we) haven’t tried it, which is often the tone of so called sex positive feminism. I think we have good reasons for feeling negative about the idea of doing it, like the fact that it is work that makes you very vulnerable, even where it’s not low paid and low status. I also have other reasons why I, personally, don’t like the idea of selling sex.

      Re: “Where is the place in the socialist feminist Utopia for the person who is good at sex and sells those skills ?” In my socialist feminist Utopia, there would not be demand for sex work in that, hopefully, people would be able to have fulfilling sex without needing to pay for it and someone who enjoyed and was good at sex would not need to *be* paid for it. I also hope that sex would be less of a big deal and that people who, for whatever reason, weren’t having it wouldn’t be made to feel like they were missing out or were “freaks”, which happens far too much nowadays.


  1. Sexuality Is An Economic Issue #2 | startmeoff - November 20, 2013

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  2. Autonomy v Bodily Autonomy | startmeoff - January 4, 2014

    […] examine this position, I have examined it (a lot actually), and I still don’t want sex work normalised.  I’ve had to ask myself why: is it because I’m a prude?  Because I’m sex […]

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