Marxian socialists have long been opponents of prostitution aiming to eliminate it once they came to power. Kollontai speaking well before the cant about sex work had been invented, and in an early socialist, rather than capitalist, economy understood very clearly why it exists in capitalist countries and why it was unproductive in a socialist economy.
The trade in women’s flesh is conducted quite openly, which is not surprising when you consider that the whole bourgeois way of life is based on buying and selling. There is an undeniable element of material and economic, considerations even the most legal of marriages. Prostitution is the way out for the woman who fails to find herself a permanent breadwinner. Prostitution, under capitalism provides men with the opportunity of having sexual relationships without having to take upon themselves the responsibility of caring materially for the women until the grave. …
Similarly after the Chinese revolution, one of the policies of the government was the suppression of prostitution and the control of venereal disease. The government claimed to have effectively eliminated it by 1955. More recently the reformist working class movement of Sweden has pioneered a policy of clamping down on prostitution by outlawing the buying of sex rather than the selling of sex. This policy, starting in Sweden with the support of the Social Democrats and feminists there, has been adopted in Norway, and to a lesser extent in Finland.
As against this socialist position stands the liberal one which defends prostititution on the grounds that:
Well although liberals regard private contract as sacrosanct socialists do not. Contracts that appear private and voluntary are in reality often the result of very unequal power relations. For what does consent amount too other than, in many cases, selecting the least bad of bad options. A slave girl who ‘consented’ to the sexual advances of her master, showed what apologists for prostitution celebrate as ‘agency’. She could have chosen to be whipped rather than bear her masters children, so in submitting she was exercising free will. But nobody now would suggest that she was really free to chose. It was the social institution of slavery that presented her with only these options. The ‘free’ choice of a heroin addict to sell her body on the streets is a similar effect of social power.
The father of economics, Adam Smith wrote that money was power, the power to command others. Capitalist society dispenses with the direct power of command over bodies that past ruling classes had. Instead of the whip, cash that selective lash. A woman with a million in shares is in a very different position from a self employed prostitute. Legally both are free, but who is really the free woman?
But for a large section of prostitutes even the fiction of legal freedom does not exist. Brothels arose with slavery, and trafficked women are still abused in them accross the world. Liberal appologists claim that legalisation of prostitution will reduce trafficking, but the evidence is against them. Cho et al, in a statistical study covering 150 countries, show that legalising prostitution is correlated with an increase in human trafficking. They get a 0.66 correlation between the legality of prosititution in a country and the level of human trafficking into the country. This is similar to the 0.67 correlation that they get between GDP and human trafficking. Nobody doubts that people are trafficked into countries with high GDP, it is only the commercial interests of brothel owners that prevents an equal recognition that legal prostitution produces the same effect.
What about the claim that prostitution is work?
There is no doubt that sex involves time and effort, but is it really work?
If sex is work, was the dancing a couple did before they got off with one another also work?
If a cohabiting couple fuck, is it only her working, or are both working when they are at it?
If both work, both emerging sweating from effort, the justification for calling prostitution ‘work’ vanishes. Are we to call the clients too, sex ‘workers’?
What liberal appologists mean by work, is not the effort of making things, but being paid for doing things. So when a woman cooks a meal for her children is that work?
It is, and even most economist would not deny this, but it does not figure as work in the UK National Accounts. To liberal economics, to count as work it must exchange for money. Were mothers able to sell meals to their kids, liberal economics would then treat it as adding to national income.
Anything that brings in money counts for them as productive activity. So we have the nonsensical situation where things like gambling and brothel keeping are called industries. There is no doubt that these are all are businesses, but not all business is industry, and not all business is productive.
Take gambling, a moment’s thought is enough to see that it merely redistributes existing wealth, and produces nothing new of value. It is as foolish to talk of a gambling industry or sex industry as it would be to call pickpocketing or bank robbing industries.
In the Kollontai quote there is a commonsense obviousness, under the changed social conditions of Soviet Russia, about why prostitution is unproductive. In a society where goods were allocated on ration, a prostitute was seen to be taking the rations of others and not contributing to national wealth and general welfare. When economic relations were no longer disguised by money but seen in physical terms, this was a commonsense practical observation, and if it was obviously true in an unveiled economy, it must already have been true, behind the money veil, in the previous capitalist economy. Gilded by money, unproductive activities in a commercial economy appear productive, intercourse becomes `sex work’.
In two senses of course, sex is work, and productive. Both parties involved expend metabolic energy in the act, and the productive issue causes the mother to expend far more energy in the gestation and birthing. The labour of birth is, in reality, the foundation of all other production. But this is not what apologists for brothels mean. To them, work is where money changes hands. Never mind that since Roman times the aim of commercial sex had been for men to avoid any responsibility for the children who result. These could expect neither inheritance nor sustenance from the fathers. Exposure, abandonment or the dubious mercy of the foundling hospital was often their fate. Langer reports:
The figures for this traffic, available for many cities, are truly shocking. In all of France fully 127,507 children were abandoned in the year 1833. Anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of all children born were left to their fate. The figures for Paris suggest that in the years 18I7-1820 the “foundlings” comprised fully 36 per cent of all births. In some of the Italian hospitals the mortality (under one year of age) ran to 80 or 90 per cent. In, Paris, the Maison de la Couche reported that of 4,779 babies admitted in 1818, 2,370 died in the first three months and another 956 within the first year.
As an institution it was doubly destructive of labour power, not only did it condemn to an early death the prostitutes’ infants, the money that the patrons spent in the brothels was taken from the mouths of their `legitimate’ offspring.
What of the argument that prostitution has always existed and that any attempt to ban it will fail?
Well for a start, it has not always existed. It did not exist in pre-class societies. For it to emerge you needed several conditions:
If these, its social causes, are removed, then prostitution would tend to die out, just as all other forms of crime decline as society becomes more equal. But that does not mean that it is pointless to ban it in today’s society. No state has yet been able to abolish murder or rape, but noboby would argue that laws against these crimes are pointless. If a criminal activity is driven underground, that is a good thing. It means that the activity is being curtailed. If fear of the police makes murderers feel compelled to bury their victims under garden patios rather than just throwing the body out on the street for the bin men to collect, that is surely to be welcomed.
The great thing about the Scandinavian approach to prostitution is that it treats buying sex as another sex crime. Buyers of sex are categorised along with rapists and paedophiles. We acknowledge that Sweden has not completely stopped Swedish men from buying sex. But that is to set an unreasonably high bar, the evidence is that the law has reduced the incidence of Swedish men buying sex, whereas the evidence of countries which legalise both sides of prostitution is that the practice increases.
But the liberal will respond that we should listen to the voices of those currently engaged in the business of selling sex. It is only to be expected that a policy like the Swedish one, which succeeds in reducing the number of their customers, will be against the immediate commercial interests of brothel keepers and of a section of self employed prostitutes. But why should we take any particular notice of a commercial special interest group like that?
Why should we ‘listen to the sex workers’?
Measures to combat smoking and alcoholism are against the commercial interests of cigarette firms and brewers and distilleries. Though the Scottish Government minimum price law on drinks will hit the interest of the monks of Buckfast Abbey, even liberals would hesitate to say in response that we must hold back and ‘listen to the monks’. Why then, are we to be so solicitous of the commercial interests of brothel keepers and whores?
Liberal common sense has made inroads into the socialist movement, so you get ‘left’ men dressing the liberal arguments in socialist garb. Granted, they say, that prostitutes are exploited but so are all workers, so why make a special thing about sex. Surely this is just an outdated puritan attitude.
The simplest response is for socialists to say that we want to abolish all exploitation. We would like a law that prohibited the employment of wage labour, just as Soviet law prohibited it. Until we can have that, we support any and every step to crack down on exploitation. We will never line up with commercial interests that want to open up new fields of exploitation.
Alternatively we can respond by questioning some of the deeper assumptions of the liberal argument. Liberals say sex is nothing special and that treating fucking differently from bus driving or cooking burgers is just puritan prejudice.
Well, for a start, sex is special.
It is objectively special, and legally special. It is special because the action of sex organs produces people, whereas the labour of hand and brain produces things. Post-slave societies treat people as different from things. The law treats sex organs and hands very differently. It says that if you grab someone by the pussy or the balls you are guilty of sexual assault and liable to a custodial sentence of up to 10 years. But you can, when meeting, shake a stranger’s hand with impunity.
Next, why should socialists accept puritanism as a term of abuse. The Puritans carried out the only sucessful revolution in Britain. They cut of the King’s head and put the fear of God into the upper classes: no mean achievement. They acted with determination against a licentious, debauched and corrupt aristocracy – all to the good. When liberals use the word puritan as a slur they are betraying the actual origins of liberalism and adopting the language of the old Tory opponents of the Puritans.
Left liberals say whores are exploited, so are cooks, so why treat brothels andy differnt from Burger Kings. Here, they are resting their argument on what amounts to no more than a pun on the word exploitation. The word exploitation has two meanings. One refers to sexual exploitation, the other to economic exploitation. The two are quite different.
A person is economically exploited if they get back in income less money for an hour of work than the value added by an hour of work. In this economic sense, self employed whores are no more exploited than a self employed electrician or plumber. They do not sell their labour power to an employer who then uses it to produce a commodity. Instead, the self employed sell their services directly to customers and collect the full value themselves. This is one reason why a prostitute earns more per hour than a cook preparing Big Macs.
Sexual exploitation is something quite different.
The UN Draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation defines sexual exploitation as follows:
Definition of Sexual Exploitation:
Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person (s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advancement, through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being.
Sexual exploitation takes the form of, but is not limited to:
Where brothel keeping is illegal the majority of prostitutes are independent and are sexually but not economically exploited. Where brothel keeping is legalised, capitalist businesses come to dominate the trade, meaning that an economic exploitation becomes combined with an intensified sexual exploitation.
 Alexandra Kollontai. Prostitution and ways of fighting it. In speech to the third all-Russian conference if the heads of regional women’s departments, ,1921. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm
 Ma, Hai-Teh. With Mao Tse-Tungs thought as the compass for action in the control of venereal diseases in China. Chinas Medicine 1 (1966): 52-68.
 Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?. World Development 41 (2013): 67-82.
 William L Langer. Europe’s initial population explosion. The American HistoricalReview,69(1):1’17,1963, page 9.
 Kuosmanen, Jari. Attitudes and perceptions about legislation prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in Sweden. European Journal of Social Work 14.2 (2011): 247-263.
This article was first published by Paul Cockshott.