Note by the author: The phrase sex work encompasses many industries not just prostitution. However, the phrases prostitution and sex work will be used interchangeably in this essay.
Throughout leftist spaces one’s ears will constantly be flooded with pro-sex work messages. However, if one spends a cursory amount of time flipping through the basic texts of Marxism such as The Communist Manifesto and Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, or the works of Marxist feminists such as Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya, one will see an overwhelming trend against prostitution. In fact just looking at historically socialist states one will see that the vast majority of them were able to eliminate prostitution and sex work. Most namely Cuba and China both of which were countries plagued by prostitution that is until the communists eliminated prostitution by actually liberating women from capitalist patriarchy. It was only when socialist states opened up to capitalism that one saw a rise in prostitution, accompanied by crime, poverty, and a roll back on women’s rights. The fall of the Soviet Union saw a massive increase in prostitution. Not only among women but also by children! In every socialist state the revolutionaries worked to eliminate prostitution, not because of petty bourgeois moralism, but because they understood that sex work was an institution based on the violent exploitation of women’s bodies. Such an institution was and still is incompatible to women’s liberation and Marxism.
Proponents of prostitution argue that it’s a choice, that women choose to become prostitutes. When viewed through this lens, prostitution is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. The prostitute (often a woman) gets money. The buyer (often a man) gets to satisfy his sexual desires. This situation however is nothing more than a fantasy. Prostitution is a fundamentally antagonistic relationship among all parties. The prostitute needs to get as much money as possible by doing the least amount of labor and the buyer wants to get as much labor as he can from the prostitute with the least amount of money. In this relationship the prostitute is in the majority of cases coming from a position of weakness. 80 percent of prostitutes are between the ages of 13-25. 90% of prostitutes depend on pimps. 84% of prostitutes in a study done in San Francisco had reported to current or past homelessness.The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-16. Black and Latinx women are more likely to be trafficked into the sex industry. The buyers of prostitution are more likely to be middle-upper class white men. The buyer in most cases has more power over the prostitute and is able to coerce the sex worker into doing something that they might not be comfortable in doing. In fact, according to a study done in San Francisco of 130 prostitutes, 49% of them reported being assaulted as children, 82% had been physically assaulted, 68% had been raped while on the job, 87% of the participants wanted to leave the profession. Prostitution relies on uneven power dynamics between the buyer and the seller. The seller in most cases has the ability to commit the most horrible abuses to a prostitute and often gets away with it because of their disproportionate privilege and wealth compared to the prostitute. How can such a situation be consensual? While a prostitute might not always be threatened by a gun, though that certainly does happen--83% of prostitutes have been threatened with a weapon. In this case it is the dollar that replaces the gun. If a prostitute doesn’t obey the buyer or refuses to take the gig they will be threatened with poverty and starvation. And even if a prostitute can leave a client, that doesn’t mean she can leave the industry as a whole, because of a lack of economic prospects, coercion by pimps, losing her means of sustenance, etc. Prostitution relies on the exploitation and objectification of women and lgbt people. Marxists must be diametrically opposed to all forms of exploitation, including that of prostitution.
Another common argument one will hear from the pro-prostitution crowd is that sex work is work. Such a phrase is often used to absolve the abuses of the industry. However, just because something is work doesn’t mean that it should be absolved of all scrutiny. For example, making meth in a garage is technically work, that doesn’t mean it should be supported. What makes sex work different from all forms of labor is that violence and exploitation are inherent to sex work. Compared to other forms of work where the greatest risks to one’s health are usually accidents such as tripping or falling, or problems like stress which can be remedied with regulation, it’s impossible to regulate out the violence inherent to sex work. Jobs such as farming, fishing, and logging, don’t have to be exploitative, the same can’t be said of sex work. Even “high class” sex workers such as escorts aren’t immune to the violence of the job. Less than a week ago the body of a Wall Street escort was found stuffed in a barrel in New Jersey. Just because the conditions are nicer or more “regulated” doesn’t mean that the violence or exploitation goes away. Even in places where sex work is legal or decriminalized sex workers still face disproportionate rates of violence compared to the general population of women. Consider the fact that about 68% of prostitutes have PTSD compared to 13% of veterans, and in the vast majority of jobs PTSD rates are negligible. The fact that prostitutes have such an immense PTSD rate tells us that suffering and abuse in prostitution is the norm, not the exception. To say that sex work is work would be ignoring the vast amount of pain that the vast majority of sex workers go through. Esperanza Fonseca also known as the Proletarian Feminist summed this up quite concisely.
“Wage labor is exploitative because of the surplus value extracted from the workers' labor. Prostitution is sexual exploitation because it feeds off of extreme vulnerability to maintain a class of prostitutes, coerces sex through money and power, and exposes those women to high amounts of rape and violence.”
Of course when all else fails defenders of prostitution will say that prostitution is the oldest job on the planet, and that it’s always been a part of human society. However, this statement displays a clear ignorance of history. In order for prostitution to exist there needs to be the existence of patriarchy, class society, and money. The first mention of prostitution was around 2400 BC in Ancient Sumer. Human society has existed for at least 10,000 years. 2400 BC was only 4400 years ago. It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of socialist societies which saw great reductions in wealth and income inequality and great improvements in women’s rights were accompanied by great reductions in prostitution. It was only after capitalism was reintroduced and accompanied by a rollback of social safety nets which were crucial in providing women independence from men, that prostitution started to reappear with a vengeance. The fact that prostitution reappeared alongside the introduction of unregulated predatory neoliberal capitalism which had the worst impacts on women tells us two things. Prostitution isn’t liberating or empowering. And prostitution doesn’t have to exist in all societies.
What are the options then? How should Marxists deal with prostitution? The best way as shown by plenty of historical examples is to kick out the capitalists and establish an economy centered around the needs of the people rather than profit, in other words socialism. Such a society must allow women to become economically independent from men by providing them not just with legal rights on paper but also with economic rights such as the right to healthcare, education, housing, childcare, and a job that allows them to live comfortably. As Marxists we understand that the capitalists in this country would do everything they can to avoid actually addressing the needs of working people because that would pose a threat to their profits. Only a government of action that fights for working families can achieve truly liberate women from the threat of prostitution.
N.C. Cai is a Chinese American Marxist Feminist. She is interested in socialist feminism, Western imperialism, history, and domestic policy, specifically in regards to drug laws, reproductive justice, and healthcare.
This article was produced by Tankie GF.
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