A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender Analysis of Sex Work
Trigger Warning: Rape, Violence, Drugs
What started out as empowering in my mind quickly became a trap I couldn’t escape. The longer in the trade, the harder it is to leave.
Dear Sister Comrades at Red Canary Song and the NYC DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group,
My name is Esperanza and I am a socialist, a feminist, a transgender Latina woman, and a survivor of the sex trade. I am writing to you as comrades in the struggle for socialism and as sisters who have presumably shared the experience of being prostitutes. I prefer the term “prostitute” to “sex worker” because the latter is too vague to describe my experiences. “Sex worker” can include porn actors, cam girls, sugar babies, strippers, prostitutes, and others. I wasn’t a porn actor and I can’t relate to that experience. I was however a prostitute: my first “date” was by walking down the street and being picked up by an older man in a car after getting out of the club one late night. Being young and in the car with an older man, I didn’t know how to protect my boundaries. I gave him a blowjob with no condom, spit out his disgustingly-flavored cum, and got $80 in return.
In the transgender community prostitution is glamorized. In a world where trans women of color are murdered by men of our own race and class with impunity, where men will fuck us in private but act like they never knew us in public, where we are rejected from jobs, housing, and cut-off from our families and communities, I understand why prostitution made us feel powerful. In many ways, being a prostitute is a complete rejection of all we’ve been through: fuck the man that won’t hold my hand in public, I’ll charge him instead. Fuck my family for rejecting me, fuck that job for firing me, I don’t need them anymore. The whole world can reject me and it doesn’t matter because I could make it on my own. Not to mention, for those of us not independently wealthy, usually our only option for transition related medical care is through prostitution — whether we like it or not.
But the reality of being a transgender prostitute was not so simple. What started out as empowering in my mind quickly became a trap I couldn’t escape. The longer in the trade, the harder it is to leave. I’ve been raped more times than I can count. I remember some of the more brutal ones. One time I went home with a client and accepted a drink from him. Drinks always made it easier for me. I felt more confident and they allowed me to ignore the isolation and the reality of what I was doing. It allowed me to ignore the fetishization that clients do to transgender prostitutes which always caused me severe dysphoria and depression (calling me a feminine boy, shemale, dissecting which parts of me were masculine or feminine, telling me how much I’m really worth, judging my passibility, telling me never to fully transition because I’d loose what makes me special, pressuring me to stop hormones so I could achieve an erection and ejaculate, etc.). This particular client drugged my drink and I woke up naked on my stomach to him on top of me jerking off. I wanted to say no but I couldn’t because my limbs were so heavy and I was so tired. I fell back out of consciousness and woke up the next morning to him trying to negotiate a lower rate with me. I called him the next day and pleaded with him to tell me if he penetrated me so that I would know if I was at risk for HIV. I promised I wouldn’t turn him in.
I’ll save you the pain of recounting all my stories, but I will tell you it got much worse from there. Aside from the common experience of clients pulling off condoms to put it back in me when they thought I wasn’t paying attention, the last time I was raped was the most brutal. After a few years of the sex trade, I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt trapped in the industry and it made me feel so alone and so sad. I wanted a “normal” life. I didn’t want to give random men access to my body anymore. I didn’t want to pretend every day to be okay with clients who played out their worst fantasies on me: sometimes I reminded them of their underage sisters, others of their mom, to others I was something they had to pay for because they could never be with a girl like me in public. Dealing with men who had to be drugged up just to fuck me, because in their minds I was taboo. I didn’t know the term “right to exit” at the time, but looking back I know that’s what I longed for. The right to just say no, pack up, and leave for something better. But I couldn’t because, like many transgender prostitutes, I was homeless and living hotel-to-hotel, forced to see clients to afford my room each night. It was a lonely and heavy existence.
I became utterly suicidal and desperate. I ended up taking refuge in a client, telling him how sad I was. He told me he’d make me feel better and gave me meth. I never did that before, but I was desperate to stop the pain. A few days later and I found myself tied up on the bed, drugged from doing too much meth, not having eaten for days, with a white man penetrating and suffocating me when I was begging him to stop. He ultimately did stop when he finished, stole my money and left me on the bed with a bag of meth in my own fluids from the douche he forced me to do after raping me.
I couldn’t work anymore; my body shut off. I couldn’t stop though, because I had to keep paying for my room. On top of that my mom got misdiagnosed with cancer. I had to keep working to pay her medical bills, her vitamins, her Uber drives to the doctor. When I tell you it killed my soul, that is an understatement. The last client I ever saw I felt a heaviness through my body as I kneeled down in front of him. I felt as if I was raping myself, and I don’t mean just “mentally.” That physical and spiritual feeling I got every time I was raped, that dissociation from my body, that’s how I felt with him. Because there is no “right to exit,” when I stopped seeing clients I went completely homeless. Living on the streets. It’s been a really long few years. My experience is similar to so many other women I worked with, including ones who have died before they ever had a chance to make it out and live the fulfilling and free lives they dreamed of. It is with that heaviness that I write to you. I refuse to denounce the countless nights I spent with women who told me “I know it’s gonna hurt sister, but we just have to do this a few more months to get our surgeries;” women who spent nights slipping into severe depression; women who fell into drug addiction, and from that psychosis or overdose, due to the sadistic conditions of our lives as trans women in the sex trade.
I need to tell my story in such graphic detail because it is essential for readers who are not intimately familiar with the industry to understand the reality of many women in prostitution. It is equally important to understand that when you oppose the right to exit, you are telling me that women who share my experience don’t deserve to have a right to leave. You are denying the most denied right of women, the right to say no.
Recognizing and moving through the flames of my trauma have not turned me into a victim, as pro-prostitution advocates claim, but into a revolutionary communist and a serious student of feminism and socialism. For me, abolition and revolution isn’t a “horizon;” it’s a necessity. I know that stories like mine, and of the many women I worked with, are not being told by the dominant, liberal, and unprincipled supporters of the sex trade who mask themselves as “pro sex worker.” To this day I maintain contact with women who do feel trapped, who don’t have the right to exit, and who dream of an emancipated future where they can pursue other careers but can’t because of how the sex trade traps them inside of it. For that reason, I am responding to your statement entitled “Rights, Not Rescue: A Response to AF3IRM in defense of DSA Resolution #53” which influenced the DSA’s mistaken decision to let it pass.
The origin of prostitution and violence against prostitutes
By claiming that prostitution has existed in “virtually every society” you intentionally mislead people into an idealist understanding of history that is both ahistorical and attempts to present prostitution as natural. As Marie Mies notes in Women The Last Colony, “no aggressor can maintain permanent control over those he has conquered and subordinated unless the subordinated are made to accept this state of affairs as nature-imposed or, what amounts to the same, as God-given.”
The first historical mention of prostitution was around 2400 BC, in Ancient Sumeria, a society whose mode of production was that of slavery and patriarchal property relations. The origin of prostituting women and children is linked directly to the regulation of women’s sexuality, the practice of enslaving women, military conquest, and child debt slavery. Although mythical tales are told about “sacred prostitutes,” that assertion has been disproven by historians such as Gerda Lerner. As Lerner notes in The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia, “slavery became an established institution, slave owners rented out their female slaves as prostitutes, and some masters set up commercial brothels staffed by slaves.” Similar to today, the ruling class of the time not only used women for sexual pleasure but also displayed captive women as a sign of their wealth and power. Indeed, it was men’s appropriation of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities which laid the foundation for private property, class society, and the state to develop.
Never before in history was prostitution as widespread as it is now under global capitalism. Engels notes in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that as industry developed on the capitalist basis of production, poverty and misery of the working classes became widespread. He stated that “oppression by force was replaced by corruption; the sword, as the first social lever, by gold.”
In previous modes of production, the force of the sword is what disciplined the masses into submission to the desires of the ruling class. Under capitalism, however, the sword has largely been replaced by money. “The right of the first night,” or the legal right in feudal Europe which allowed lords to sleep with women of the subordinated classes, “was transferred from the feudal lords to the bourgeois manufacturers.” And with that transition, Engels noted, “prostitution increased to an extent never heard of.”
Understanding that prostitution has been passed down primarily as a right of the ruling class of the time — slave masters, feudal lords, and now the bourgeoisie — we can see that prostitution has always been a right of the ruling class to access subordinated bodies in whatever manner they please, for the purpose of their own self-gratification (whether that is a male orgasm, or a compulsive maladapted coping mechanism dressed up as “therapy”).
To believe that prostitutes are not under coercion because of the absence of physical force (although to be clear, in many situations they are) is to misunderstand that it is money and capital which act as the “first social lever” in capitalist society.
The right of the subordinated classes of men to buy access to women’s bodies has been used historically to break class solidarity in order to maintain the dominant social relations of the time. This was true in feudal Europe and remains true today: when proletarian and petit bourgeois men get to buy women too, they develop a false consciousness and build solidarity with bourgeois men of their own gender rather than aligning with women of their own class. And because the overthrow of capitalism is only possible by the overthrowing of the bourgeoisie, prostitution serves two great purposes: (1) allows bourgeois men access to a reserve army of women for their pleasure, and (2) prevent class consciousness and thus helps stop the proletariat from organizing as a class.
While there might have been some amount of sexual exchange in tribal communities prior to colonialism, it is imperative to understand that it cannot be understood as prostitution which started in the slave/master mode of production and passed through feudal Europe where it overtook the world. It was settler-colonialism that brought with it the capitalist markets that so rapidly proliferated wage-slavery, prostitution, and the abysmal conditions for the proletariat and enslaved people. It was capitalism transported through settler-colonialism that created the dire conditions which pressure women into the sex trade in the first place. It was settler-colonialism that forced the capitalist system on native people which, in its wake, killed and commodified everything.
The claim that increases in prostitution is due to “women’s increasing economic power and busier executive schedules” is incorrect and is an attempt to sanitize the real reasons prostitution is on the rise. Throughout all of history, when economic conditions worsen, prostitution increases. I could provide examples thoroughly that would take up several pages, but let’s zero in on one most relevant to socialists history.
Michael Parenti notes in Dirty Truths that when communism was overthrown and market reforms aimed at capitalist restoration were introduced, “Russia’s health system was crumbling; the education system was deteriorating; cholera, diphtheria, and tuberculosis were spreading, as was poverty, hunger and homelessness; and crime, corruption, and prostitution were flourishing.” He goes on to state that “whatever economic democracy the communists had managed to put together — including the guaranteed right to a job, medical care, and education, and subsidized food, housing, and utilities — was being scuttled.” When material conditions worsened, prostitution increased because people are more desperate to survive. And when real existing socialism was overthrown, trafficking and prostitution increased once again, reasserting the right of the ruling class to women’s bodies.
Anuradha Ghandy, a Maoist revolutionary feminist from India, noted in her 2001 International’s Women’s Day speech that, “the cosmetic industry, tourism and bourgeois media have degraded the women’s body as never before, without any respect for their individuality,” and that “this, coupled with mass poverty, has led to entire populations turning to prostitution as witnessed in East Europe, East Asia, Nepal, etc.”
You state that “the violence we all experience stems from the criminalization of not just the trade, but of LGBTQ folks, non-citizens, poor people, people of color, and other marginalized communities.” Yet from understanding the historical and material origins of prostitution, we see that violence is part and parcel of what is definitively a vestige of slavery, patriarchy, feudalism, and class war. Prostitution has never existed without violence, slavery, patriarchy, and class oppression.
Of course, the police are a large source of violence against prostitutes. The police are the weaponized arm of the repressive state. But to lump all the violence prostitutes experience to criminalization is incorrect and attempts to present a simple answer to a far more complex problem. Prostitutes experience violence primarily because the relationship between the prostitute and the client is necessarily antagonistic. The “session” between a prostitute and her buyer is always a power struggle between the man and the woman, the buyer and the bought. Any prostitute knows this intuitively: clients want us to do more for less money, we want to do less for more money. This isn’t dependent on the disposition of the client: the structural positions of the buyer and the bought necessitate these interests. While you can say this antagonism does exist in all labor under capitalism, the difference is that when the power struggle is enacted in such a tangible way during sex, a sex that most in the trade were coerced into by material conditions, sexual violence is a necessary component of the equation. Every interaction as a prostitute is to fight a battle on the terrain of our own body: the prostitute is fighting for her right to bodily autonomy and the client is fighting for his entitlement to her body.
These misconceptions are generated largely by the focus on the voices of the most privileged classes of women dabbling in “sex work” and attempting to speak for the whole class. As philosopher J. Moufawad-Paul states:
Thus, someone who owns property and has a secure job cannot actually experience what it means to be a sex-worker because her prime vocation is not one where she is forced to sell her body as an economic necessity. Sex labour in a context of class privilege is an activity, a game, where one’s material reality produces a different set of options: you can always stop, you have a far greater margin of choice (your clientelle are more like dating options on Craigslist but with reimbursement attached), and by-and-large you are not a sex-worker because this is simply compensated dating — it is not the material institution of prostitution defined by labourers who have no other choice but to sell their labour in this institution. You are not part of this institution’s army of labour; you are not part of its reserve army of labour when you aren’t working.
Those who fit into the category of the former should be immediately deprived of their right to speak on behalf of the actually oppressed women in the sex trade. And those that fit into the latter category form the actual army of prostituted labor and are there due to economic and social pressures, thus proving that coercion is the main driving force of the sex trade.
The only real freedom in prostitution is the freedom for bourgeois men to access the bodies of proletarian women
As Michael Parenti stated in Dirty Truths, “There is no such thing as a freedom detached from the socioeconomic reality in which it might find a place.” As you note, we are “complex human beings, making difficult decisions under the constraints of poverty, and many other intersecting forms of marginalization.” Yet in the next sentence, you state that people “choose” to work in the sex industry. As you noted above, constraints are necessarily coercive. The definition of a constraint is a “limitation or restriction.” The very act of constraining someone is to restrain their freedom to move. The definition of “constraining” is to “compel or force (someone) to follow a particular course of action.”
Consent does not exist in a vacuum, sealed off from the other conditions of society. To decontextualize consent from the broader structures of the economy and society, which both create the options we are able to choose from and apply pressure for us to choose certain options over others, is to only understand consent in its most superficial meaning.
You correctly note that low-wage work is not enough to pay the enormous debt that comes from being an immigrant or a working-class person in the United States. Yet after naming the coercive conditions of capitalism, you say that “most people are not doing this work against their will, any more than other types of immigrant work.” This is erroneous on two grounds. Firstly, by naming that people enter the sex trade because all other options of sustaining their lives are exhausted — the “other types of immigrant work” — you are necessarily saying that they are pressured by the dreadful conditions of capitalism to enter the sex trade as the only option they have left to adequately provide for themselves. This downplays the conditions of wage-slavery and the reactionary ideologies within capitalism — racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, etc. — which cut people out of participation in the formal economy. Those two factors make “choice” impossible. Secondly, you ignore the very real data that the majority of prostituted people are between the ages of 13 and 25 and of that an overwhelming majority of prostitutes are forced either physically or through coercive economic conditions.
Russian Revolutionary feminist Nadezhda Krupskaya, speaking on the conditions of prostituted women in 1899, in The Woman Worker, still holds true today.
One has only to listen to how the well fed bourgeois and his wife talk with contempt of the depraved factory women and girls, and with what hypocritical disgust these ladies who have never known poverty pronounce the word “prostitute.” Bourgeois professors shamelessly go into print to assert that prostitutes are not slaves but are people who have chosen to take that road! It is the same hypocrisy that insists that no one prevents a worker from leaving a given factory where it is impossible to breathe, what with the dust, poisonous vapours, heat, and so on. They “voluntarily” remain working there for 16 to 18 hours a day.
Selling the only commodity we have left: our bodies
Under capitalism, workers are forced to sell the only commodity they have, namely their labor-power, in order to survive. Those of us cut out from the formal economy, unable to sell our labor-power, are forced to sell the only thing we have left: our bodies. Proletarian work under capitalism is wage slavery; forced or coerced sex is rape; prostitution under wage-slavery is in every instance either forced or coerced and therefore qualifies as rape. By asserting it’s not, you are defining rape only as sex by physical force, and thus denounce decades of pro-consent activism that clearly states: coerced sex is rape and coercion means pressure. Economic and social forces are absolutely what pressure the most oppressed women into the sex trade!
The concept of wage-slavery doesn’t delegitimize its earlier manifestation, chattel slavery. In fact, chattel slavery has historically been used to justify wage-slavery, and the inverse is true as well. The understanding that prostitution is inherently rape doesn’t negate the even more violent forms of rape that prostitutes experience. Those that try to limit the word “rape” to its most bare legal meaning align with those that fight to limit rape to “forcible vaginal penetration.” Understanding rape in its most narrow sense serves only the rapists that, by exclusion from definition, are allotted exclusion from responsibility.
As a prostitute that was raped well over the amounts of times I can count on my two hands, I can clearly explain how I both experienced rape and how none of the sex I had as a prostitute was truly consensual because of the conditions which forced me to enter and trapped me in prostitution. Prostitution thrives off vulnerability. The buyer knows this, and therefore uses his money to coerce women in vulnerable social and economic positions to get off. That is why prostitution, like other forms of rape, is not just about sex or money but about power.
If the sex trade was truly a free choice then those who have the most freedom in society (the rich) would not be the least likely to engage in it. And those who have the least freedom in society (proletarians, indigenous women, colonized peoples, transgender women) would not be over-represented in the sex trade.
You can’t reform violence out of a violent industry, you can only abolish it
You correctly state that most people in the sex trade “are doing so in order to escape more punitive, low-paid work, that may have stricter schedules prohibitive to people with disabilities, mothers, students, and many people who are primary caretakers for their families.” Yet for some reason, instead of abolishing the conditions that act as a pressure valve to push people into prostitution as a last resort, you instead opt to reform the sex trade itself.
Prostitution will always retain its class character: offering scant benefits to those few at the top while imposing its most brutal forms of expropriation and violence on those at the bottom. This is due to market forces and the laws of motion of capitalism. For classes to be eradicated in one industry would mean that classes would have to be eradicated within all of society. And if that were to happen then the sex trade itself would cease to exist. We know this from (1) a historical analysis of the origin of the sex trade in the original appropriation of women’s reproductive and sexual capacities as private property, and (2) from the withering away of the sex trade in actually existing socialisms.
The sex trade under market forces will always result in the degradation of conditions for those trapped within it. You want to demand higher rates? Too bad, a woman from the lower strata of the sex trade will do it cheaper. You want to demand safer conditions? A more exploited woman is available elsewhere, whether in poorer neighborhoods at home or abroad in the peripheries of imperialism. With the decriminalization of pimps and johns, the global sex trade increases. And with that increase, the market becomes saturated and prices and conditions for prostituted women decline.
Prostitution cooperatives also aren’t the answer. Cooperatively owned and “worker run,” they are still subject to the same competitive market forces which inevitably lead to the same capitalist exploitation that workers experience in enterprises that aren’t “worker run.”
We see the intermingling between the sex trade and imperialism best exposed in the sex tourism industry. As Maria Mies notes in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, “the main export product which, perhaps more than sunny beaches, has attracted streams of male tourists from Japan, the USA and Europe, are Asian, African and Latin American women,” and that “governments are offering their women as part of the tourism package.” The commodification of prostituted women at home is visible in mainstream music which talks of “hoes” along with cars, high fashion brands, and money as assets of social capital to be shown off to prove their wealth and dominance, while abroad is demonstrated by western male fixation “on cars and their exotic sex holidays,” which is so strong according to Mies that “the governments do all they can to supply these two most important mass consumer goods at a fairly low price.” The international sex trade can only be understood as the severe sexual exploitation of racialized women as a tool of capital accumulation.
To think that you could end imperialism and the sex trafficking it produces through building power with unions (which is idealistic considering there is no “boss” in the traditional sense) is truly fantasy. This is part of the problem of the term “sex work.” Strippers might be able to organize a union because they have a boss and a workplace, but prostitutes do not. And considering you openly and for good reason oppose the legalization which would lead to bosses and brothels, the union organizing argument is therefore moot.
Real power doesn’t lie in forming loose associations to ask your abuser for slightly less-sadistic abuse. Real power is the ability to crush your enemy — the bourgeoisie, the pimp, the john, the trafficker — in order to abolish the conditions causing your exploitation. In a literal way, we must crush their global market that sells and trades women and girls and initiate a revolutionary movement demanding ambitious improvements to women’s conditions.
Calls for financial literacy as a solution to the ways that many of us are trapped in the sex trade is grossly misguided and, quite honestly solutions like “banking” are just insulting. Never in the history of capitalist exploitation has “financial planning,” “financial literacy,” or other victim-blaming approaches to poverty been able to actually end class oppression. By opposing the “right to exit,” but offering half-hearted “solutions,” you show that you are more concerned with protecting pimps and johns than defending women.
When you claim that the only real legacy of chattel slavery is mass incarceration, you grossly downplay the impact of slavery on our society. Even a cursory survey of the transatlantic slave trade shows that the legacy of slavery permeates nearly all of American life, including but not limited to: food service, tipping, domestic work, farm work, labor law, techniques of scientific management, technologies of surveillance, and yes, even the sex trade.
Workers can organize unions to fight their boss, slaves can only organize violent insurrections or escape their slave masters. There is a long history of documentation that pimps brand their women like slaves, utilize coercive and deceptive tactics to target children to traffick them, and enact the worst forms of violence to maintain control over the women, mostly women of color, that they prostitute. You cannot organize your pimp; you can only kill or escape him.
Pimps and johns do not see us as human. Take the words of one pimp: “Women are sitting on a gold mine — they got something between their legs that’s like a commodity.” This commodification doesn’t stop there, there are entire websites devoted to slicing women up by body part, function, appearance, and level of service to value her based on the ratings of johns.
Far more detailed than a yelp review, The Erotic Review (TER) and other “escort review services” dismember the woman into her component parts. Each part of the woman is meant to be reviewed, so you see rankings for information such as: pussy, breasts, body type, breast appearance (youthful/older), and for transsexuals, even the amount and quality of their ejaculation (a phenomenon nearly impossible for trans women on hormones, yet nearly universally demanded by buyers). This is not something you can reform away. This is a natural consequence of commodifying human beings, specifically women.
To deny that this sort of female dismemberment does not discipline the male psyche to dismember all of his potential sexual partners — to judge and value them based on their component parts — is to be entirely ignorant as to how culture works. And to believe that these websites can be banned through reform is dually ignorant: these men already use text groups, independent websites, and Facebook groups to discuss and rate the women they buy.
Prostitution thrives off reaction. It is ageist, because of its prizing of young women who always age out at some point. It is ableist because it glorifies the able-bodied woman as the perfect form while fetishizing or rejecting the disabled woman. It is racist because it thrives on the vulnerability of racialized and colonized women, values white women over women of color, and fetishizes Black, brown, and asian women. It is transphobic because it thrives off the vulnerability of trans women and fetishizes them. It is misogynistic because it teaches men that women are commodities to be bought at will and because it rates, values, and pays women according to their attractiveness under the male gaze.
You might argue that you are for the abolition of the sex trade but only with the abolition of all “wage labor.” Yet such a “negation through negation” argument leads to a dead end. The same argument is applied to Israel: “Yes the Israeli state is committing genocide against Palestinians, but all states are repressive, so we shouldn’t single out Israel.” Such logic leads only to inaction by downplaying work we can do to save lives right now on the road to a broader social revolution.
Far from attempting to preserve it — hoping the “invisible hand” of the market will regulate women into safer conditions — socialist feminists should instead attempt to smash the sex trade along with every patriarchal vestige in order to transform society and end gender and class oppression.
Who are the real carceral feminists?
While we know criminalizing women trapped in the sex trade is not the answer, it would be incorrect to assume that decriminalizing johns and pimps would lead to better conditions for prostitutes themselves. The reality is that the existence of a pimp is criminal. It is abhorrent, and no one has the right to be a pimp, just as no one has the right to be a slave master. To say that a pimp is criminal is not to say that his rehabilitation can occur through the bourgeois carceral system. It is to say, however, that no person has the right to become a pimp, that there needs to be a mechanism to repress pimps from targeting vulnerable women and trapping them in slave-like conditions, and that women escaping pimps need physical protection from their abusers.
There is evidence that nations which have decriminalized or legalized pimps and johns do not see a decrease in violence against prostituted women, but an increase. In Canada, the supreme court ruled that criminalization of pimps and buyers was unconstitutional in order to secure the rights of a few well-off “sex workers” to better conduct their “business.” In doing so they acknowledged that there are two-classes of prostitutes, those petite bourgeois women (minority) and the masses of proletarian women forced into prostitution (majority). Decriminalizing buyers and pimps only helps the minority of privileged “sex workers” while disparaging those on the bottom. That is why, rather than protecting buyers and traffickers, we should create opportunity for those most at-risk. As one Canadian proletarian feminist front put it, “we must reject the idea that prostitution could be a solution or a social safety net for proletarian women; instead we should fight for creating real opportunities — employment, education, etc.”
You are not merely calling for an end to the criminalization of women in the sex trade. If you were calling for that then you would be mostly aligned with AF3IRM’s statement. Where you differ is that you are calling to decriminalize johns and pimps. And by doing so, you attempt to legalize and vindicate the right for bourgeois men to buy proletarian women; the right of settler men to buy indigenous women; the right of western men to buy women from the Global South.
The argument that employment law and not criminal law should be used to protect people in the sex trade is based on a faulty understanding of the American legal system. Employment law is civil law and the most critical factors endangering women in the sex trade fall under criminal law: rape, physical and sexual assault, slavery, trafficking, and robbery. So even if you were to gain some small “employment rights” for the sex trade, these issues would still be dealt with by criminal law due to the nature of our legal system. Therefore such an argument is a moot point.
There is no need to think of criminalization in such a banal and binary way. In the final analysis, we can, and must, defend our proletarian sisters while also denouncing the sadism of the sex industry and the exploitation from buyers and pimps. As AF3IRM has demonstrated, both are possible: We can be survivors without being victims or criminals.
You say that abolitionists are carceral feminists. Yet pimps keep their prostitutes in a form of a prison, economically and physically entrapping them so that they are unable to escape. Prisons force labor to expropriate the surplus, pimps and the state force sexual labor to expropriate the surplus. Sex trade markets trap women inside. In the final analysis, in defending pimps and johns, it is you who are the true carceral feminists.
Pro-prostitution is always in the last instance pro-john
You state that “the migrant massage parlor so often serves as a place of comfort, healing, and survival — for both the immigrant men and women struggling to maintain wholeness within a capitalist state that coercively cuts them apart with borders and arbitrated currencies.”
Let me be extremely clear: The debate over the sex trade should never be predicated on how much johns enjoy buying prostitutes. Clearly they enjoy it and in many instances do so out of addiction, feeling compelled to buy prostitutes due to the alienated conditions of modern life and their entitlement to our bodies. Furthermore, if we are claiming that “sex work is consensual,” but then justifying the existence of the sex trade on the basis that johns get off on it, then a conversation on consent is de facto impossible.
To defend the right of johns to buy women to get off, and to use that as a justification for the existence of the sex trade, is to argue that it is socially necessary for a reserve army of proletarian women to exist to serve the desires of men. And because historically prostitution has never existed without the ruling class having the first and privileged access to it, you are arguing for the right of the capitalist class to buy proletarian women as they please. Furthermore, because all prostitution has existed in class societies, you are arguing that the most oppressed of the working classes, forced by poor economic and social conditions, should compose that reserve army of prostitutes.
This is a clear example that in the last instance, pro-prostitution advocacy is always freedom for the right of men to purchase women and never actually about the right of women to not live in a society where the only thing we have left to sell are our bodies.
Pro-prostitution activism is liberal feminism
You correctly identify that pro-prostitution advocates are deemed liberal feminists, but then say that you are not liberals because your movement is based on a critique of capitalism. Such an assertion is deceptive: liberalism is hegemonic in our society and it is hard to escape the “common sense” that is liberal ideology. This ideological hold is so strong that even those of us able to rupture it enough to become anti-capitalists still struggle with liberalism infecting our movements, leading us to incorrect ideas and opportunism. If an anti-capitalist movement necessarily was not liberal on the basis of it being anti-capitalist, then there would be no need for anti-revisionist movements, capitalist restoration would never have happened in socialist nations, and activists wouldn’t get co-opted.
Many mainstream feminists consider their uncritical support of the sex trade to be a radical notion because it is rebellious against the puritanical “common sense” values that they grew up with. Yet such a feminism cannot be radical because legitimizing the sex trade does not challenge the system itself, and on the contrary is quite comfortable existing within the peripheries of patriarchal capitalist society and culture. The sex trade is part and parcel of class society. Bourgeois and settler men love the sex trade because it allows them unhinged access to the bodies of subordinated classes of women. Far from socialist, such sex trade positive feminists are actually deeply influenced by liberalism, an ideology marked by intense individualism and developed by the rising bourgeoisie in the revolutionary period from feudalism to capitalism. Whereas the liberal theorists of the burgeoning capitalist societies defended settler-colonialism, slavery, and genocide on the basis of protecting the individual liberty of a few, liberal feminists today defend an inherently exploitative industry, which has the worst effects on women impacted the hardest by imperialism, on the basis of protecting their own individual liberty (which is, in the last instance, always about protecting the liberty of bourgeois men to access and buy proletarian bodies).
When you dismiss abolition as a direct descendent from 2nd wave feminism you are intentionally ignoring third world, revolutionary, proletarian, and indigenous feminisms. The Zapatista women militants in Chiapas, many of whom survived the sex trade themselves, do not allow prostitution on their territory. This is known as Rule #33 of Revolutionary Law and exists, not because of hypocritical bourgeois moralism, but because they abolished patriarchal and capitalist conditions that give rise to prostitution. To dismiss them is to view them under western eyes, in the words of Chandra Mohanty, and as backwards because of their indigeneity.
Women revolutionaries across the world such as Alexandra Kollontai, NK Krupskaya, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemberg, Anuradha Ghandy, Comrade Parvati, Comandanta Amada, and countless others engaged in making revolution in the Philippines, Russia, China, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Mexico, Palestine, and elsewhere have all been clear: prostitution is sexual exploitation and has no place in an emancipated socialist society.
By focusing on the individual right for a few individual prostitutes to ascend to capitalist success, at the expense of proletarian and colonized women, you are necessarily engaged in a liberal focus on individual success at the expense of the many. As Anuradha Ghandy notes in Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement, liberalism focuses on individual rights rather than collective rights (right to buy women vs right to exit and not be prostituted), is ahistorical (does not understand the role of prostitution throughout history), mechanically supports formal equality at the expense of other classes of women (formal equality for pimps and johns at the expensed of those trafficked and forced into prostitution), and does not question the economic and political structures that give rise to patriarchal discrimination (not understanding the material forces creating the market for prostitution).
Because of pro-prostitution activism spearheaded by the most privileged “sex workers,” many of our sisters have been lead into a false consciousness, mistaking attacks on the sex trade as attacks aimed at their own person. This is not uncommon: when I was organizing grocery workers and we would reveal the unsafe practices of the company, a few workers got extremely defensive thinking that by attacking the company we were attacking them. Additionally, because women in the sex trade are so often attacked by all angles, it is understandable that they would feel abolitionist feminists are attacking them. This is not the case. We must fix this with feminist consciousness raising and building revolutionary socialist organizations.
Even Rosemary Tong, in her authoritative primer on feminist theory, Feminist Thought, states:
That liberal ideologies, typically spawned in capitalist economics, present practices such as prostitution and surrogate motherhood as contractual exercises of free choice, then, is no accident, according to Marxist and socialist feminists. The liberal ideologies claim that women become prostitutes and surrogate mothers because they prefer these jobs over other available jobs. But, as Marxist and socialist feminists see it, when a poor, illiterate, unskilled woman chooses to sell her sexual or reproductive services, chances are her choice is more coerced than free. After all, if one has little else of value to sell besides one’s body, one’s leverage in the marketplace is quite limited.
Some few women in the sex trade might come forward against abolition. So you should ask: should we protect an inherently violent industry because a minority of its “workers” at the centers of imperialism want it to remain? Surely, if we apply this logic to the fossil-fuel industry, where workers have confronted environmental activists thinking they’re attempting to take their jobs, then we should stop fighting the fossil-fuel industry and just commit ourselves to total annihilation through climate change now. No, instead we need to abolish both and provide workers with an ambitious just transition plan.
In many ways the rise of pro-prostitution “feminism” coincides perfectly with neoliberalization: the personal is no longer the political, divorced from material conditions, the right of the individual reigns supreme, and capitalism is something that exists outside, not effecting our lives. Thus, an incorrect understanding of prostitution leads us to draw incorrect conclusions about how to handle prostitution as feminists and socialists. In the final analysis, your continued insistence on individual agency over a historical, materialist and systemic analysis on the origin of prostitution and the economic and social conditions which forcefully funnel oppressed women into it, is in every instance liberal feminism.
Socialists must call for abolition
You claim to be socialist feminists and that you are working towards overturning capitalism. Yet one is left to wonder, what actually is your strategy for overturning capitalism? A correct historical materialist approach to overthrowing capitalism would look at revolutions that have been successful in smashing the bourgeois state, studying the economic and social conditions of the time, and aptly applying the theories proven correct through practice to the material conditions of our time. To do that you would need to look at actually existing socialisms, which you don’t mention at all throughout your article. Presumably, it’s because nearly every, if not all, successful revolutions have been quite clear on prostitution: it has no place in a socialist society.
Prostitution began to wither away in actually existing socialist nations. This didn’t happen through criminalizing women engaged in prostitution, but because, as Moufawad-Paul states, “a) they banned pimps and brothels; b) they provided women with property rights; c) they pursued an agenda of women's equality that, regardless of some of its failures, was still far ahead of anything else in the world at that time and even today.” As Engels correctly concluded: “Communist society, instead of introducing community of women [prostitution], in fact abolishes it.”
As Rosa Janis with Cosmonaut rightly notes, “prostitution and gambling were opposed [by revolutionaries] not because of the cheap moralism of the petit-bourgeois concerned about the impurity of such acts but because they took advantage of working-class and surplus population poverty by selling people into sexual slavery and debt.”
Prostitution in the final analysis cannot be reformed, it must be abolished along with the conditions that created it. Why is this so?
- Prostitution is a vestige of patriarchal property relations and a vestige of women's enslavement passed down through class society as “the right of first night.”
- It’s a weapon that the ruling class uses to break class solidarity.
- It’s fundamentally about the right of bourgeois men to buy access to proletarian women’s bodies.
- The power struggle plays itself out over the woman’s body making it impossible to root out violence and rape from the sex trade.
- The sex trade under imperialism always results in the enslavement and hyper-exploitation of Asian, Pacific Islander, African, and Latin American women for capital accumulation.
- It disciplines the male psyche to associate money with sexual access and entitlement to women’s bodies, thrives off vulnerability, and reproduces reactionary ideologies.
- Prostitution is simply not socially necessary.
The correct socialist feminist orientation to prostitution would include:
- Decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing prostituted people.
- Repressing global sex trade markets through containing demand.
- Creating accountability for buyers and pimps outside of the bourgeois state judicial system.
- Ensuring the universal right to exit and right to not be prostituted.
- Focusing specifically on the most vulnerable proletarian women in the sex trade, including women who are indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Latin American, transgender, and especially children.
- Pursuing an ambitious plan for women’s liberation alongside increasing opportunities for women at the bottom including good jobs, housing, education, etc.
- Organizing towards complete abolition on the road to social revolution.
I am asking you to correct your stance on the global sex trade, start proceedings to reverse Resolution #53, and denounce your unprincipled support of johns and pimps over proletarian and colonized women across the globe.
JOHNS AND PIMPS ARE CLASS ENEMIES.
Originally posted here.