What about the sex workers?

I want to examine two points I’ve noted are repeatedly raised by anti-feminists, and both ignore certain realities of sex work.

The first argument is against the idea that the gender gap in pay either exists, or, if it does exist, the argument goes that it is justified because men’s work is more dangerous than women’s work. I don’t deny that labour statistics show that men are more often maimed or killed in the workplace. There are standard arguments about how sexist institutions discourage women from entering dangerous and well-remunerated professions, but I don’t want to go there. I want to discuss the one dangerous yet [ETA: reputedly] well-remunerated industry in which the overwhelming majority of the workers are women: the sex industry.

My question is: are sex workers in countries where prostitution is considered a crime included in the labour statistics?

Considering that in most such countries they are not employed in a formal workplace relationship with taxation registration etc, how could sex workers be included in formal labour statistics? So how many drug overdoses, assaults, rapes and murders of sex workers are not included in the labour statistics?

Is the situation different in countries where prostitution has been legalised? Do such countries include the injuries and deaths of sex workers as workplace injuries, or are they put to the side as somehow personal injuries that are not inherently part of the work?

What about sweatshops with illegal immigrant workers? Also dominated by female employees – are these women and their injuries included in the labour statistics? I’m betting not.

The second anti-feminist argument put forth that ignores the realities of sex work is really quite astonishing. It’s an extension of the common argument that men having asymmetric social power over women is balanced by women having asymmetric sexual power over men because men want more sex than women do.

According to this new extended argument, it is trivially obvious that women have more sexual power than men because so many more women can make a living selling sex to men compared to the demand from women wishing to purchase sex from men. If there aren’t as many women wishing to pay for sex, the argument goes that this must mean that more women get all the sex they want (thus having more sexual power than men who don’t get all the sex they want). Corollary: men are in thrall to the women who control the scarce supply of pussy available for poking. Thus the argument concludes that sex workers have more power than their clients who are the source of the money.

This strikes me as analogous to arguing that supermarket checkout operators have more power than the customer because you can’t take your groceries home until you pay them.

Just like the checkout operator doesn’t get to keep the money that customers give to them, neither do sex workers keep the money that customers give to them. The people operating the business space that the sex workers perform in gather the money, and give the sex workers a much smaller cut of the profits than they keep for themselves. Customers may feel exploited by both supermarkets and by strip clubs/brothels, but the exploitation isn’t being done by the customer service providers who are just paid workers, the exploitation of both customers and workers is being done by the larger business organisations that set the prices.

And the people who overwhelmingly set the prices and rake in the profits in the sex industry are men, not women (despite the high visibility of “madams”, these days they tend to be middle management, not outright owners).

And that’s before you even get around to whether there’s more sexual power in the capacity to buy sexual gratification or in the capacity to sell sexual access without regard to personal sexual gratification.

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, violence

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. tigtog – Awesome post, one of the first posts about prostitution that has made me go “yeahhhhh!” not “despair for humanity”.
    “women having asymmetric sexual power over men because men want more sex than women do.”
    I don’t see it as power, personally (not disagreeing with you per se, but with the concept). I’m not and never have been a sex worker and I’m not very attractive, but when I have been considered attractive, the sexual attention I’ve gotten from men (as a result of physical attractiveness only) has largely made me unsettled, scared, threatened and paranoid, rather than “empowered”. “Sexual power” is apparently the power to make men want something from me, but I don’t feel powerful because of it. /siderant
    I also don’t see sex work as selling “sex”, but selling the use of a body, usually a woman’s. (Again, not disagreeing with you but with the concept).

  2. I hear you, LM. I’m presenting/describing the argument of others, and I don’t agree with all the concepts contained therein either.
    I particularly don’t see how an attribute one doesn’t choose to own, that attracts attention one finds unwelcome from men wanting to revel in that attribute, can be validly described as “empowering”.
    Male sexual gratification using the female body, where the woman’s sexual gratification is entirely irrelevant to the event, is hardly an expression of women’s sexual power whether they’ve been picked up in a bar or paid money in a brothel. It’s an expression of not having the social power to demand quid pro quo sexual gratification.

  3. “It’s an expression of not having the social power to demand quid pro quo sexual gratification.”
    Oh but imagine if women -started- demanding quid pro quo sexual gratification. I do. But then I was raised that sex isn’t bad, nor is it an acceptable way to get people to do what you want, so it doesn’t seem like such a hard concept to me. You only have sex with people that are worth it, or at least really do it for you in bed. But then I’m also one of those girls in her mid 20s that was raised being told I can do anything a boy can do if I want. Discussions like these leave me a little confused because my upbringing told me I’m everyone’s equal regardless of sex, race, religion… pretty much everything except age (age has more experience in most cases and should be deferred to under some circumstances), so maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.

  4. Morrighan, I don’t think you should keep your mouth shut, I think you’re bang on target. Egalitarian intimate relationships absolutely should be about both partners expecting mutual sexual gratification.
    That’s exactly why sex workers aren’t a manifestation of sexual power. Sex work isn’t a relationship, sex work is a business transaction: the customers gets an orgasm, and the worker gets paid money.
    Providing a service for money instead of buying a service with money is not being the one with power.

  5. Re: sexual power-
    A lot of men seem to think that women do have this amazing “sexual power” (they’ve certainly waxed lyrical about it over the centuries). But let’s take a closer look at it – a woman’s “sexual power” is basically the ability to make men want to have sex with her. So in the end it’s all about what *he* wants first and foremost and about something that she gives to *him*. Not power at all, I don’t think.

  6. Sex work isn’t the selling of ones body. I have been selling sex for nearly twenty years and all of my body parts are intact. In fact saying that selling sex is the selling of ones body is like saying that a clay sculptor sells their hands simply because they use that part of their anatomy as part of their physical labour.
    I think the reason lots of women have so much trouble understanding that sex workers can sell sex (and in fact their is a lot more to the transaction than just sex) has to do with a sex negative culture that tells us that to be a sexually active, sexually powerful women is to somehow be bad or dirty. Can you see that it is just another way that women are meant to behalf or perform gender roles that most of us just dont fit or live up to.
    Sex workers, (women, men and transgender) have sexual power – the power is that we have decided to be sexually expressive (and get paid for it) against all the barriers that have attempted to force us into conforming.
    Taking money for sex does not limit our ability to be active participants in the transaction – or to enjoy the sex and/or the person we are providing a service to. It also doesn’t prevent us from participating in loving relationships with our partners, girl/boyfriends, husbands/wives, and contributing to a healthy society were sex is not considered dirty or abusive.
    debby doesn’t do it for free

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