Comment: The sex industry – what is to be done?


Though there has been a spike in media coverage and comment surrounding the sex industry in recent months, the debate has not changed much.

Street-prostitutionIt masquerades as total de-criminalisation vs. criminalising the punter, with both sides claiming to be looking after the best interests of those women who “work” in the sex industry.

However, the real debate is around whether you see prostitution as a legitimate “industry” or whether you want it completely phased out of existence.

Personally, I don’t believe it is possible to get rid of prostitution in western capitalist societies because its very existence is engrained within our patriarchal class system.

Many who agree with this conclusion will then suggest: “Well it is like any other industry in capitalist society. Let’s unionise those who work in it – i.e. prostitutes/sex workers.”

There are several problems with this.

Firstly, sex worker unionisation advocates will talk about men who are prostitutes or sex workers within a stripping context, games etc., so as to say “it is not all about women and it’s not all about sexual intercourse”. When you get down to it, prostitution and strip clubs where women are the ones selling their bodies in the main are the areas people are referring to when talking about the sex industry.

Explicit sexual acts are sold in exchange for money in both arenas.

In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage. The employer owns the fruits of that labour; he/she does not own the worker or their body, hence the term “free waged labourer”. However, this is exactly what the punter owns when commissioning for sex – the woman’s body.

It is a horrible notion to contemplate, but at that moment the man owns the woman. He calls the shots; he has absolute control over the financial transaction and, in some cases, the power to take her life or seriously injure her if he chooses.

Aside from traditional definitions of work, a woman in that situation does not need a union representative. She needs an exit and a viable alternative.

This is where the focus should be and where resources on helping the women involved should be spent; women’s refuges and support services which are being cut, and extra resources to track down and punish the punter.

Others argue women can earn more from being a prostitute than they can from working in a supermarket. However, that is not a reason to accept the sex industry as an equal. It is more of a reason to support unions in their fight for higher pay in the service sector and wider campaigns to end gender pay discrimination.

In many ways, with feminists arguing over some of the points above, it is up to the feminist movement as a whole to come to its own conclusion after a full debate.

But one thing seems obvious to me – the “sex industry” has in essence got nothing to do with sex.

Surely a healthy and legal definition of sex must relate to mutual pleasure enjoyed by at least two consenting and equal adults; that leaves a lot of scope for personal expression and adventure; however, when money exchange enters the sexual arena, it rips all that apart.

The participants cease to be equal – the woman is commodified and reduced to a mere object to be used at the will of the man; she is not a person to him.

Does anyone really think men who use prostitutes are doing it for “mutual pleasure”? The kicks and gratification they get come from a sense of power and entitlement; “hey, I have paid for you, you are mine for the duration of our contract”. That is assuming he doesn’t just unilaterally change the terms of the arrangement, regardless of what the woman may want or choose.

I have seen first-hand the effects of this with women selling sex on the side street, in my run down home town of Wolverhampton. Nobody can tell me that these women, with their teeth smashed in, looking drawn from years of abuse and enforced drug addiction, are “free”, or doing what they do by choice.

But let’s just say our straw man just enjoys a quickie at a strip club most lunchtimes during work hours. How do you imagine he will treat his fellow women workers when he is back in the office? Does that sense of power and entitlement simply stay within the strip joint, or is it transferred to his place of work and at home with his family?

There are plenty of sexually liberated men I know, including myself, who have never been to a strip joint or would never ever think of using a prostitute. And yes, we are what society would term ‘men’s men’, straight, sporty, leather jacket wearing, beer drinking lads who probably should have been in our prime during the 70s!

Prostitution, and for want of a better word, the sex industry, demeans and alienates us all.

But it is fundamentally about the oppression of all women by male dominated capitalist society and must be opposed.

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  • Nick

    Why do you assume that money is so horrible? I don’t treat an optician, a dentist or a hairdresser as “less than equal” just because I am paying them for a service. It is, in fact, possible to become friends with one’s hairdresser or dentist. You can exchange a kind word at the check-out counter too. I think it is this article that displays a reactionary and impeccably bourgeois attitude towards sexuality by saying that money rips it apart.

  • Ed

    What a bunch of paternalistic nonsense. I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree with the reading that prostitution only exists in the context of our patriarchal hierarcy. It exists (in part) because sex is a key component of human happiness and, for a variety of reasons, some people are unable to find it from a consenting partner. These conditions will not change even once we have achieved a more equal society, as the intricate relationships between individuals can not be seen solely in the light of our over-arching societal structure.

    Your notion that sex ‘must relate to mutual pleasure enjoyed by at least two consenting and equal adults’ is spurious, at best. Whilst that may be your personal definition of sex, it is hardly your right to impose that on others who may not agree. If a person, who is not coerced or otherwise forced into the position through financial circumstance, chooses to sell sexual services for money then it is fair and right that they are able to do so in the safe framework of the law, not shunned away from a prudish society who can’t bring itself to contemplate human sexuality. As amazing as it can seem to some of the more repressed amongst us, some people don’t chose to view sexual relations as some quiveringly precious flower whose honour must be protected. If they don’t have a problem with it, then neither should we.

    Also, it’s entirely misleading to portray sex work as the selling of one persons ‘body’ to another. It is the exchange of a money for services. Services that use the more intimate parts of ones anatomy, yes, but also services whose terms can be agreed beforehand. Limits can be set and boundaries can be agreed. In the context of a safe, legal and unionised setting this is no more a risk to the sex worker as giving a massage is to a masseuse, or a haircut from a hairdresser. It is only the shady, criminal veneer given to sex work by handwringing moralists that convinces people otherwise and gives them license to disrespect the boundaries of those in the industry. There is no more concept of ‘ownership’ than there is when you get a shave from your barber.

    I am also completely at a loss as to where the existence of male prostitution fits into the worldview set out above. You say that prostitution “is fundamentally about the oppression of all women by male dominated capitalist society and must be opposed”, but I entirely fail to see how a man selling his body to another man can fit into that viewpoint. Two gay men are on an equal social footing, so there can be no notion that it is only through leverage of ones privilege over another that the ‘prostitute’ is driven to sex work – This gives the lie to your contention that it is only through the patriarchy that people are driven into these professions.

    The existence of sex work comes about through that old canard of supply and demand – There is a demand for sex amongst those who cannot obtain it by other means and thus there is motivation to supply. Even in the most glorious socialist utopia I have a hard time imagining that these most fundamental market principles will cease to apply. But hopefully, with the sensitivity and knowledge that progressive thought allows us, we are able to bring these transactions out of the shadowy margins of our capitalist economy and into the antiseptic sunlight.

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody. Abuse and so on are illegal anyway – there is no call for new laws, and much of the hysteria around trafficking in recent years has approached a moral panic.

    (I *personally* find prostitution repulsive, but that’s a personal reaction and one which I set aside for looking at things from a philosophical, free market one – others can make choices I don’t, and as long as consent is involved…the principle of freedom is more important than my reaction)

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody.

  • Newsbot9

    “In a capitalist society workers sell their labour for a wage”

    No, companies offer a wage to workers. Capitalism is not the free market.

    You’re not going to eliminate prostitution. So – If you want to limit it, you need to treat the causes. For example, we need to move to harm minimisation on drugs, and we need to stop and reverse the falling percentage of GDP going to capital rather than wages, so people can find jobs which can support them in other fields. We need to encourage adult learning, rather than as the Tories are making massive loans their precondition…

    But criminalising voluntary behavior, in the end, damages everyone and helps nobody.

  • http://twitter.com/nanayasleeps Gods & Monsters

    This is a dreadful article written by someone who appears to have no knowledge or experience of the topic. If you want to help sex workers, stop subjecting them to shame, illegality & state violence. Clients do not “own” sex workers’ bodies. Sex work is only slavery when it is compelled. Your ideas about sex are neither universal nor accurate; if unequal relationships are no-go, then we can never have relationships between people of different ages, races, classes or sexes. Ludicrous.

    Try speaking to a range of sex workers next time.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    What is to be done? Stop publishing nonsense like this “Prostitution, and for want of a better word, the sex industry, demeans and alienates us all.”

    Where to start with the whorephobic slut shaming of this appalling piece of patriarchy writ large?Simply because the author looks down on sex workers it seems they believe that they should be eradicated That a supposedly left wing blog allows this as a view point astounds me. I wrote today of the need to check your privilege when dealing with marganlized groups. John Millington needs to go away, learn about patriarchy, mansplaining , silencing and how people like him should learn or stay silent.

    If he had any understanding of how offensive this statement is ” However, this is exactly what the punter owns when commissioning for sex – the woman’s body.” He would instantly apologize Denying women agency and the right to consent is rape culture. He is therefore supporting it.Sex workers sell sexual services, just as a haridresser sells a service, or a garage mechanic. That he fails to see that is down to his prejudice. I hope he sees fit to educate himself and apologise.

    He might start here. http://itsjustahobby.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/white-lies-allies-and-coconuts/

  • robertcp

    I agree with the comments below. An amazingly silly article.

  • bluecat

    “It is a horrible notion to contemplate, but at that moment the man owns
    the woman. He calls the shots; he has absolute control over the
    financial transaction and, in some cases, the power to take her life or
    seriously injure her if he chooses.”

    This bit particularly showed up your article as ridiculous, John.

    Even if you moderated your language to reflect the reality that not all prostitutes are women (nor indeed all punters men), it would still be a huge and specious exaggeration to say that the punter has absolute control. Sex workers negotiate, as anyone who has even passed through a red light district with their eyes open will have noticed. They negotiate on which acts, for how much, using what kind of protection. It is by no means an equal negotiation, for sure, and oppression, class, gender, addiction, supply and demand and so on certainly can slant it more or less to the detriment of the worker, but it is idiotic to pretend there is none.

    I’m in favour of whatever makes the negotiations safer and more slanted in favour of the worker, myself.

    As to ‘the power to take her life or seriously injure her’ – there is nothing specific to prostitution in that. Most of the people I’ve ever been alone with in my life (certainly all those stronger than me), including my parents, family members and lovers, have had in theory the power to take my life or seriously injure me, should they so choose. (Luckily it has seldom occurred to any one of them to try). I’d be prepared to bet it’s the same for everyone.

    Many things make prostitution a more dangerous business than most, but that is largely due to its illegality, forcing sex workers into secret, lonely work in unsafe, unlighted areas, and laws forbidding prostitutes from working together. Such laws certainly slant things in favour of the punter who actually fancies killing someone with whom he can stand a fair chance of getting away with it.

  • anon

    ha! typical how many men leap to defend prostitution as somehow a “choice”. Ed obviously uses prostitutes and thinks it’s fine to just be paying for this “service”. What utter crap all these criticisms are. There is nothing “prudish” about rejecting sexual exploitation. Thanks John

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Last time I looked I was not a man, but it seems typical of the mansplainer you support to ignore womens voices, and seek to control their choices and bodies.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjustahobby Jemima101

    Last time I looked I was not a man, but it seems typical of the mansplainer you support to ignore womens voices, and seek to control their choices and bodies.

  • bluecat

    No, me neither!

  • robertcp

    Anon, I am sure that you would only consider sex with the love of your life. The sex industry is a fact of life and we should give priority to the rights and safety of people who choose to be sex workers.

  • PP

    When are we going to get to the point when people who are not involved in the sex industry SHUT UP and start minding their own business???
    If you have never ever been with a WG or you are not a WG yourself why do you feel obliged to stick your nos into my business and try to make my life better??? I didn’t ask you for any kind of help. My life in sex industry is great! I love it! and I know 1000’s of the girls who would say the same!
    If I wake up one day and start thinking differently I will ask for help… but definitely not help from people who do not know anything about Sex Industry!

    Would you feel the same if I stick my nos into your business and start telling you wrights and wrongs in your life???
    Don’t you remember your mum telling you not to be a Nosy Parker??? I suggest you go ahead and live your life and I’ll live mine… at least till you get educated on the subject!

  • http://twitter.com/mistressmatisse mistressmatisse

    This article is garbage. I’ve been a sex worker for over 15 years. “Absolute control… the power to injure her or take her life”? That is utter bullshit. You clearly have some very strong fantasies about controlling women yourself, and you’re projecting them onto us!

  • http://twitter.com/ScottCable2 Scott Cable

    Author seems like a person with sexual issues that can only be helped by seeing a prostitute and role playing them out. With boundaries. Controlled by the woman. The sandyhook shooter would have been detered if he father had steered him to a sex fantasy instead of a gun fantasy. Trying to roll capitalism as a philosophy into this seems pretty odd. The transaction is microeconomics. Same in any economy except social political needs try to hide it.