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

John Millington writes for Left Foot Forward on the arguments surrounding the sex industry, unionisation, women's rights and the impact on gender roles.

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

It 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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