Monday, 27 January 2014

The Labours of Love: Against the Workerisation of Sex

Over the last couple of weeks to switch on the news would lead one to believe that half of Britain had gone out and "nonced" the other half. These kind of weeks are sadly becoming more common as operation Yewtree continues its bonfire of 70s pinups and more cases of gang abuse emerge from sleepy provincial towns. The far Left which has always had an ambiguous relationship with these issues has over the last year had to confront its own abuse scandal and engage in much soul searching. A curious contribution to this ongoing dialogue has come via the International Socialist Network (ISN), a group formed from those who fled the disintegration of the Socialist Workers Party. Mistress Magpie in the second of two articles makes the case for sex-work to be treated as any other kind of work. This intervention was elicited by the advertising of  an escorting position on the government run Universal Jobmatch site. The ad was later taken down after it was reported on by the Sunday Mirror. Magpie then popped up in the Guardian making a similar case for her role as a "professional dominatrix" continuing the theme that it is a culture of "capitalist moralism" that causes the stigmatisation of her trade in satisfying what are basic human needs.

While she identifies herself as a sex worker she is at pains to point out that she does not sell sex, only BDSM. As she says in the January piece:
“ I am well aware that as sex workers go, I am extremely lucky; I was raised an upper middle class Jew in Midwestern America and have a good education. Moved by nothing worse than a wish to be the author of my own life, I left an interesting office job and a blossoming career to pursue hedonism and kink. I am not trafficked or coerced, and my earnings, after tax, are enough to pay the bills. I’m also lucky to live in the south west of England, a region that is home to a vibrant kink scene. Living and working here, I’ve made friends who step into and out of sex work as casually as they might pick up a second job as a barista.”

The first and perhaps most obvious question to raise is whether such an esoteric and exceptional background is really an appropriate position to make generalisations about the realities of sex-work including those who have to sell sex more by necessity rather than a desire to be the authors of their own lives. Since her activities don't include intercourse but merely the laying on of hands (cuffs, or whips as well I suppose) would she not be better off making common cause with physiotherapists and masseuses? Perhaps the problem here is the governments own guidance which defines sex-work as anything involving "sexual stimulation"; a definition that hardly seems practicable and certainly not enough to rule out including masseuses and lord knows whatever imaginative simulative strategies Magpie's "kink" community might come up with. But in any case let us take it as given that the claim being made is that the sale of intercourse is work like any other. Given the recent arguments over government workfare programmes is such a conflation really desirable? Could we not imagine a situation where accepting such work becomes compulsory and linked to the provision of benefits? The only thing preventing this might be singling out this work as a special case that jobseekers are permitted to refuse. But that would hardly be consistent with treating the provision of sex as just another kind of work. Since the government seems to have no problems coercing jobseekers into the most unpleasant roles, often on minimum wage with no thought to the persons skills or ambitions I see no reason once the distinction is removed that sex-work would not be used in a similar way. The rosy picture of carnal entrepreneurialism that the author paints would surely not materialise for the majority of working people whose situation would no doubt be more precarious than those with the privilege to "step into and out of sex work as casually as they might pick up a second job as a barista".

Perhaps then I'm looking at this the wrong way. The point of the author's intervention has been to make a case against the moralism around different sexual lifestyles. The normalising of sex-work into work in general is then a possible strategy by which those lifestyles might themselves be drawn into the norm. By norm I mean simply that they would be less likely to be singled out for discrimination. I am dubious however about the claim that the mainstreaming of alternative sexual lifestyles would really have any effect on harassment particularly of women. As Magpie herself says "Sex work can certainly be full of harassment, stereotyping and objectification. Unfortunately, so can being a till clerk at Tesco." Here's another equivalence; life is full of harassment, why single out sex workers experiences as being particularly worse than any other, this is just moralism. Although in the August article she is more specific and seems to make a distinction  "I've worked in offices, kitchens and shops, and have encountered my share of sexism in the workplace. In my experience, none of these jobs can compare remotely to the barrage of sexist garbage I encounter daily when I do my job".

If it is the case that harassment, stereotyping and objectification are rife in the workplace, and indeed they are certainly rife in the mainstream use of sex in its white, heterosexual guise then why would normalising sex-work which by the author's estimation is the locus of even more abuse have a net positive effect on the experience of women and "sexual minorities"? Can we not imagine that normalising the idea that an exchange of cash entitles a person to the direct use of another person's body might serve to reinforce exploitation rather than combat it? It would only be a very vulgar Marxist who could fail to see the distinction between selling ones labour time and selling one's body. Choice, a deeply loaded term is the unstated presupposition behind Magpie's arguments. She is a person who clearly has a lot of choice; she could have done a regular job, indeed she had a blossoming career, but gave it up to provide services to the BDSM community. She is in short someone with power over her life, and, I expect, a fairly strong safety net to fall back on. What she fails to recognise is that despite what the neo-liberal rhetoric of choice would have you believe, the experience of work for the most poorest, for the young desperate for any chance of a job, and indeed for an increasing proportion of the middle class, is one of precariousness and distinct lack of choice.

Why then would the Guardian see fit to give time to these arguments? Why has sex as work become a viable equation despite the reality of work in post crash Britain? Perhaps the fact that sex-work appears “as a way to make ends meet", and a “way to avoid the degradation and harsh conditions of today’s zero-hours contracts wasteland” is not because young people have suddenly discovered a hitherto untapped world of freelance employment previously obscured by bourgeois moralism; but rather due to the desperate situation of a generation denied access to even the most menial positions in the regular economy, thrown on the scrapheap, and led into the waiting arms of the sex industry.

There are I think broader issues raised by these three articles that deserve some attention. The question we should perhaps be asking is not what are the benefits of treating sex as work but rather what ensemble of conditions obtain such that sexual relations are increasingly being situated within a codified field of exchange? You might think that the good old Marxist criticism of relations between people becoming relations between things, and of the profanation and commodification of human experience might give the Mistress and her ISN supporters pause. But instead this basic component of the traditional Marxist ethos has entirely passed them by. Instead they seem content to endorse elements lifted straight from the neo-liberal mindset in the vague hope that it might improve the lot of a minority of sex workers, or at least render middle class fetishes (including those that deploy racial stereotypes, see here.) more socially acceptable.

Marx's view on the effects of the exchange relation are clear. In an early work critiquing James Mill's Elements of Political Economy he takes aim at the classical economic view of human nature as homo economicus, the rational self-interested actor for whom relations of exchange are a true realisation of social existence. As is well known Marx takes these relations not as natural or immutable but rather only one stage in a historical process of socio-economic development leading to an eventual reconciliation with humanity's true 'species being'. Indeed he argues such relations rather than bringing people into a true community serve to reinforce forms of sociality based on deception, mistrust and exploitation as each party is forced to alienate their private property for the benefit of receiving an equivalent amount (goods or money) for the satisfaction of a necessity or need. "Thus exchange or barter is the social species activity, the community, social commerce and integration of man within private property, and for that reason it is the external, alienated species activity. It appears as barter just because of this. By the same token it is the very antithesis of a social relationship" (Marx Early Writings, Penguin edition 1992, p267).

Now Marx wasn't talking here about sex-work but I think we can certainly see how the basic premise of bringing the satisfaction of needs into equivalence through exchange of private property might apply to it. The punter (for this is the correct term) exchanges money for the provision of services, services which before they were brought into the field of exchange had no exchange value at all. What price on a caress, a kiss, or any other act? But once these activities are brought into a market with others who also seek to exchange their services for money a basic price is soon established "by social configurations alien to the worker". Here we can I think see how Marx's idea about the alienation of our activity might apply to sex work. In the exchange relation my activity is given a value external to my determination by forces beyond my control. And my needs, insofar as they appear as having a certain monetary value compel me to sell my activity to a certain degree and according to another's demand. For sex-work this implies an even more alienated existence than Marx could imagine, for in this activity my own body appears as exchange value and the access I afford the punter for a certain length of time to perform particular acts appears as the condition for my continued survival. In a very literal sense I have self ownership only insofar as I sell myself as property. Both for the punter and the service provider (more on this term later), money as universal equivalent thus comes to represent the material reality of our most intimate human experiences. "Money represents a total indifference both to the nature of the material, to the specific nature of private property and the personality of the owner of private property". Activity that would otherwise occur in a relation of open, sensuous, albeit awkward interaction is now mediated thoroughly through the universal equivalent. "In money the unfettered dominion of the estranged thing over man becomes manifest" (Ibid p270).

We can see here how the codification of sexuality into neatly priced units plays into the hands of neo-liberal theories of human capital and entrepreneurial society . Monetize your hotness! is the clarion call I have heard from these quarters, and even sections nominally on the left. Take the references to sex-work out of Mistress Magpie's articles and they could well be a paean to the ethos of the modern entrepreneur, negotiating the world of precarious work and uncertain futures with a combination of pragmatism and pioneering spirit.

Her use of terms such as fetish and "kink" as if they were natural and immutable categories of human experience is similarly problematic. She appears oblivious to their legacy as products of late 19th and early 20th century psychopathology; the same psychopathology that is which while diagnosing the pervert and sexual deviant simultaneously served to raised other practices to the status of the norm. Liberalised under our regime of permissiveness these categories maintain their function of normalising, distinguishing, and ossifying sexual experiences into useful demarcations for professionals, experts and industries of all kinds. It is worth noting that the alternative status of some lifestyles which constitutes the need for niche service providers like the author are only sustained by the notion that there is a "vanilla" sex world against which it sets itself as "alternative". If the "moralistic" world of sexual relations were to be rendered inoperative and people able to negotiate their way more or less autonomously sans readymade notions of mainstream and alternative practices, then the Mistress may find herself out of a job.

Her arguments also exhibit a modern commonplace in conflating identity and lifestyle. To do or at least to desire a thing is to be a thing. That our desires and thus the identity that we are encouraged to take up may be open to external influence and coercion never occurs to the author. Despite the reams of literature on how capitalist consumer society functions through the excitation and manipulation of desires she talks about "kink" and BDSM as if they were imprinted on our DNA. Capitalism's drive to continual expansion elicits daily the production of new commodities and concomitant consumer subjectivities to buy them up. The increasing expansion of capitalism into supplying products aimed at our sexuality, from the alternative shops of Camden and Soho, to high street chains like Ann Summers, to say nothing of the trade done on the internet is testament to this fact. In all cases the advertising mantra is the same, that the market will supply you with tailor made satisfaction to your very singular and authentic desires. However, like anything at the frontline of consumerism the market does more to create rather than satisfy those desires. Capitalism never ceases to supply new product, new experiences, new potential subjectivities, and pass them off as "basic human needs". But here the author reveals another contradiction in her position. Despite her equating desire and identity she argues for a split between the subject of desire and the political subject.

" Your sexual desires need not reflect your politics, certainly not in a crude or unmediated way. You can be the most effective, learned, dedicated socialist and campaigner in the world, and get turned on by the idea of dominating someone, getting dominated, watching giant women step on helium balloons, etc. You can even have a violent rape fantasy, or be into getting humiliated and being called names that, outside a context of conscious, negotiated and ongoing consent, would be completely unacceptable."

Surely though if we are to believe that our desires represent an authentic truth of our identity, then the person paying to have their violent rape fantasy safely satisfied by experienced professionals like the Mistress is just as they appear, a potential rapist. The degree of double think then required to square the circle of a group that ostensibly owe their existence to resisting "rape culture" now excusing the existence and satisfaction of rape fantasy within a form of mutual exchange is staggering. Are we to understand then that if the SWP member accused of rape had instead just been found to be visiting sex workers for the satisfaction of his rape fantasies then his feminist credentials would have remained intact? Witness also the liberal commonplace that consent is sufficient to neutralise otherwise deleterious social ills. The logic of choice and consent is ruthlessly criticised by the left when it comes to the labour market. Why then in the case of sexual relations does it take on a virtuous character, especially when the author is arguing for subsuming sexual relations into work relations?

In fact sex-work is already taking on many characteristics of the regular market economy. Websites like offer a space for men to share experiences, rate women, and discuss the state of punting (the male use of prostitutes) in the UK and other countries. While sites such as Adultwork provide searchable listings for prostitutes which include rates, services offered and contact details as if you were looking for a plumber on  If you can bring yourself to wade through a few threads from the former you will notice that many of the patrons refer to "service providers" and discuss their transactions in a way one might talk about visiting any other independent trader. The attitudes however towards the women involved is more often than not totally contemptuous, bordering on the cruel. Variations on “I’ve paid my money, she should do what I want the stupid cunt” appear frequently as well as the general premise that only stupid poor girls end up in the business of selling their bodies, and as such deserve the treatment they get. Indeed it is the contractual aspect of the interaction that forms the background to much of the abusive rhetoric. The exchange of cash in contradiction to the old Lockean dictum on self-ownership is sufficient to form a claim over the person body and soul. From this perspective a demand for professionalism amounts to complying with all requests no matter how degrading; the customer is always right. In another form the proliferation of professional sugar daddy services further normalises the idea of women’s bodies as sources of "erotic capital" to sell to the highest bidder. Again it is the same entrepreneurial ideology that animates the justifications, sometimes offset with talk of funding education or other venerable work on the self.

None of this can be disengaged from the paradigm of sex as work presented by the pornographic industry and the continual inroads it is making into mainstream media. Only this week were members of that same ISN which published Mistress Magpie's writing promoting a guide to sexual ethics and consent (again!) written by porn performer Stoya in the New Statesman thus further re-enforcing the idea that the life of the professional provider of sexual services to the market is the appropriate model from which to formulate the norm for all humanity. All this taken together is sufficient to illustrate that the conditions for legitimating sex into the regular economy are multiple and ongoing, and that Magpie's intervention is only one rather late and isolated symptom of this more general trend.

Perhaps it is the Marxist left's fetishisation of organised labour as a panacea for all ills which is at fault here. Not from labour but through labour must sex workers be liberated! But I rather think that along with the more general trends in society mentioned above this strange combination of liberation and regulation which is animating the ever more clamorous discussions in some section of the left is a symptom of their own recent scandals. Perhaps the notion of a transparent, codified, and regulated form of sexual relations, subsumed into labour, and which like other forms of work might have the edge taken off by a bit of collective bargaining and proper HR procedures seems attractive to a group of activists stung by the effects of wild and unregulated sexual relations on their former parties. Perhaps also they suffer from being in the unenviable position of trying to oppose "moralism" while simultaneously trying to defend the position that people have obligations in their conduct towards each other in what should otherwise be private life. Could it thus be that in opposing the “moralists” they have aligned themselves unwittingly with some of the darkest forces of late capitalism, and in doing so abandoned resistance to the commodification of everyday life?

Let's finish by considering the picture of self authorship presented by Mistress Magpie. If in the field of exchange the product of my labour becomes an alien thing for anothers use, and in the paradigm of sex as work that same product is simultaneously myself as service provider and liberated sexual entrepreneur, producing myself in the act of selling myself, then the only result can be a thoroughly depleted subjectivity dissolved into the desires of others, or as Marx put it more precisely: "In the object I produce my labour can only become manifest as what it is. It cannot appear to be what it is not. It therefore becomes manifest only as the objective, sensuous, perceived and hence quite indubitable expression of my self-loss and my impotence". (Ibid p278)

Perhaps then "capitalist moralism" (another confabulated monster?) is less of a danger than the acceptance of capitalist permissiveness, even if it is motivated by a desire to reduce harm.

As I write it turns out that the controversy generated by Magpie's articles has yielded a micro split from the above mentioned ISN with the author followed by her main supporter Richard Seymour and a few others picking up their ball (and chain) and going home. Quite possibly one of the most silly splits in the increasingly pantomime recent history of the British left. Reports are that they had planned to form a "platform" in order to argue their position on alternative sexual practices (including a defence of the above mentioned "race play") but turns out that their comrades had rather had their fill of the whole thing. No sects please we're British!