An influential book by Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore, has opened a debate about the nature of sex work, criminalisation and moralism.
The debate about sex work has received much attention recently, and Melissa Gira Grant’s book, Playing the Whore, has been acclaimed for offering new insights into the discussions about the sex industry. Although there are some aspects of Grant’s arguments that socialists would welcome, there is much to disagree with in this book.
Grant puts forward two main arguments: that prostitution should be decriminalised and that sex work is like any other work. Rather than be stigmatised it should be treated as such. The implicit conclusion is that any criticism of the sex industry is a moral judgement of those who work in it.
The strongest part of Playing the Whore is its exploration of the role of the police and the state in criminalising women working in the sex industry and exacerbating the dangers they face.
Grant outlines how in the US prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic, how the videoing of those caught contributes to the “punishment” of women and how such methods are used to incite fear in the women.
According to the Sex Workers Project, “In New York City 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed reported near daily run-ins with police and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence.”
Shockingly, Grant reveals how in some areas in the US police target all women they profile as sex workers, stopping, harassing and arresting people as they go about their daily lives.
It is also true that the so-called “Nordic Model” of prostitution law which makes selling sex legal but buying it a criminal offence is not a solution. Grant points out that “women are still getting arrested in the course of busting johns”.
In addition, such legislation can push prostitution further underground and make it even less safe for women, while further increasing the stigma attached to the trade. Criminalising the buyers of sex can end up resulting in even more police harassment of those who sell it.
The criminalisation of prostitution makes it harder for women to access health and welfare services, and means that much violence against prostitutes is unreported.
Socialists agree that prostitution should be decriminalised and that sex workers should not be stigmatised or face discrimination. However, in her discussion of prostitution Grant claims that “the stigma and violence (from police) faced by sex workers are far greater harms than sex work itself”. This assertion is completely unsubstantiated.
While police harassment no doubt heightens the problems faced by prostitution, there is no doubt that it is dangerous. Women working as prostitutes face a high risk of assault and rape and are much more likely to be murdered than other women.
This brings us to the second main argument, that sex work should be treated like any other form of work.
Grant is not arguing that sex work is “empowering” or “liberating” (as many have done), but that it is not that different from any other exploitative job without hope of financial security or social mobility.
Instead she argues that, like most jobs, our attitudes towards what we do changes throughout the day, with good and bad parts. One problem here is the definition of sex work. Grant is clear “there is no one sex industry” but that the term covers many different activities. This is undoubtedly true.
Most people would agree that there is a big difference between working on the street as a prostitute and talking on a sex chat line — both are termed sex work. But it is also possible for the owners of escort agencies to define themselves as sex workers, although others might describe such people as “pimps”.
Most of the discussion in the book takes place with no reference to wider society or the forces that have shaped the growth of the sex industry, the specific oppression of women under capitalism and the wider commodification of sex.
Occasionally Grant touches on the economic factors that can lead women into sex work. As she puts it, these include “the labour market, the privatisation of education and healthcare and debt…and demands for housing, health care, education, a better life”.
Most of her arguments are targeted at those who oppose the sex industry. She refers to “coalitions of cops, conservatives and anti sex work feminists” and although she questions whether there is a coherent anti-prostitution camp, she says, “but for the sake of argument let’s limit it to the anti prostitution feminists and their allies loosely congregated in the secular left”.
This is problematic. There are big differences between these groups as to the nature of sex work and how and why it should be opposed. In contrast to the moralism of conservatives who oppose sex work, socialists want more openness about sex and genuine sexual freedom.
Our opposition to the sex industry comes from a desire for more real sexual freedom unmediated by money and profit.
Implicit in Grant’s arguments is that women who oppose sex work are “middle class” and “white” and have no understanding of the lack of choice facing many women. She argues that this is why they cannot understand that sex work is similar to other insecure, exploitative jobs.
By reducing the arguments to personal experiences and relations rather than explore the wider forces, Grant shuts down a real discussion about the effects of prostitution, sex work and the sex industry.
To assert that “the message of anti sex work feminists is it’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below” is shocking — as is the claim that those who oppose sex work do so because they fear becoming one of those “women”.
Socialists argue that it is possible to oppose the sex industry without being against the women involved, or to patronise them or to think they need “saving”. It is also possible to highlight the dangers of sex work without seeing all those involved as victims.
Any understanding of prostitution and the wider sex industry has to be rooted in the specific oppression of women and the increasing commodification of sex.
The selling of sex cannot be reduced to economic exploitation. Sex work is a product of women’s oppression, which has its roots in the rise of the family in class society.
The institution of marriage and the family developed with the emergence of private property and was a key mechanism for transferring property from one generation to the next. Maintaining the family in some form is crucial to the ruling class under capitalism.
The reproduction of labour is done privately in the family with no direct cost to the capitalist. However, the family is not just of economic value. It teaches us gender roles and hierarchy, as well as helping to provide stability in society.
In turn the family is constantly reinforced ideologically, held up as the ideal to which to aspire and to emulate. So whether a woman lives in the traditional model or not, the family shapes the role of all women in society.
At the heart of this are women as “sexual partners” and as “nurturing, caring mothers”. This gives rise to alienated relationships between men and women under capitalism and the distortion of sex and sexuality.
Rather than undermining the family, sex work is in fact its flip side. Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai described prostitution as “the shadow of the family”.
Capitalism seeks to make a profit out of every aspect of our lives, including our hopes, dreams and desires. Today the market intrudes into every aspect of our humanity.
It takes the human desire for sex and sexual relations and turns it into a commodity to be bought and sold. Sexual pleasure, rather than being an expression of real relations between people, becomes something that can be bought.
Paying a woman for sex rests on the premise that the buyer can do what he wishes with her body in the time he has purchased it. Grant argues that the acts performed are negotiated between client and sex worker and therefore “should be proof enough that this is labour rather than selling one’s body”.
But this does not negate the central element of ownership (if only for a period of time), and therefore control, that comes from sex being sold as a commodity.
The sex worker’s own sexuality is not taken into account. She is providing a service. Many sex workers recount that what often happens goes far beyond what was originally negotiated — with a high risk of rape, assault and murder.
This is not only potentially damaging for the individual sex worker, but the sale of sex as a commodity feeds into the general objectification of women in wider society.
The sex industry offers a very narrow vision of sex and sexuality and perpetuates some of the worst stereotypical and sexist ideas of women. As such the sex industry is not only rooted in the oppression of women but also reinforces it.
Socialists fight for a completely different world where all aspects of life will be transformed. Nothing should be a commodity, from which a profit can be made, only available for those with money.
Sex would no longer be something that can be bought and sold. Socialists want a society without prostitution. We want real sexual freedom for everyone, not a world where poverty or addiction forces people to sell their bodies.
However, while the sex industry and prostitution do exist we support all attempts to make them safer for the women involved.
Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.
Melissa Gira Grant, Verso, £8.99