You probably have opinions about sex work. If you are a certain sort of feminist, you might think it is disgusting, dehumanising, completely unacceptable – that pornography is little more than propaganda for the patriarchy, that prostitution is just "rape that's paid for". You might then think that sex work needs to be abolished – if nothing else, for the good of the millions of women who are "trafficked" by pimps from poorer to richer nations and coerced into selling their bodies.
Alternatively: you might love sex work. You might be an enthusiastic consumer of pornography, a supporter of prostitution. You might think sex work offers a vital service to, for instance, disabled clients; that for the women who do it, it is a fun and empowering profession. You might then think that sex work ought to be celebrated, normalised as an integral part of any healthy, functioning society.
According to sex work activists (and sex workers) Molly Smith and Juno Mac, both of these views on sex work are basically wrong. Sex work is shit – they definitely think that – and is subject to all sorts of problems which stem from the economic context in which it takes place; the legal context in which prohibitions against it are enforced. But at heart, there is nothing special about sex work: if we dropped all the prurient proscriptions and predilections, we could see it unmasked as what it really is: a shitty job just like any other.
This is the core of the argument behind Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Worker's Rights. Over the course of their book's 144 pages, Smith and Mac cover a lot of ground – offering detailed critiques of the various legal regimes which have evolved around sex work worldwide, as well as suggesting something like an ideal model. Along the way, though, they also offer some of the most clinically insightful theorising about how sex, work, the law and borders intersect that you're likely to read all year. The reader is left convinced that the sex workers' rights struggle is relevant not just for sex workers, not just for feminists, and not just for clients – it's relevant to absolutely everyone who has to work for a living under capitalism.
I called Molly Smith to ask her some questions about sex work, shit jobs and how we can resist a world that's gradually getting even shittier and making us do even more work to survive.
VICE: Hi Molly. For me, probably the most striking aspect of the book was how you use debates around sex work to talk about work in general. Do you see sex worker activism as helping workers in general? If so, how can it?
Molly: Yeah, I definitely do see it that way. Sex workers, as precarious workers, have a lot to say to other workers. The rise of the gig economy means that work is increasingly precarious in lots of different ways. The paradigm of a job for life – leave school or university at 16 or 21, go to work somewhere with a good basic salary and benefits, stay there for 30 or 40 years – that trade union activism has been, and is in many ways still, based on no longer exists. Sex workers have always been precarious – and so they have a lot of knowledge to share with other workers about how this works, and how to organise against it.
How did you and Juno become activists?
We both came to sex work activism after we graduated, and learnt most of our politics through the sex workers' rights movements and left-Twitter. The sex workers' rights movement has been an amazing experience in political education. You go in with quite a precise angle and are forced by necessity to learn about things like borders and migration and drug law and capitalism. Juno and I both came to sex workers' rights with quite a basic liberal feminism – in becoming communists, we've both deepened our understanding of feminism.
As you claim in the book, sex work activism has been around since at least the 15th century. But it's become a much more prominent part of feminist discourse over the last ten years or so. Do you attribute this to the post-crash increase in precarity?
Absolutely. In 2008, you have two things happening. The crash made a lot of people more precarious, and so a lot more people were forced to go into sex work. That sort of critical mass matters – the numbers meant sex workers were confident to make themselves more visible and audible; they found their experience reflected in that of others.
This is related to the second thing, which is that in 2008 we got the first smartphones. This in itself made it easier to be a sex worker. Using platforms like Backpage, you could organise your work for yourself. Even 15 years ago, sex workers would have to do most of their work on the street, or work for a manager – which opens you up to all sorts of harms. But it also meant we could communicate with each other a lot more easily, with the pseudo-anonymity of places like Twitter. This helped make organising possible. Sex work can still be very isolating, but working for a manager is worse – if you're part of an escort agency, for example, you're not meeting other workers. Obviously then, you can't organise.
It sounds like, whereas the gig economy has made conditions for taxi drivers, cleaners or delivery drivers noticeably worse, for sex workers – who already worked under far worse conditions – it's actually kind of made them better?
Yeah, I think so. But I think there are lessons here for those other workers too. Organising becomes a positive feedback loop – once you start to do it, you see your life improving in various material ways, so you think: 'Yes, this is something I'll continue to do, I'll continue to make connections with other sex workers.' And then you become friends, you create a community – sex workers have a great support network, where we share information about clients who are dangerous or time-wasters, and how to get revenge on them in creative, communal ways.
One of the many problems you highlight with work is the idea that we are supposed to “enjoy” our work, that it is supposed to be “fulfilling”. This goes back to arguments about work that people like Marx were making. On the one hand: work under capitalism is clearly bad: it is draining, repetitive, detrimental to the health of the worker in some really profound ways. But does that mean work in general should be abolished? On another level, "work" just means our activity in the external world – which means getting the things we need to survive, but it also includes things like free creative expression. So if we don't get fulfilment from that, well... where can we get it from?
I dunno, that's a big question, right! I'm a communist and I definitely feel like once we've achieved communism, work as we know it will be abolished. Of course, things will still need to be done collectively to keep society going – but we'll find a way of dividing that labour in a fairer way.
Would there be a place for sex work in a communist utopia?
The abolition of sex work is such a fraught question within the sex workers' rights movement. This is actually one of the things I've been arguing with people most about over recent weeks. People are worried that if we say we want to abolish sex work, well... most sex work activists are sex workers. So are we saying sex work is bad now?
For me, the answer is: well, yes, of course we are! To me, prostitution seems so obviously a symptom of capitalism and patriarchy. It's unnecessary work: no one needs someone to fuck them for money. So in any ideal society we're designing, surely we'd want to say: this should not exist. We should demand whatever rights we can now. But like any bad job, sex work is something people have to do because they're forced to by material circumstances. We should fight so no one has to do this.
Just to grill you on this point a little more, in the book you mention the figure of the “deserving client”. For instance, some people with disabilities who need sex workers to provide the sex and intimacy they might otherwise be denied. Wouldn’t some people still need sex workers, even in a hypothetical ideal world?
Well, in our view the figure of the "deserving client" is an ableist caricature – it's a way of desexualising disabled men. In an ideal world, I think we'd all be a lot less screwed-up about sex. We would be so much better at all kinds of relationships – better at verbal communication, non-sexual physical affection. Currently, having sex is something people tie their sense of self-worth to. I think the idea that anyone might "need sex", in a way that legitimises the purchase of sex, is reinforced through the ways in which we're already shitty to each other. So no, in an ideal world I don't think we'd need sex workers to satisfy that sort of need.
Watch: The Battle for Sex-Workers' Rights
You also use the sex workers' rights struggle to critique what you call "carceral" thinking – the view that policing and other legal interventions can solve various entrenched social problems. What's wrong with carceral thinking?
There are two major problems with carceral solutions. Firstly, they perpetuate harm in lots of ways. If you put people who are sexually violent into prisons, you're not ending sexual violence. Prisons are factories for sexual violence. Unless you put offenders into prison forever, they will come out angry and scarred and ready to perpetrate even more violence. Secondly, they don't address the material routes of why harm occurs. The other day I saw an example of this on the news: violence against homeless people might be made a hate crime. I can see why a progressive person might think this is a good idea. But surely a better way to ensure there is no violence against homeless people is simply to abolish homelessness! This is something we could easily do if the political will were there. As people who want a better world, we shouldn't be limiting our demands so early on.
You also discuss how the policing of sex work is intertwined with the policing of borders. Nowadays, there is an increasing tendency towards hard borders, especially between the developed and developing world. Can sex work activism help mitigate or overcome this?
I really hope so! I don't know if it can. I draw some hope from sex workers' increasing firmness in identifying borders as a key problem for sex work and everyone else, and linking that to workers' rights in general. But borders are a terrifyingly huge thing to think about dismantling. So I hope the sex workers' rights movement can help effect some change, but I don't know how it might.
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Worker's Rights is out now on Verso.