Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Can sex work exist in an anti-capitalist society?

Yesterday, a friend asked me if I thought sex-work would, or even could, exist in an anti-capitalist society. Having never considered the issue before, I decided to explore my feelings on it, as I think it's a really interesting question.

Disclaimer: What I say here, I say as a person who is very pro-sex worker rights, and do so purely as an intellectual activity in a hypothetical scenario.

Would sex-work exist in an anti-capitalist society?

The first important thing to define here is what is meant by 'sex worker'. My base definition of this would be 'someone who engages in sexual activity with another person for a material reward, where the other person's reward is the sexual activity'.  For reasons of simplicity, I won't include creators of pornography (i.e. actors, actresses, models etc.) in this definition, because there are different issues surrounding that (I can explain this in greater detail at a later point if required).

The second important question is 'what would my definition of an anti-capitalist society be'? I'd envisage a society based on co-operation where everyone's basic needs are met by the people around them. For instance, house building, food growing, education and child rearing could be done in collective groups where everyone brings forth their skills to help reach the end goal. Natural groups would form to cover other desires and aims - for instance, organising gigs, theatre, etc. This may already be seen in several UK anarchist social centres such as Kebele in Bristol and the Cowley Club in Brighton, who organise practical, social and educational events from the skills of their members. 

So, would sex work exist in this type of society? I think to examine that we must look at the reasons people get into sex work. Firstly, you have people who are forced in to it through trafficking, abusive partners etc. Hopefully this would not exist, and to discuss it further would cloud the issue. Secondly, you have people who are forced through poverty and personal circumstances into seeing sex work as their best option. In my utopian idea mentioned above, there'd be no one threatened with eviction or starvation to the point where their only realistic choice was sex work, so I will discount these people too.

Finally, there are people who get in to sex work because they genuinely like it and enjoy it as a job, and it is on these I will focus, since they are the ones making the truly free (issues of patriarchy in our real society notwithstanding, and also I am talking about all genders) decision to enter into sex work. I think it would be perfectly possible for people in this category to do sex work in an anti-capitalist society, being a sort of working group (like the plumbers), with the reward they are given being living in a society which takes care of all their other needs. However, a very strong caveat should be the belief that no one ever has a 'right' to sex, and I do not think it should be necessary in a society where I would hope that everyone was liberated enough to make most of the reasons people visit sex workers (can't meet partners, have peccadilloes they feel the need to hide etc.) would be obsolete. This, conversely, could also possibly have the effect of more people wanting to get in to sex work, by de-stigmatising the issue.

I'd like to know people's thoughts on this in the comments. Please, however, remember to be respectful and also that we are debating hypothetical scenarios which have no bearing on the society we are currently in.


  1. The only comment I have is that I can see "can't meet partners" being the last reason for visiting sex workers to become obsolete.

  2. So, is this a society that is free from regulation and government oversight?

    Is the sex workers group regulating themselves? What would they do to prevent the spread of STDs?

  3. Spudman - yes and yes. Full use of condoms plus regular tests, same as now.

  4. Interesting - I volunteer for a charity that supports sex workers in terms of safe spaces, education and healthcare opportunities and they generally are in it for a variety of negative reasons. If these reasons were taken away by the utopia model you are putting forward then maybe sex work would be a choice as the power imbalance would no longer exist.

  5. I can conceive that in an entirely non-coercive society sex work could still exist (though this needs to be unpicked quite a lot).

    I'm interested in the existence of sex workers, though. The notions of work and worker in an anti-capitalist society would necessarily be different to our own, so I guess these would be people who regularly trade sex acts, possibly to the point that sex can be viewed as the thing (or one of the things) that they contribute to the wider community? Not really sure how to formulate a definition of the term.

    I'm wary of the notion of a sex worker just as I'm wary of the notion of a plumber; is specialisation into social roles what we want? Both tasks require skills and knowledge, obviously, but should these only be held by a small working group of people?

  6. MD - I'm wary of saying sex should be a thing that contributes to the wider community, as it then places the onus on the providers of sex to chip in whether they want to or not (I'm a-OK with scrubbing loos to help out, I wouldn't be OK with providing blowjobs).

    I suppose the best way to look at it would be primary, secondary, tertiary etc. needs. Food, shelter, cleanliness and so on are primary needs, so we should all be obliged to help out where we can to make sure these needs are met for all. Secondary, I'd say, would include things like entertainment, and I'd see that being done by and for the people who wanted something doing (for instance, putting on a gig - musicians play, audience help set up and organise), so the people that want this fringe benefit are the ones who put the effort in.

    When I say 'plumber', I mean 'group of people who are good at (but not exclusively at) plumbing, who come together when plumbing work needs doing and teach other people their skills'. That wouldn't, by any stretch of the imagination, be their full societal role, they're just people who have higher skills in the particular area of immediate need than others.

    I suppose, then, this is the same way I would view the people who chose to provide sexual services - by no means their full role or the only skills they had to offer, but rather a quasi-altruistic endeavour people wanted to undertake? I think my actual notion of what we may term 'sex work' in an anti-capitalist society actually looks more like a kink/sex group in this society?

    I also by no means think any set of skills and knowledge should be held by one group, and am all for regular skill-share workshops to combat this. I just used the term as short hand for 'people who happen to be talented in [X] department'.

  7. Well for many, sex is entertainment - as a consumer of pornography, sex toys etc, I see engaging in sexual activity on the level of going to a gig or reading a book. Not a primary necessity like food, shelter, healthcare, and therefore no one should feel obliged to contribute, even if they have the skill set (like, they know how to make sex toys, for example). Does anti-capitalism allow for free trade of non-essentials, including sexual services?

  8. Actually just to clarify I don't think people with skill sets contributing to even primary necessities should be obliged or coerced to use them for the benefit of others. They should want to do them out of their own sense of community, but not forced into it, otherwise its a slippery slope to The Handmaids Tale where people with functioning uteruses are forced into contributing their anatomy to society.

    1. I agree with both your comments! No one should feel obliged or coerced into doing anything. Trying to be clearer, I meant it as a system of co-operation - you can do your own thing if you want, but it might be easier if people help each other (or those who can't do the thing) out, especially for the primary needs. No coercion, just people doing things because they want to help.

      I'd definitely say it allowed for trade of non-essential things, otherwise it'd be a shitty existence! Sexual entertainment would certainly fall under that, as would (e.g.) making jewellery, films, art, etc.

    2. Yeah makes sense to me, that's how I envisage a cooperative society.

    3. Can sex work exist in an anti-capitalist society?
      Without over intellectualizing I see your alternative to society to be like an anarchic communism.Which like most politic ideals would work were it not for the nature of people to be greedy.
      This ties in very well to the political opposites,a fascist liberal state ( UK coalition 2012 anybody? )
      And how many of us view sex. What if we changed the way we view sex? would sex work then change as well?
      what if a person paid money to give pleasure to someone through sex rather than to expect it?From what I understand tantric sex seems to be quite a wise way of understanding the spiritual possibility of sexual union.Is this a 'fun.' thought or idea can in be 'capitalized.'? does a spiritual practice take 'work.' ? and if is it a labor of love. should this be a purely monogamous thing or is there a place for casual sex in a healthy society?

  9. It's surprising (well, it surprised me anyway) how much influence capitalist and anti-capitalist societies have on sexual relations. For example, during the great Russian experiment, the state never thought to mass produce contraceptives. As no business could fill that void, the populace were required to either abstain, or depend on abortion. As a consequence, abortion rates were unprecendented in Soviet Russia. Within a year of Russia renouncing communism, abortion rates halfed as contraceptives flowed into the country. The repercussions of those past oversights are unimaginable.

  10. Clifford, do you have a link to a reliable source (with figures etc) for that, please? It's just what I'm looking for regarding a debate elsewhere.

  11. Google "rubber product number 2". There were certainly mass produced, but not to sufficient quantities. East Germany did a better job here.

    As far as the topic, sex work is a pretty keen example of confining women to the role as sexual objects, and of the tendency to commodify and sell everything.

    In a society with no capitalist relations, sex work could exist on an individual barter level, but there'd be little institutional reason for it to exist.

    This of course changes as soon as a scarcity situation arises (and is much of the reason sex work exists in capitalist society.. scarcity of money and hence food, housing etc).

  12. My question would be, in your scenario, what separates a sex worker from a customer?
    In the other types of work in this post-capitalist society, there is a service provider who has a skill and a customer who requires it. If you're talking about sex, and you have a scenario in which the sex worker is offering sex under no coercion, for no other reason than because they want to have sex, and the client is coming to the sex worker not to coerce somebody to do something they have to be paid for but because they want consensual sex, and neither party is under any obligation to have sex with the other unless they want to, they're actually both doing exactly the same thing.
    What you'd be looking at in this society is not a brothel but a cottage, and not work but just plain consensual sex. No money, no workers, no customers, just a place to meet sexual partners. The closest thing to sex work might be working at such a place to help match people up or ensure that everybody's playing by the rules, by I don't see why somebody would be considered to be "working" just by hanging out there having sex when they feel like it.

  13. In that case, I think you've answered the question yourself :)

    if no exchange of services occurs and no coercion takes place, there's no exploitation taking place, and everyone is happy.

    Well, unless the sex turns out to be bad, but even in a socialist world, there'll be bad sex im sure :)