A chairdre! I’m Seanchaí (shawn-a-key), a trans lesbian currently living on Turtle Island. (she/her)
I am fully aware that people cope however they can, as I’ve mentioned before I am personally and intimately familiar with sex work and sexual violence, as are Mac and Smith, the people whose book I referenced for most of my discussion. I know many sex workers who do not consider the work they do to be assault in every instance.
However, the fact that there are people who cope by downplaying their assaults does not in fact mean that you can extend to all people that their experiences were sexual assault. It is not your place to tell me or anyone else when something we do not consider assault was actually assault, that we’re wrong and do not have the right to differentiate our experiences.
And this is such an incredibly specific and contentious bone for you to pick about a conversation about how essential it is to work in solidarity with sex workers, a thread I wrote specifically because people use the “all sex work is rape” argument to dismiss sex worker unions and to promote criminalisation, a thing which directly leads to an increase in danger, violence, and precarity of sex workers.
It seems to me that your moral crusade against people thinking differently than you is more important than engaging with the ideas of people who are currently and immediately affected by this conversation. In any case I’ve made my point, and you’ve made yours, so unless there’s something new to discuss, we’ll disengage here.
I really don’t understand why you’re so hostile to me, but it’s quite simple: there are sex workers who do the work and don’t consider it sexual assault. End of story.
As long as a single instance of sex work isn’t sexual assault to the sex worker, then it is wrong to say that all sex work is sexual assault, because no individual can decide for another what is and is not sexual assault. At no point is it acceptable for someone to tell another person that what they experienced as consensual was in fact sexual assault.
That is what is at the heart of respecting people’s boundaries of consent and believing survivors of assault. No one can determine for someone else what constitutes rape. If a sex worker considers all the sex work they did to be assault, then that is because their consent was violated. However that can not be applied to everyone else because not everyone has the same experiences. I can guarantee from personal experience and also discussions with sex workers that not every instance of sex work is sexual assault.
As far as “I talk too much,” no one is making you participate in this conversation, and frankly, you’ve done nothing but angrily yell at me over something you’ve personally never experienced by your admission, so kindly contribute a meaningful dialogue or fuck off.
This is exactly the kind of chauvinistic approach that has alienated so many Indigenous movements from western Marxists. National liberation for Indigenous people does not run along the lines of colonial borders: they seek liberation for their nation, which is to say for their people, whose nations do not conform to the borders imposed upon them by colonial powers.
Imposing views about the “correct” form of a national struggle is a continuation of settler dynamics in which those who deem their own ideals to be “more advanced” or “superior” to the communal organisations of Indigenous peoples see it as their place, and more their duty, to “correct” them and “raise them” to the standards of the settlers.
In Native Americans and Marxism this exact tension between western Marxists and Indigenous peoples is explored, where we can see that many Indigenous people struggle to see western Marxists as anything more than a new form of the same colonial dynamic, where Indigenous nations and Indigenous sovereignty will continue to be pushed aside for the “greater good” of the settler. To many Indigenous people, there is no liberation through western Marxist organising when their traditions, communities, ties to the land and sovereignty will continue to be in question. While the settler proletariat seeks to gain, they would be left in the same position as colonial subjects.
This can be seen in your own thinking when you finish by saying that they have lost your support, showing that your belief in the autonomy, sovereignty and self-actualisation of Indigenous nations is something they have to “earn” to be worthy of support. Anything other than unconditional acceptance of Indigenous self-direction is a continuance of colonial ideology. It is not for settlers to determine the direction of the colonised.
As a side note, your dismissal, also, of “identity politics” shows a misunderstanding of the very radical origins of identity politics. The first usage of identity politics was the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977. To the CRC, identity politics was an understanding of the interlocking forms of oppression that are imposed on the exploited by virtue of their very identity, and thus something that can not be either transcended or pushed aside. The CRC asserted that such oppressions–racial, gender, class, sexuality–are sources of political radicalisation and revolutionary zeal. As queer Black women, they saw the unique and varied, overlapping oppressions that came through misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the poverty they experienced due to racial capitalism. Their socio-economic position made them uniquely susceptible to violence and disenfranchisement, making them less invested in maintaining the status quo, and ultimately, capitalism. They saw this as a furtherance of Lenin’s call for Communists to side with racial minorities in their fight against the “special oppression” they faced as national minorities and the racism leveraged at them. Identity Politics was an understanding that your very self would render you eminently exploitable, and thus Identity Politics was not about who you were, but what you could do to confront these interlocking oppressions and combat the systems that kept them in place.
I’m willing to respond to you because this is an important topic to me, but I want to make it very clear that as moderator of the trans community, if I ever see a user call another user a “moron” they will be banned, no questions asked. This is not an acceptable way to talk to people here.
From what I gather, you agree with my conclusions, but you seem to have taken umbrage only with the fact that I stated that current street sex workers should be centred in conversations about street sex work, as they are the ones who will be materially impacted by any movements/legislation regarding street sex work. Is that fair to say?
You admit yourself that you are a former sex worker, and that you never did street sex work, thus proving the very point I made (and that is a point that is well-repeated in sex worker organising, and is taken directly from the book Revolting Prostitutes written by street sex workers, Molly Smith and Juno Mac. You are allowed to disagree, but that disagreement will be irreconcilable for us, because I will always maintain that the people currently selling sex on the street, who will be directly materially impacted by any legislation and organisation about sex work, should lead that conversation). As someone who does not sell sex on the street, you will not be materially impacted by legislation and organising regarding street sex work, so you should not lead the conversation or take precedence over current street sex workers. That isn’t to say that your voice should be ignored or dismissed or that you should have no place in any such organising, it is simply to say that you cannot apply your thoughts and experiences as a broad metric by which to evaluate the thoughts and experiences of other sex workers, nor should you be given the space to speak over them.
You also seem to disagree with my assertion that not all sex work is sexual assault. Maybe my examples didn’t strike a chord with you (that’s fine, though several of the examples I used were also taken from Smith and Mac), but I won’t change my stance on this. As someone intimately familiar with both sex work and sexual assault, I am firmly committed to an understanding that to equate sex work and sexual assault is to deny sex workers the agency to distinguish when they have been assaulted and when they haven’t.
Sex work, like all work under capitalism, is exploitation. I don’t deny that. Nor do I wish to grow or expand the sex trade, as can be seen in my argument that we must ultimately empower people to leave the sex trade by eliminating the socio-economic factors that lead into sex work.
However to say that sex work is always sexual assault is to rob sex workers of the right to point to specific instances of sexual assault.
Let me explain it this way: sex work is exploitative, but to call every instance of sex work sexual assault would be akin to saying that non sex work is exploitative and therefor every instance of non sex work is assault. That eliminates the worker’s ability to point to the real sources of the exploitation (capitalism) and to real instances of assault.
Finally, you have doubled down on assuming that as a former sex worker (one admittedly who did not engage in street work) that you are more intimately familiar with this topic than me, thus continuing to assume that you have any insight into my life, my experiences, or my material conditions. The overwhelming majority of the information and arguments provided in this essay are not my own, they are sourced from other academics and street sex workers, however that doesn’t change that I am in fact intimately familiar with this topic, and don’t appreciate your assumptions, nor your insults, over a topic that ultimately it seems we agree on the conclusions to.
Yes. It is essential to organize alongside sex workers and include them in socialist movements. One of the main reasons I wrote this is because I have seen a lot of organisations refuse to allow sex workers, and have seen people decry sex worker unions as being a bad thing. But of course, as socialists, the point of what we do is to uplift the most vulnerable and exploited. When people in some of the worst positions of society are organizing, then we are doing a disservice to the people in not joining with them in coalition to improve everyone’s lives.
edit: and I also wanted to make it clear that in a capitalist society, calls to criminalise sex work (or sex purchase) did nothing to help people, and served only to reinforce a narrative that society should be giving police and border security more money/power under the pretense of “protecting” people
I can’t agree that there is anything “good” about deportation, nor do I agree that forcing people through a draft into war is somehow a good thing. That’s a very narrow framework that ignores the very real misery, pain and death that people face both in migrant detention, and on the frontlines of a war that they have no ideological commitment to.
You may want to rethink making assumptions about other people, and also rethink applying your experiences to everyone else’s. If you have a specific question or something about the information I’ve presented to refute, then by all means go ahead. But if you want to pretend you know anything about my life or experiences, or to speak on behalf of other people, then I’m not interested.
edit: you changed your comment after my response, but what I’m saying still stands. If you have something specific to refute, then please do, but I did not say that sex work was the same as proctology. What I said was that the context under which touch and consent are established holds true for every job, and that what may be considered sexual assault in one context is not inherently sexual assault in another.
Yes, I would easily compare proctological exams to sex work. Sticking your finger up someone’s ass is sexual assault when done outside of the context of consent.
This is the point I am trying to make. Sex work is not inherently different from any other form of contact service, except in moralistic appeals to there being an innate domination, or else that sex requires some form of romantic or emotional connection, both ideas are entirely subjective and have no place in discussions about sex workers’ rights.
Hey! I’m so glad you found this helpful. I’ve compiled this into a PDF, and took the liberty of including a reading list on abolition feminism <3
“While sex work is a large and diverse category that spans countless different occupations, in this I am focused on survival sex work: sex work carried out on the streets or in brothels in order to earn the money needed to live. The most precarious and vulnerable sex workers deserve to be the primary consideration in this discussion; as such, throughout this essay I employ the term prostitute as well as sex worker to ensure that it is understood that this conversation is about the trade of sex for money, and not other forms of sex work such as camwork or stripping, as those experiences are different and requiring of separate analyses in order to ensure an accurate account of the material conditions therein. These varied sex work occupations may overlap, but this essay seeks only to explore the ways in which solidarity with one of the most undervalued class of workers, who live on the margins of society and often in extreme precarity legally, socially, and economically, is essential to a forward-thinking and ethical leftist movement.”
This is the part where I said I was explicitly addressing survival street work. I can’t begin to wrap my head around how outdated your thoughts about the lumpen are though. Every Third World Socialist movement has written extensively about the radical and revolutionary potential of the lumpen, as they have the least to lose as the most disenfranchised. Angela Y. Davis, Huey P. Newton, Franz Fannon, Mao Zedong all wrote about working and mobilizing alongside the lumpenproletariat. The Black Panthers specifically believed the lumpen to be foundational to their revolutionary movement. Even Castro specifically said that “lumpen well prepared, well trained can be good. I don’t want to use that word pejoratively.”
The reason being: we have a hundred years of studying prisons post-Marx. Criminalisation is a racialised process whereby human beings are assigned the status of criminal not through any inherent properties, but through the application of the bourgeois capitalist state. 2.2 million people in the US alone are currently in prison and thus have been lumpenized through the process of criminalisation. With militarized borders, a relatively new phenomenon that didn’t play a role in Marx’s original (cruel) dismissal of the lumpen, we can see that entire populations are criminalised and thus lumpenised by virtue of their place of birth. This is a gendered and racialised system of marginalisation.
In Border and Rule Harsha Walia explores the exact ways that this regime of securitised borders is leveraged to create hyper-exploitable populations by controlling the movement of people. As climate crisis worsens, we will only see an exponential increase of the criminalised migrant populations seeking to escape economic deprivation.
In another comment I see that you say “it’s not important who does the enforcing.”
This is antithetical to a leftist organizing. In the bourgeois capitalist society, to say it is “unimportant” who does the enforcing is to ignore the ways in which the law and its application are the primary sources of sexual violence and exploitation. To support the criminalisation of people in bourgeois capitalist societies is to funnel money and increased policing powers into the violent state apparatus, thus defeating your own ambitions to organise against that very state.
Anti-trafficking and anti-sex work laws increase the amount of trafficking and sex work, not to mention domestic and state violence, by increasing the powers and budgets of police and border controls.
Countries that have criminalised sex work show that there is no reduction in sex work, there is only an increase in the harm experienced by sex workers. Meanwhile in New Zealand, with access to social programmes and assistance, domestic sex workers are more quickly integrated into society and there is a trend downwards in the amount of domestic sex workers, as well as a reduction in the sexual violence they experience.
Your position is an ideological and dogmatic appeal to “values” that devalues the very lives of the exploited sex workers. To say that it doesn’t matter what state violence or what state powers are to be used to control their lives is disgustingly callous. These are real human beings. As long as the economic factors that lead people into sex work exist, to criminalise sex work serves only to create more violent and economically precarious positions for the sex workers.
I would read this and respond to this (even though there’s something interestingly sad about making an entire account just to respond to this one post, as though you were worried about letting us know what your main account is), but you clearly haven’t read what you are here to angrily react to.
I can tell you haven’t read it (no surprise really, no one likes to read things before getting angry) because your very first sentence is that I am “defending pornography.” If you had bothered to read this before reacting then you would see two things: firstly, that I very specifically mentioned that my essay is only about survival street sex work, as it is the most vulnerable and precarious form of work, and that other sex work isn’t included in this analysis.
Secondly you would see that my essay is literally about organizing alongside sex workers to eliminate the economic need that drives people into sex work. Since you clearly have no idea what you’re even upset about, then I doubt it’s worth my time to read your response and reply in good faith, as you’re clearly uninterested in doing the same and would likely ignore this response as well :)
In Disarm, Defund, Dismantle, sex workers contribute their knowledge on the importance of sex worker organizing in tackling violent policing and the criminalisation of racialised people. Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project is one of the oldest sex-worker-led organizations in Canada and has worked to protect street sex workers, and provide support for trans people. Their essay Sex Worker Justice – By Us, For Us: Toronto Sex Workers Resisting Carceral Violence details their work in searching for a missing Black and Indigenous trans street worker, Alloura Wells, when police refused to mobilize a search for her. They have been active in abolitionist movements, understanding the necessity of ending policing and prisons for the lives of sex workers. Their work with helping trans street workers access hormones is documented in Namaste’s Invisible Lives.
Trans rights and sex workers rights are deeply linked: trans people are frequently kicked out of homes, excluded from institutions and social services, and often work as prostitutes. 44% of Black trans women in the US have done survival sex work.
As Viviane K. Namaste says, “systemic and institutionalised discrimination against prostitutes impedes and prevents their access to health care and thus the ability of many transsexuals to live their bodies as they choose. Such discrimination is evident in numerous locations: gender identity clinics, prisons, and health care and social service agencies. It is discrimination against prostitutes that orders the experiences of many transsexuals—especially MTF transsexuals—within the institutional world. How relevant is a “transgendered” social movement that does not make the decriminalization of prostitution a priority?”
In 1974 Ethiopian sex workers joined the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions and engaged in strike actions with them against the government.
In 1975 sex workers in France occupied churches to protest poverty, criminalisation and police violence. In London, the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied churches in King’s Cross in 1980.
Marxist feminists like Silvia Federici and the Wages for Housework movement has from its inception been intertwined with the organisation of sex workers, and has stood in solidarity with them in their quest to have their labour recognised as real work so that they might demand their emancipation from such work through a radical transformation of society.
In the words of Black Women for Wages for Housework: “When prostitutes win, all women win.”
In medieval Europe brothel workers formed guilds and orchestrated strikes for improved working conditions. In the fifteenth century, prostitutes in Bavaria asserted before a city council that what they did was work. In 1917 200 prostitutes marched in San Francisco to demand the end of brothel closures. A speaker said “Nearly every one of these women is a mother or has someone depending on her . . . They are driven into this life by economic conditions . . . You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
In 19th century Britain and Ireland prostitutes created mutual aid networks, sharing income and child care (a tradition that is alive in sex worker communities to this day).
When eight sex workers were murdered in Thika, Kenya, in 2010, hundreds of sex workers, including the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance came from around the country to protest police violence. Aisha, a sex worker in Thika, said, “we wanted people to know that we call ourselves sex workers because it is the wheat our families depend on.” Sixty years earlier, in the 1950s prostitutes joined the Mau Mau revolution to free Kenya from British rule.
In the 60s street trans sex workers were at the front of the charge in the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall Uprisings, putting their lives on the line to battle police for queer liberation. They also were in the line of fire for the fight for civil rights.
STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), founded by two street sex workers, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who were both on the front lines of the Stonewall Uprising, was a network of radical street queens who worked together in community. Sylvia Rivera joined the Gay Liberation front and the Young Lords, marched to protest Angela Davis’s arrest, and met in conference with Huey P. Newton.
“On the one hand, the decriminalisation of sex work is a protective factor against the exploitation of sex workers, since they have the right to challenge exploitation. However, the policy which prohibits migrant sex work means that not all sex workers fully benefit from decriminalisation. . . It is vital that the benefits are further strengthened by . . . extending rights to migrant sex workers who are holders of temporary permits.” - The Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women.
More than that, robust social services are needed. As long as migration is criminalised, as long as Māori, trans and homeless populations are still over-policed, sex workers have struggles ahead. Education, healthcare, mental health and addiction services, housing: these are all essential aspects in realizing a robust reform of the sex trade. All aspects of society that marginalise and disenfranchise segments of the population, that put them into economic need and outside of social safety nets will lead to people engaging in sex work. However, every step taken to lessen the repression of sex workers and to ensure their survival is a step in the right direction. For when sex workers are lifted economically, they can choose to leave the sex trade, either through education or voluntary exit programmes that teach job skills.
Part of securing new employment is eradicating the stigma that socially isolates sex workers: the longer that sex workers are seen as workers in society, the less the stigma will persist, which will allow them to pursue other employment without having to hide their previous sex work experience.
Decriminalisation removes the police as the method of controlling sex workers, and allows instead their integration into society as full citizens. Part of abolition struggle is to remove our reliance on policing and envision new ways of organising society that don’t rely on the punitive carceral justice system. In this way, the issues that sex workers face can be addressed through the introduction of social services that help society as a whole, rather through an expansion of violent prison systems that remove people from society through incarceration or drive them to the fringes.
Much like with drug use, when a market is criminalized it does not prevent the market from existing: rather it creates the purest form of capitalist free market. A market completely devoid of oversight or recourse for the workers. Decriminalising sex work will help to redress the imbalance of power that sex workers face as they are able to openly organise and engage in struggle.
Sex workers deserve our solidarity in this struggle, as they’ve given so much of themselves to struggles through the years.
Migrant sex workers in Nordic model countries are still deported. The police still harass and extort sex workers. If two sex workers choose to work together for safety, they are both open to being charged as pimps, as each is considered a “third party” to the other’s sex work. Landlords are threatened by police into evicting sex workers, as the landlord is considered to be “running a brothel” if a sex worker brings a client back to her apartment.
We can see then that the Nordic model doesn’t offer any solace for the sex worker. It is based on an idea that sex work must be stopped, that through performing sex work a woman is losing something or being violated, and that therefor her clients must be punished. This is achieved regardless of the impact it has on the sex worker, an impact that is in many cases absolutely ruinous. How could the safety of sex workers be guaranteed through the very systems that makes the sex worker’s life so dangerous?
The final model of sex work is the one most anti-carceral feminist sex worker organisations ask for. It is one that works within the systems of abolition and societal transformation. This is full decriminalisation. Unlike in the regulatory model, in decriminalisation, sex work is legal by default. With neither sex workers nor their clients criminalised, the sex worker is able to regain some of the power needed to negotiate safer conditions. Sex workers can work together for safety, can rent out rooms to take clients, can take out ads that allow them to clearly delineate the bounds of their consent, can screen clients, and can access social services and institutions without fear of their work being discovered.
Employers at brothels are beholden to labour laws, and sex workers can form unions for organised action. Assault and harrasment can be reported, and sex workers can report exploitative managers for violating their rights. In every employment situation there is tension in the workplace between the workers and the managers; it is essential then that we strengthen the power of the workers to forward their demands and give them as much leverage against their employers as possible.
New Zealand currently operates under the decriminalization model, however it is flawed. This is the first step in a longer process of realizing the safety and rights of sex workers. Along with decriminalisation of sex work itself, it is necessary also to decriminalise migration. Border laws that create hierarchies wherein rights are extended only to those with certain papers must be ended.
Rather than lower the demand for sex work, Nordic models have instead empowered police and border agencies to increase surveillance of sex workers. Sex workers must work in more precarious positions than before: their clients are afraid of getting caught, and so sex workers are forced into working in more isolated locations, or agreeing to go to second locations. They are less able to negotiate the boundaries of consent, as the client is unwilling to sit around in case of police. In the cases where there are fewer clients, sex workers don’t have less need of money. Instead they lose bargaining power, and must accept doing things they would otherwise prefer not to, or else risk not finding another client.
Sex workers are also more likely to go to a client’s home rather than bringing a client to a room she rents, as that could result in eviction, and clients know that is when they are at most risk of being arrested. Clients are less likely to agree to divulging personal information for screening, as they wish to remain anonymous so as to avoid prosecution.
Meanwhile clients, knowing that what they are doing is already illegal, are more likely to engage in violent behaviour. Sex workers have need of the money they make, and clients do not need to have sex with sex workers. Because of this discrepancy there will always be a power imbalance, and limiting the amount of clients does not reduce demand for sex work, but it does reduce the individual sex worker’s power to negotiate.
In Norway, a government report found that the price of sex work went down after the introduction of the purchase ban, showing the weakened negotiating power of sex workers and indicating that sex workers were put into even more economically precarious positions.
The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security found that “more abuse takes place than previously. . . for those working on the street life has become much harder . . . The law on the purchase of sex has made working as a prostitute much harder and more dangerous.”
In Ireland, sex worker safety organisation Ugly Mugs says it received 1 635 reports from sex workers with concerns about violent and abusive clients in the five months following the sex purchase ban in 2017, a sixty-one per cent increase on the same period in 2016.
Trafficking, and thus sex trafficking, is broadly interpreted as any attempt to bring a person across a border illegally. The easiest way to address this is to remove the legal obstacles in crossing the border. People will migrate regardless of the law: this is especially true considering the imperialistic leveraging of capital that destabilizes Global South nations in favour of the North. The militarized border then serves to prevent those people from entering legally where they do not meet criteria of ability, gender, class and race. Thus people are forced to enter through dangerous and illegal means. Anyone who helps them to do this is considered to have engaged in trafficking. If the migrant, precarious and economically deprived in the new nation does sex work, that was now sex trafficking.
In the cases in which the trafficking actually is exploiting the migrant (the migrant is lied to, abducted, indebted, forced into sex work etc), the migrant can not seek help for fear of deportation and detention. Thus anti-trafficking initiatives actually serve to increase the amount of trafficking by increasing border security, and decrease a migrant’s recourse when trafficking happens. Meanwhile, people who are genuinely just helping migrants cross a border (often times even family and friends) are also labelled as traffickers, arrested, and the migrant is still detained and deported as a “rescued victim.” Anti-trafficking laws are never concerned with whether or not the migrant wished to be rescued, or whether they would rather have stayed in the country they are now in (which they usually indebted themselves and risked their lives to enter).
In Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives, as well as Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, we can see the myriad ways that police in Canada and the US (and abroad) enact sexual violence on women, and reinforce systems of violence in the streets. In the US the police are much more likely to perpetrate domestic violence. Sexual assault is the second most commonly reported form of police violence. On duty police commit sexual assaults at more than double the rate of the general US population.
Countries that have adopted the Nordic model have seen what prison abolitions like Beth E. Richie, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Mariame Kaba have been saying all along: the carceral punishment system does not reduce crime. Police enact systems of surveillance, violence, and criminalisation, and they can not be the solution to exploitation or violence.
Borders create hierarchies determined by race, caste, class, sexuality, gender, (dis)ability and nationality. Under these dire circumstances, expanding the power of policing has life-destroying consequences for migrants.
What does it mean to expect border police to “safeguard” women from sex trafficking?
Between 2012 and 2018, detainees filed 1,448 complaints of sexual violence against ICE and 33,126 complaints of abuse between 2010 and 2016.
“In immigration detention, as in carceral settings generally, trans women are particularly susceptible to violence and report sexual harassment, strip searches by male guards, denial of access to medical care, and solitary confinement under the guise of protective custody” (Walia). Trans women also face longer detention, averaging more than twice the length of detention as cis people.
With the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, 520 000 Central American migrants were apprehended between 2015 and 2018. Another 70 000 disappeared in what the Mesoamerican Migrant Movements calls a “migrant holocaust.” 80% of the women reported sexual extortion and rape.
Australia’s migrant detention has been shown, through a government-commissioned review, to have been guilty of sexual assault and rape of women and minors, and to have even led to migrant women becoming impregnated by their assaulters.
In 2012 MSF treated 697 migrant survivors of sexual violence in Morocco.
Europe’s largest refugee camp, the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, which was meant to house 3000 detainees, holds over 19 000 people, over 40% of whom are minors. The UNHRC received 174 reports of sexual and gender-based violence.
There are countless statistics about the abuses women face in the militarized borders of the world. Rather than get bogged down in unending statistics, I would like to question the logic that empowering border agencies to fight trafficking could help in any way to reduce sexual violence and exploitation.
In 1905 Britain established its first modern anti-immigration laws, the Aliens Act of 1905, in response to fears about “the white slave traffic” fueled by anti-Semitic panic in the wake of Jewish immigration.
In the US, some of the earliest anti-immigration legislation included the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Scott Act of 1888, which targeted Chinese immigrants, especially sex workers, and led to a campaign of determining which women were coming as wives and which as sex workers. In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act limited migration based on census quotas, restricting especially Slavic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and prohibited all Asian immigration. That same year, the Indian Citizenship Act imposed US citizenship on Indigenous people., and allowed them to deport those Indigenous tribes that they deemed to be “Canadian” or “Mexican.”
In Border and Rule, Harsha Walia details the history of militarized and policed borders as functions of racial capitalism in creating populations of super-exploitable racialised workers. By leveraging xenophobia to stoke white supremacist nationalism, states are able to secure ever larger funding to increase the policing of borders and expand their militarized influence.
The formation of borders in North America served to remove Indigenous people from their lands, and the first passport system, the Birch certificates that allowed travel between America and Canada, severed Indigenous people from their traditional lands and movement patterns, seeking to divorce them from the cultural and spiritual ties to the territory.
The cementing of borders has allowed capitalist nations to control the flow of migration, which gives them incredible leverage in directing the expropriation of resources and capital. By with-holding legal access to their territories, migrants who seek to follow the flow of capital from their homes—destabilized and exploited by the Global North—are forced to make dangerous and often fatal journeys to the imperial core, where upon arrival they are either detained (sometimes indefinitely) or deported. Those who are able to enter the territory then are disenfranchised and criminalised, and must live their lives unable to access institutions, social services, or the rights extended to the citizens of that territory. Their interactions with the police and state are always coloured by a fear that their undocumented status will be discovered, and they will be detained or deported.
Let’s discuss instead the model that gets the most support, the Nordic model. Under the Nordic model, it is the clients of sex workers and third parties (managers, brothel-runners, etc) who are criminalised for engaging in the sex trade. This model is often proclaimed to be the most ethical, as it seeks to protect sex workers while simultaneously laying the blame for their exploitation upon the clients, and reducing demand by arresting them.
The Nordic model is used in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, France and Canada.
In order to fully understand the impacts of the Nordic model, it is important to have a grounding in the ways that the state and the police shape the lives of sex workers, especially people of colour, migrants, addicts and trans prostitutes.
For many, the spectre of sex trafficking is that which haunts their decisions when it comes to the sex trade. Prostitution must be stopped in order to prevent this sex trafficking; often times the sex trafficked victim is used as a leverage to invoke policies that harm the domestic prostitute. This type of dichotomy is counter-productive: only a false sense that domestic prostitutes have fundamentally different material interests than migrant prostitutes can lend weight to this, which is based on an imagined narrative that most sex workers who wish to organize must be privileged and middle class, choosing sex work rather than engaging in the sex trade out of necessity.
Earlier it was shown that most sex workers are economically marginalised, and engage in street sex work as a survival strategy. Their networks and organisations are fundamentally and inextricably linked to those of migrant sex workers, just as domestic policing is fundamentally and inextricably linked to border policing.
This system of policing borders and cities is the backbone of the Nordic model, for under this model the police would be empowered to “safeguard” the lives of sex workers from their exploiters, the clients, managers, and traffickers. It is imperative to never lose sight of who is intended to oversee any legislation or administration of policies and laws regarding sex work.
Regulation (or full legalisation), is sometimes presented as an ethical alternative. Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and some places in Nevada all use this model. In regulation, sex work is legal, and regulated by the state. In the words of Mac and Smith, this creates a “charmed circle.” This means that any sex work that happens outside of the regulated industry is fully criminalised, which pushes the most precarious sex workers into the same model that we just so readily dismissed as punitive.
Why would some sex workers do sex work outside of the regulated industry? By regulating sex work, the state gives power to managers, who choose how many people to hire, what wages they make, how long they must work. Sex workers know they are competing for employment, and so they can be pressured into accepting work conditions that they otherwise would not.
Trans sex workers, especially those that don’t pass, are widely excluded from regulated sex work. For instance, in Turkey they are banned from all state brothels. Migrant sex workers are by law excluded from regulated sex work. Migrants, especially undocumented migrants, make up a large portion of the sex industry. In regulation models, all migrants are still subjected to deportation, thus making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
People with disabilities, mad people, addicts, seropositive sex workers are all also excluded in regulated sex work, and are thus in this model still living under full criminalisation. There are sex workers who may live too far from a regulated zone or brothel.
Regulation can serve only to create a two-tiered system where all sex workers outside of the charmed circle are criminalised, and those sex workers within the circle are easily exploited as to lose employment would result in having to engage in illegal sex work.
Regulation also gives the state the power to create a capitalist institution out of sex work, thus cementing it as a social inevitability, a supposed necessity that must always be done. Under regulatory models, sex workers can not work to eventually undo the very existence of sex work.
It’s clear, and I’m sure most reading this now will agree, that full criminalisation and full regulation are both deeply flawed models that punish sex workers and have no power to transform the very nature of sex work.
There are two main currents of feminism within sex work discussions: carceral feminism and anti-carceral feminism. Carceral feminism is that which relies on police and the state to protect women, and anti-carceral feminism is that which seeks to transform society to address harms without police. These two currents are at direct odds, not only in regards to sex work, but also to a myriad of other problems that women face, such as domestic and intimate partner violence.
Carceral feminists present two possible models of addressing sex work: the full criminalisation model, and the Nordic model.
Anti-carceral feminists also present two possible models of addressing sex work: regulation, and decriminalisation.
Before we go farther, I will give a brief explanation of the four models, however, the bulk of the focus will be on the Nordic model, as this is the model most often championed by the left.
Full Criminalisation is exactly what it sounds like: under this model, all participation in the sex trade is illegal, subject to police intervention. This is the model that is most common globally, including for most of the United States (with some exceptions in Nevada). With full criminalisation, sex workers, clients, and all third parties are in direct violation of the law, resulting in exposure to arrest, police violence, jailing, court fines, and criminal records. This model is punitive, and drives the sex trade underground, which makes it much more dangerous. For anyone who takes the stance that sex workers are the victims of exploitation, it should be obvious that this system punishes the victims for that very exploitation and blames them for their circumstances.
Expanding and empowering policing and prisons, criminalising more people, driving the precarious even further into precarity: there are no redeeming qualities to the full criminalisation model, and studies show that it has no impact in reducing the sex trade, but has a massive impact in how much violence sex workers face both from the state and from those involved in the sex trade.
The Happy Hooker, symbol of “empowerment” through sexual liberation, is the other side of the same coin. Symbolically prefigured, the Happy Hooker denies the literal human underneath. Sex work is not liberating or empowering in and of itself, and portrayals of such threaten to erase the very real danger, exploitation and discrimination that sex workers face. The “empowerment” that comes through sex work is economic empowerment, which would not be necessary in a society that guaranteed economic stability to all. By seeking to counter the arguments of anti-prostitute feminists, pro-prostitute feminists can fall into the same trap of ignoring the very real concerns of sex workers: for this reason it is essential for sex workers to be centred in discussions regarding sex work, and to be at the forefront of actions and organization designed to help sex workers.
This is where I think it is essential to stress that when sex workers are centred, that must be sex workers who currently sell sex. There is a trend for anti-prostitute feminists to platform and centre former sex workers as a way to lend weight to their arguments; it’s important to remember, however, that former sex workers no longer economically rely on selling sex, and so any potential changes to how society organises or relates to sex work necessarily does not impact them as it would a current sex worker.
Mac and Smith contend that the archetype of the Exited Woman becomes “the ultimate symbol of female woundedness, with the criminalisation of clients as feminist justice.” The Exited Woman shares her stories—usually focusing on visceral and uncomfortable details, especially of sexual violence and exploitation—to elicit powerful emotional responses to mobilize other non sex-workers into action in regards to sex work.
The very real violence and danger, exploitation and sexual violation faced by former sex workers should not be dismissed. However, Exited Women leveraging those stories to impact the lives of women currently still involved in sex work, to either criminalise them or to make the conditions by which they are able to sell sex and thus survive become more hostile, is not the answer. Not everyone’s experience of sex work is the same, and no stories of victimisation can be painted over sex workers as a whole, nor can people who no longer rely on the sale of sex be the forefront of discussions regarding the conditions of the sale of sex in the here and now.
As radical feminism distanced itself from sex workers and within the 80s and 90s began to argue for the censorship of porn, anti-prostitution became firmly ensconced in the movement, with writers such as Janice Raymond making assertions that “prostitution is rape that’s paid for.” At the same time many pro-sex feminists began to argue on behalf of the “empowerment” offered through sex work; neither approach is helpful to understanding the lives of sex workers. They both focus on the idea of “sex as symbol,” with middle class (mostly white) women creating entire bodies of literature arguing for or against sex work as either empowering or a reinforcement and representation of the patriarchy’s domination over women. What they had in common, however, was the absence of sex workers’ voices, and a disregard for the very real circumstances faced by people on the street every day.
The debate led to the emergence of two main tropes in prostitution discourse: the Shameful Prostitute and the Happy Hooker.
The Shameful Prostitute is the carrier of society’s worst aspects. As Shulamith Firestone describes in The Dialectic of Sex, in a patriarchal society man is conditioned to associate love, affection and care with the Mother. Through the incest taboo, that form of relationship is divorced from sexuality. This can be seen as early as medieval European literature, in which knightly figures professed their loves for pure, chaste women, devoid of sexuality. The sexuality requires another outlet: this is the Prostitute. Viviane K. Namaste describes in Sex Change/Social Change the elevation of the middle class white woman during industrialisation and the early formation of the nuclear family to a place of private life: property of the husband, to take care of the house and raise the children, and removed from spheres of public life and isolated from communal relations.
The underclass however, with no property and the women working alongside of the men, represented the public woman. The private woman was the property of a single man, the public woman was the property of all. Turning back to Firestone, we see the dilemma that gave rise to the public woman. The man would choose the Mother to be his wife, to clean the house and cook the food and raise the children and provide all of the affection and care that the Mother provides. However, the man may respect the Mother, but he could not associate the Mother with feelings of “vulgar” and “base” sexuality without first degrading her. And thus the Prostitute, the public woman, became an essential outlet for this repressed sexuality. By virtue of her socio-economic status, to the man, the Prostitute was always-already degraded, and thus an object of sexual desire.
This deeply capitalist and hierarchical series of relationships is represented through the Shameful Prostitute, which to anti-prostitute feminists is the ultimate symbol of patriarchal degradation. Reducing prostitutes to a figural concept, a symbol, however, erases the possibility of their literal existence. Whatever a prostitute symbolizes to anti-prostitute feminists is unrelated to the needs that she faces in living her daily life, and to label her and constrain her with all of the baggage of patriarchal subjugation of woman is to deny her agency. By demonizing and stigmatising the symbolic Prostitute, the real prostitute is further marginalised, making her susceptible to elevated violence both systemically and interpersonally.
“The International Black Women for Wages for Housework campaign specifically linked unwaged housework to reparations for slavery and imperialism, drawing links between the subsidization of capitalism by factory wages and unwaged labor in the home and on plantations, strengthened through immigration controls and laws criminalizing sex work” (Walia, Border and Rule).
Yuly Perez, of the sex workers’ union National Organisation for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution—which was part of a 35 000 worker strike across Bolivia in protest of the closure of brothels and an increase of violent policing of prostitutes—says that “people think the point of our organisation is to expand prostitution in Boliva. In fact, we want the opposite. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business.”
Sex worker organization is concerned with creating the conditions under which sex workers can work safely—as Mac and Smith argue, “People should not have to demonstrate that their work has intrinsic value to society to deserve safety at work. Moving towards a better society—one in which people’s work does have wider value, one in which resources are shared on the basis of need—cannot come about through criminalisation. Nor can it come about through treating marginalised people’s material needs and survival strategies as trivial.”
While sex work is a large and diverse category that spans countless different occupations, in this I am focused on survival sex work: sex work carried out on the streets or in brothels in order to earn the money needed to live. The most precarious and vulnerable sex workers deserve to be the primary consideration in this discussion; as such, throughout this essay I employ the term prostitute as well as sex worker to ensure that it is understood that this conversation is about the trade of sex for money, and not other forms of sex work such as camwork or stripping, as those experiences are different and requiring of separate analyses in order to ensure an accurate account of the material conditions therein. These varied sex work occupations may overlap, but this essay seeks only to explore the ways in which solidarity with one of the most undervalued class of workers, who live on the margins of society and often in extreme precarity legally, socially, and economically, is essential to a forward-thinking and ethical leftist movement.
In Revolting Prostitutes, Molly Smith and Juno Mac cite Silvia Federici, who has long maintained the link between women’s subjugation to men through housework and “wifely duties” and sex work, whereby a woman’s sexual and intimate labours are commodified and sex is work. To Federici, the only difference between a housewife and a sex worker is that a sex worker gets paid.
While organizing for Wages for Housework, in 1975 Federici wrote: “to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it. It means precisely the opposite. To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it.”
Mac and Smith make the argument that this extends to other aspects of work that is traditionally not considered work: by first having work accepted as such, the workers may then more easily struggle to resist or reorder such work.
In such a way, acknowledging that sex work is work is the first step in a larger struggle to restructuring society’s relations to sex work, and ultimately, to ending sex work. Asserting that sex work is work is not to say that it is good work, or harmless work, or that it has fundamental value. It is to establish that the workers engaged in the work need rights and protections as workers.
In Invisible Lives, Viviane K. Namaste shows the way that transsexual street workers are unable to access necessary hormones because the gender identity clinics don’t recognize their work as prostitutes to be real work. By refusing to acknowledge sex work as work, street workers are denied access to social services and medical institutions essential to their lives.
The reason there are delineations between what is acceptable and unacceptable sexual or intimate contact is that they occur under different contexts and with negotiations of consent. Many people struggle with understanding this in regards to sex work, because they believe two things:
that every act of sex/penetration is inherently an act of domination. This is a chauvinistic and moralistic feeling that is socially reproduced in many societies, but that holds no objective truth.
that sex workers are selling their bodies/consent. They are not. They are not selling their bodies any more than another worker sells theirs. They are selling their labour. And they are certainly not selling their consent. An integral part of sex work and providing safe conditions for sex workers is allowing negotiation of the boundaries of consent.
This is crucial: by conflating all acts of sex work as sexual violence, you ignore a sex worker’s ability to negotiate the boundaries between what is consensual activity and what is assault. If all acts of sex work are considered sexual violence, then there is no recourse for sex workers to declare when they have been assaulted.
Every sex worker deserves the ability to determine for themself the lines of consent, and to be believed when they say that something is assault. In order to be believed when they name something as assault, they must then be believed when they assert certain acts are not assault.
“Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker” - Karl Marx
In understanding that not every act of prostitution is sexual assault, it is essential to gauge the level of bodily exploitation that goes into all categories of work in a capitalist system.
As someone without capital, you are coerced into selling your labour to live. Without selling your labour, you would die. The capitalist then, is leveraging a threat of death, leveraging your very life, for your labour. Does that make it correct to then equate all wage labour with slavery?
In the same manner, while the prostitute is coerced economically into selling sexual labour to live, that economic coercion is not inherently equitable with sexual assault. To give an example of the ways in which a body’s services can be sold: a massage therapist is paid to provide touch. That message therapist is performing a service that in other contexts may be considered intimate.
A clerk at a grocery store is asked to come into the boss’s office, where he removes his shirt, hands her oil, and asks for a massage. This is a clear case of sexual violation. Does this then mean that the massage therapist’s very livelihood is a sexual violation? Of course not, because the massage therapist has negotiated and consented to a level of touch prior to the massage.
Say then, that a client demands a massage therapist perform oral sex. This is, again, a clear case of sexual violation. Because the massage therapist consented to providing a massage, and not any other forms of intimate contact.
In sex work, a sex worker negotiates and consents to a set of intimate contacts. These are not in and of themselves assault. Another example: an actor agrees to a scene in which she is groped in a bar. A different actor is groped off-set without consent in the exact same manner.
I have only done some bare-bones research on feminism in China, where I don’t know the language and it isn’t my focus. However, it’s been making huge strides lately in increasing access to medical care for trans individuals. There was a study published in BMC Public Health regarding discrimination and perceived discrimination of various LGBT individuals in China. It largely found that the biggest hurdle to LGBT acceptance is from family, where queer participants ranked discrimination from family to be the most prevalent, which coincided with heterosexual participants being least accepting of LGBT people in their own family, but largely accepting of LGBT people otherwise.
This same study also found that gay men and trans people are the most likely to stay in the closet. However, medical interactions were found in this study to be the least discriminatory, which is incredibly heartening, as access to medical care is the first and most crucial stumbling block on the road to trans acceptance. China has been taking a very science-based stance on this, and has been pushing for medical care regardless of cultural acceptance.
It was also found that an increase in a region’s economic prosperity led to a decrease in LGBT discrimination, meaning that as people’s lives improved they were less bothered by the gays down the street.
In 2021 a documentary “A Day of Trans” directed by trans filmmaker Yennefer Fang released, which interviews four trans individuals of different generations. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202111/1239389.shtml
One of the people interviewed, a trans man, won a discrimination case against his employer back in 2016, when he became a public face in the fight for systemic protections.
In 1995 Jin Xing was the first person to openly have gender confirmation surgery. She’s a famous dancer, choreographer, and tv presenter that is shown nation-wide, and has been since before most western countries would allow a trans person on tv as anything more than a punchline about degeneracy and prostitution.
Here’s a link to Yennefer’s documentary (it’s missing a few lines in the translation, because Yennefer did the captioning personally)
That really depends on the topic you’re wanting to learn about. A few that were particularly impactful for me on a broad range of subjects:
Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici was a really great analysis of the division of reproductive labour and the persecution of women (and queer people/sexual deviance) as a form of controlling accumulation during the transition to capitalism.
Border & Rule by Harsha Walia was a very in-depth look at the ways that borders are leveraged to create sources of hyper-exploitable labour, and the ties between movements of reaction and racist nationalism. The precarity of vast swathes of humanity, and the violence imposed on them is made possible through the buttressing of mobile, militarized borders.
We Do This 'Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba is a hopeful examination of restorative and transformative justice practices and the quest to craft an equitable society free from the violence of the carceral punishment system.
Transgender Marxism is a fantastic collection of essays by many different writers that shows the wide array of socialist currents in transgender organizing, and that helps to situate trans liberation within a wider socialist liberatory struggle.
Abolition. Feminism. Now. and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis are both fantastic looks at the necessity of prison abolition in feminist movements. There is no feminist victory within carcerality, and there is no freedom from carcerality within patriarchy.
Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith can help to situate the intersection of feminist action and Indigenous sovereignty, with a look at the ways that sexual violence were integral to the colonial project, and how the women’s movement shifting to “pro choice” as a defining single-issue of struggle left out the ways that “choice” can not exist for women in a racist colonial class system that deprives large portions of women from exercising any “choice” over their bodies at all.
Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba is a collection of articles by Leslie Feinberg about Cuba’s queer rights movements, and it’s super good for getting an inspiring framework for understanding how a worker’s state can offer true liberatory possibilities for queer people. Especially the articles detailing Cuba’s response to the AIDS crisis are incredibly moving.
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler is a bit of a deeper philosophical read, and unless you have somehwta of a grounding of psychoanalytics you might not get much from a lot it (you can read Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex as an intro to feminist takes on psychoanalysis, but I don’t agree with most any of her conclusions and am not really into psychoanalytics). However, Gender Trouble also had a massive influence on feminist philosophical currents, and builds really well on Simone de Beauviour and Michel Foucault in analysis the social construction of gender, and further, the way that sexual dimorphism and a biological sex binary is itself a social construct.
Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue by Leslie Feinberg is a collection of keynote addresses that can be quite emotional looks into the early development of gender deviant movements in the US.
Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg is part autobiography, part trans history, part class analysis and part Marxist call to action. It explores hir own life as ze came of age as a masculine female during the McCarthy era, and then through hir labour in a factory grew consciousness regarding the exploitation of workers before finally joining a Marxist party, embracing communism, and spending hir life advocating for socialist revolution and trans liberation. It also charts early communal societies and the sacred role that trans people often played, and the arrival of anti-trans, and anti-homosexual sentiment as wealth accumulation began and class divisions first cemented. As well are snapshots of trans and gender deviant people throughout history.
I’m so glad to hear that you are taking steps in your life to examine who you want to be.
All of us, every person, is in a constant, lifelong state of growth and transition, from what we were, through what we are and into what we hope to become. For some us this growth requires astounding leaps in relating to ourselves and the world around us, often departing from what we even conceived of as possible.
It’s a powerful and freeing thing to reflect on what you need to do to navigate this world more fully as yourself.
If you ever have any questions, or need to talk, I’m here <3
Is there nothing at all about this post that you considered was, I don’t know, an insult for transfeminine people? Like maybe there was some misogyny involved in making “emasculation” out to be an insult, or making cross-dressing the butt of the joke?
I think it’s important to examine the traditional sexism inherent in viewing femininity as lesser than masculinity, in considering shows of femininity to be a weakness, a character flaw, or some degeneracy.
Complementing traditional sexism is oppositional sexism, the myth that man and woman, masculine and feminine, are somehow opposites and exclusive, and thus shaming people for blurring the boundaries between them. To show femininity is not to deny or renounce masculinity, nor does masculinity require an absence of femininity, for the two exist in varying degrees amongst all people. It is an oppositional sexist account that would degrade someone as less than masculine for displays of feminine, feeding into the traditional sexism of feminine as lesser.
Finally, there is cissexism here in the belief that a cissexual presentation is inherently superior to a transsexual presentation, and that a person is less deserving of respect due to their failure to present fully within cissexual norms.
This is particularly unwarranted given there is a wealth of ideological reasons you could use to insult someone willing to fight for reactionary beliefs and to oppress others.
Instead you chose to go for the sexist trifecta and show that oppression is alive and well on the left as well. How sad.