By H J McQuarrie
Sex work is probably the most contentious and divisive issue within contemporary feminism.
Whilst radical feminists see the sale of sex in any of its forms as inherently oppressive, socialist feminists position themselves alongside workers and as such extend solidarity to those working in the sex industry.
Supporting the rights of sex workers is complex, however, as the sex industry in its present state is built upon a system of inequality and oppression. How should we, as socialist feminists, support our sex worker sisters?
The main difference between socialist and radical feminism is what we target as the cause of women’s oppression.
For radical feminists the cause is patriarchy, or the inherent “maleness” of our society and culture. The dominant, patriarchal sexual discourse, and moralisms that arise from it, imply an essentialist view of sexuality that perceives male sexuality to be instinctive and male sexual behaviour to be impulsive.
At its most extreme it denies men free will and self-control and implies a socialised subjection of women.
Radical feminists campaign by challenging masculine discourse as they find it in the world around them, in law, education, film, television, advertising, literature — anywhere and everywhere that culture exists and reproduces the myth of male dominance.
For radical feminists sex work threatens to accommodate and encourage men’s access to women’s bodies and seeks to remove their responsibility.
They therefore campaign to close lapdancing clubs, eradicate prostitution, and outlaw pornography.
However, socialist feminists do not see sex as the primary tool by which women are subjected to oppressive ideologies.
Such structuralist feminists as Irigaray argue that the differences in sexual attitude between the sexes was a result of the social differences between them.
Within this structuralist critique women are still subjected to sexuality, but not purely through the sex act.
This implies that the sexual subjection of women is not just the result of sexual discourse, but also of economics and wider cultural discourse, perhaps even that prostitution should not be discussed as a symptom of sexual discourse, but one of capitalist discourse.
Socialist feminists acknowledge patriarchy, but do not see it as the root cause of women’s oppression. Instead they view patriarchy as a symptom and a tool of the much wider oppression that women experience within a capitalist system.
Under capitalism women will always be cast lower than men.
Biology often ties us to the home, where we give our labour away for free, caring for children and often carrying out domestic duties like cleaning and cooking.
Although not all women will choose to have children, and not all children will be raised by women, women have always traditionally been the child-rearers and continue to do the majority of childcare to the present day.
Relegated to the domain of domesticity, women have found themselves reliant on the wages of others. Their choice of work is severely limited due to juggling work around childcare opening hours, and part-time work rarely pays enough to cover living costs.
Under such economic circumstances sex work can seem like a good solution.
Working hours are not restricted to the daytime, often making childcare easier, and part-time work is readily available.
However, even within the socialist feminist framework, sex work continues to oppress women.
Because women have been rendered less powerful in society they are not granted the same freedoms as men to choose the form of their labour.
Of course we should acknowledge that no worker ever freely chooses the form of their labour — work is a necessity rather than a choice — but to try and claim that sex work can be equated with any other form of labour would be at best politically negligent and at worse devastating to women’s liberation.
This is not to say that selling sex should be considered different to selling any other kind of labour, but because of how we are socialised to perceive our own and others’ bodies, selling sexual labour cannot be equated with selling eight hours a day of pushing paper or pulling pints.
An office administrator wouldn’t be called a slut for photocopying meeting minutes, and a retail assistant’s children wouldn’t be taken into care because her job required her to work three Saturdays a month.
Sex work is not considered work by society, and so sex workers are denied the rights and protection extended to other workers in the form of laws and legislation.
A socialist-feminist stance on sex work must campaign against the inequality that sex workers experience everyday at the hands of the law.
It must also campaign against the social stigma of selling sex. But it must do so knowing that this inequality does not stem solely from the act of selling sex.
Abolishing the sex industry will not in itself liberate women, but nor will legalising the sale of sex.
Sex workers must organise themselves to challenge the prejudices they face in society and we must support them, but they must also organise alongside all workers to challenge the socio-economic oppression that we all endure.