There has been a lot of comment in recent days on Amnesty’s report about the rights of sex workers, supported by the 32nd International Council Meeting; this follows many other global rights organisations adopting similar positions, though Amnesty’s decision has been very high profile. Although the draft policy was an internal document, it has been doing the rounds online. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here (and because I’m not sure if that’s a permanent link, I’ve also copied it to my blog here). There is a useful Q&A here. At the risk of sounding very patronising, because this blog posting is broadly about the Amnesty report rather than the hyperbole around it in much of the mainstream media, please don’t comment on here if you haven’t taken the time to read it (it’s not that long) – I do, however, welcome informed opinions.
A few days ago I read an excellent short article by Alison Phipps (@alisonphipps) on this topic, and I am not going to repeat her arguments here, which make a lot of sense to me. But I wanted to offer some reflections on the question of sex work, in part prompted by Phipps’ comments. So this blog is an articulation of a position away from a fairly unreflected acceptance of what I now see as a rather regressive position that supported, for example, the ‘Nordic model’ and a condemnation of sex work from what I thought was a clear feminist perspective. Influences here include colleagues and friends, as well as my reading and helpful interactions with people online; not all espouse positions I agree with, but all have given me food for thought, and I particularly want to mention folk like James MacKenzie (@mrjamesmack), Molly Smith (pseudonym for @pastachips), Lesley Orr (@LesleyOrr14), Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan (@nadadurkannan) and my wife, Rev. Sigrid Marten (the latter two were kind enough to read and comment on drafts; all responsibility for the content is mine, of course). Do follow all these wonderful people if you’re on Twitter!
Some general starting principles
- My positionality – where I write from – is very important here. There are multiple ways to identify and self-identify, but in different contexts different identities matter more than others. In writing about sex work I think it is unlikely to matter much that I like cats, but it is important that I am white, middle-class, have European passports, identify as cis-male, and am married. I generally try to avoid describing myself as heterosexual or bisexual or homosexual (etc.) because for myself I think understanding practice and performativity are more interesting and useful than such identifying markers (e.g. same-sex sex is not necessarily the same as homosexuality, cf. Joseph Massad Desiring Arabs (2007) and more broadly Judith Butler Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993)).
- At the core of my very being, I believe that all people are created equal (and in contexts in which I would describe myself as Christian, I would say, ‘all people are created equal in the sight of God’).
- Of course, not all people are equal. Very obviously, my own positionality (see 1.) points to that. Globally and locally, we all live in profoundly unequal societies – that barely needs stating! Inequality occurs in multiple forms, based on economic, social, gender, environmental and a host of other factors. Core to many of these – and arguably at the root of them – is an entrenched, constructed, and continually reinforced heteronormative patriarchy that manifests itself in all kinds of ways: social, economic, racial, and so on. In my view, capitalism plays a key role in this, and that necessitates the subversion of capital whenever and wherever possible – I think we need to ‘throw sand in the works’ (as Dipesh Chakrabarty effectively argues in Provincializing Europe (2000) chapter 2). In the meantime, patriarchy and capitalism rely upon and mutually reinforce one another.
- I do not want to live in a society that allows one segment to dominate another, destroying the meaningful relationships we should have witheach another. Because society is riven with inequality, we need to counteract that. Whether equality is something that will ever be achieved is irrelevant – we need to seek to do it, because it is in the doing that we subvert the dominant paradigms and structures that harm relations between people (in broadly Christian terms this can be seen as: ‘we are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful’). Subverting the dominant paradigms often requires structures and organisations, and in a work place context, for example, one of the ways of doing that is through trades unions and similar bodies: these help ensure the rights of workers are respected and that people in working contexts are treated justly.
Sex, love, gift exchange, and commodity exchange
- My usage of the term ‘sex’ in this context is very basic: intimate physical interaction between two or more people; i.e. I am generally using the term to here to describe the act of sex, rather than highlighting the (often very useful) differentiation between gender and sex.
- Sex happens in all kinds of contexts. There is an ideal within many parts of Christian and more generally Western thought that sex should only happen in the context of a loving, long-term exclusive relationship between two people, and in that context it should be something that happens by mutual consent (this latter point especially, is relatively new: for example, I think it was only in 1989 that my own country, Scotland, outlawed marital rape). Whilst, unsurprisingly perhaps, I subscribe to much of this (and always the consent part), it is clearly an ideal that can also result in an unhelpful mystification of and about sex. Sex is far more complex than that, and there are many other contexts in which people can and do have consensual sex with one another. In any discussion about sex and sex work the question of consent is one that I think requires careful consideration, and I want to comment on that briefly before returning to other elements of this debate.
- Consent I: much of Western philosophical tradition (especially from Kant onwards) – in which my own positionality very broadly places me – posits each person as having absolute free will and agency to choose and act as they see fit in all contexts. This after all, is the basis of much of our society’s systems of organisations: if I commit a crime, the courts hold that I could also have chosen not to commit that crime – that’s free will. However, it is patently not the case that all people have absolute free will and agency. Rather, we are constricted by all kinds of circumstances and contexts. Poverty, for example, can be a serious impediment to choices about healthy eating or good accommodation etc. All the free will in the world is not much good if your free will is to buy healthier food, but you don’t have enough money for it (in my view this is, of course, a necessary function of capitalism: it nourishes and fosters inequality, and needs some things to be available only to a few – if everyone could afford to buy luxuries, they would no longer be luxuries). Aside from financial restrictions, there are numerous other restrictions on a person’s ability to exercise free will (this is worth reading for an introduction to the topic).
- Consent II: Nonetheless, unless someone is captured/imprisoned/trafficked, I would hold that most people have some level of agency and free will, even if that is circumscribed by external circumstances. Amnesty is writing explicitly about such contexts and not about trafficking or child sexual abuse victims, which are clearly criminal practices to be wholly condemned.
- Presuming some level of agency, people can engage in sex with one another with varying degrees of freedom and choice. Sex between people who want to have sex with one another following the ideals outlined in 6. above, does, of course happen (a lot! and can be glorious!), but equally, there are other times when sex happens and it is perhaps not something that participants feel equally strongly about: even on a very banal level, someone might be tired and prefer to sleep rather than have sex! And yet, sometimes a sleepy person might be willing to engage in sex, even if they are not the initiator of it. That can still be consensual sex (needless to say, ‘no’ absolutely still means ‘no’).
- Sex can also happen in the context of gift exchange, and I would argue that it often occurs in such a context, to the extent that it can be difficult for some to identify it as such. Gift exchange is a concept that involves exchange without the explicit expectation of an immediate return (the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski first articulated this idea, then developed by others; I also find Arjun Appadurai The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986) very helpful in this regard: the question of commodification is one I’ll come to below). It is often said that gift exchange helps to build relationships and communities, and Malinowski argued that whilst it was not a form of exchange like a market (I give something, on condition that at the same time I get something else of an agreed equivalent value – a version of commodity exchange), gift exchange did involve an expectation of reciprocity; to put it rather simplistically, he argued against there being truly free gifts that involved no expectation of return (at some point). Of course, he was studying a particular (non-market economy) context, but in a market-economy context, we can see a mixture of gift and commodity exchange, with the boundaries between the two often becoming rather blurred. In my view, there are few occasions when we completely freely give to others with absolutely no expectation of return: to think of an example beyond the question of sex, I would argue that even an ostensibly altruistic act such as the anonymous giving of blood is perhaps accompanied (or even motivated) by the thought that ‘it could be me (or a loved one) that has an accident and the doctors then need to have blood reserves they could use’.
- If we accept, as I broadly do, that much of human interaction involves some level of gift exchange (when not involving commodity exchange), this means that the free choice and agency to ‘give’ sex (i.e. to offer oneself for sex with others) becomes more complex. We might, for example, agree to have sex with others because we feel some kind of obligation to them as a result of receiving intangible gifts (arguably this is then a form of gift exchange) or material gifts (arguably this is a form of commodity exchange). It may be that this is still consensual sex, but I think the boundaries around this are undoubtedly fuzzier – potentially very much so. This is especially the case because in a patriarchal societal structure such as ours, it will very often be women who are exploited by men to feel that they should ‘give’ sex. In such contexts a woman’s free will and agency is clearly severely circumscribed.
- I have never given anyone money in order to be ‘given’ sex (i.e. in order for them to offer themselves for sex with me), but I find it hard to categorically rule out that none of the people with whom I have had sex might not have felt some element of what I have described in 9.-11. above. I have certainly had sex with someone when I would probably not have initiated sex with them (yes, I might just have preferred sleep!), and the reverse has undoubtedly happened too. I have also felt that the pleasure of sex was something that when someone else initiated it, I could ‘give in exchange’ for something they had done for me. As we live in a patriarchal society and because my positionality means that I am an integral part of the dominant element of that patriarchal structure (however much I might want to rail against it), I think it is almost inevitable (and indeed, far more likely) that I will have had sex with a woman who perhaps felt that this was something she ‘gave in exchange’ for something I had done for her, however much I might perhaps have told myself at the time that this was not the case and that she was giving herself sexually of her own free will. (Note that the fact that I cannot immediately think of an instance in which that might have happened does not necessarily mean it did or did not happen. More than anything it is, perhaps, an acknowledgement that my deep complicity with patriarchal power structures is something I struggle to escape from; furthermore, it is likely that a woman with whom I had sex ‘given in exchange’ will recall that, since in contexts of inequality the dominant is often blind to such understandings, however well-intentioned they may be).
- Hesitant though I generally am to extrapolate from my own experiences to more general principles, I see no reason not to expect that what I have described in 11. and 12. is common to a great many people, men and women, of all sexual orientations.
- Therefore, the idea of ‘paying’ for sex is one that I think requires more questioning and honesty than most people – especially men! – are willing to give it. If we accept that Malinowski, Appadurai and similar theorists of gift and commodity exchange are broadly right, as I do, then many of us have ‘paid’ for sex in some form at some point, andnot handing over bank notes to a sexual partner can then be understood as simply a question of degree. I think very few of us are immune to the blurring of the boundaries between gift and commodity exchange that a patriarchal capitalist market system encourages.
Sex work and rights of sex workers
- Recognising that not all sex occurs within the ideal outlined in 6. above, but rather can and does occur in a wider patriarchal context of gift and commodity exchange, we can perhaps understand what Amnesty has been addressing more closely. Sex work, using Amnesty’s definition (p6-7, also of the term sex worker) is about sex as commodified exchange between individuals (note that this is variously described as prostitution, whoring and so on, but in general I prefer to use the term ‘sex work’ as it emphasises the labour without making a moral judgement).
- Amnesty accepts the existence of sex work but is certainly not arguing that men have any kind of ‘right’ to buy sexual services from women in a commodified exchange relationship (men buying women’s services is the dominant though not exclusive form of sex work, though there is also evidence in many global contexts that a disproportionate number of trans people engage in sex work, e.g. Turkey). Nor is Amnesty arguing for unregulated sex work – that’s not what decriminalisation means (‘Decriminalisation of sex work does not mean the total absence of any regulation of sex work. Rather, it means that any regulation must be focussed on respecting and protecting sex workers’ human rights, for example through requirements such as occupational health and safety standards.’ (p7) Apart from anything else, I would also argue that in a market economy a lack of regulation brings no benefits to those most affected).
- What Amnesty does do is recognise the role that wider social contexts play in the commodification of sex, including factors that can, but don’t necessarily, lead some people to engage in sex work because of the limited choices available to them for other employment, for example: ‘Evidence that sex workers often engage in sex work due to marginalisation and limited choices, and that therefore Amnesty International will urge states to take appropriate measures to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will or is compelled to rely on it as their only means of survival, and to ensure that people are able to stop sex work if and when they choose.’ (p5)
This, then, is about wider societal contexts – sex work is not something abstracted from wider society, but an integral part of it, even if that is often unacknowledged (see 19. below)
- What Amnesty has also done is base their position on research amongst sex workers from many parts of the globe. In other words, the voices of sex workers themselves have helped to form this policy. That does not mean that every sex worker around the world will agree with every element of it, but it does mean that in broad terms those most affected by policy decisions on sex work have been listened to. In a patriarchal and heteronormative society that is tremendously important: the marginalised (in postcolonial studies we’d say ‘the subaltern’) have been heard. Robert J.C. Young (White Mythologies (2004)), picking up on a famous essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak called ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ about a marginalised group in Indian history, noted that the problem is not that the subaltern cannot speak, but that the dominant will not listen. Amnesty is to be commended for helping to articulate the voices of subaltern/marginalised sex workers – will the dominant now listen?
- Sex workers are often marginalised and ostracised from society, and that puts them at great risk of violence and unsafe practices. And yet to see sex workers as somehow separate from society does nothing to help them escape possible violence. A few years ago one of my students in a moment of carelessness let slip that she was a sex worker when meeting me to ask about an essay extension, and was immediately (and understandably, given societal prejudices) worried about my reaction (her work commitments had interfered with her studies, as is the case for many of my students, whether they work in a supermarket or a brothel). I responded by saying that whatever kind of work she was engaged in I was primarily concerned that she should be as safe as possible and that she had access to student services if she needed them; she assured me she was both safe and in touch with student services. I certainly did not see it as my role to make any judgement about her personal situation (of which I knew very little) or make any judgements about her involvement in sex work, and it never arose in conversation again. As the work of The Student Sex Work Project shows, simply on a statistical level there will be quite a number of university students (men and women) who engage in sex work, often because they need the money to study (see 6. and 17. above). Universities generally try to ignore this (Ron Roberts: ‘Anything that actually draws attention to the reality of the conditions in which people have to study for their degree, i.e. extreme and definite financial hardship… they’ve got absolutely no interest…’), but if universities and politicians took student sex work seriously as a significant potential marker of student poverty, issues around all kinds of student welfare might receive more attention, including student safety. This is where Amnesty’s report is very important: it does not take a position on the appropriateness or otherwise of sex work, but it does argue that anyone engaging in sex work has the right to expect to be able to carry out that work without discrimination, violence or abuse.
So, what about all this equality stuff in 2.-4. above?
- Now, in my own understanding, the commodification of sex is in and of itself a form of violence. This is not only because I think all commodification of the human body is a form of violence (so many other kinds of work fit this category too, and indirectly Marx’s idea of ‘estranged labour’ can be used to offer such a critique, though given his context and time he doesn’t, of course, engage specifically with the idea of women’s bodies as commodities in patriarchal societies – but this blog posting offers some helpful insights). Rather it is because even if we don’t accept the ideal of sex that many of us grew up with in Western contexts (see 6. above), the reduction and objectification of a human body to a focus primarily upon its sexual organs or functions is very obviously not treating that person as equal to oneself, and such reductionism and objectification has no prospect of ever doing so. Seeing the other person as less than oneself tends to increase the likelihood of actual violence, assault, and abuse (it is easier to be violent to someone who is seen as less worthy, or is not even seen as someone, but something). Therefore, working to counter such violence and abuse is vital.
- That, as I understand it, is Amnesty’s aim with this policy, and reducing the possibility of violence and danger to sex workers – many of them women – is urgent and essential, and so I am delighted that Amnesty have taken this step forward in terms of protection of sex work. Of course, ultimately I want to work towards a society in which sex (and the body generally) is not commodified, and that, in my view, is what we should ultimately aim for (see 2.-4. above) – and I can argue for that from a feminist, Christian, human, Marxist etc. perspective. But in the meantime, let us not allow our moral assumptions about what sex should be (e.g. 6. above), or our little lies to ourselves about how we engage in sex (yes, especially men! see 9.-13. above), or our mystified distaste at the reality faced by many sex workers (see 19. above), cloud our concern for the well-being of those in the here and now.
The subaltern has spoken, Amnesty has listened. Now it’s our turn to listen – and act appropriately.