The Guardian • Issue #2076


  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2076
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Sex work and surplus value

Across the Left, the idea that sex work is liberatory for women has become mainstream, so much so that it has become taboo to call for its abolition. It has not always been this way. It used to be very common in the women’s movement to decry sex work as a blight on women’s rights and society as a whole. With calls for the banning of temporary migrant workers from the sex industry, it is necessary to revisit this topic and understand why one view has become so dominant.

The arguments for sex work being liberatory originated with the liberal feminist movement, which believes that total women’s liberation can be achieved under capitalism by removing barriers to women making their own life choices. For liberal feminists, the reason that women are oppressed in today’s society is because they weren’t given entry into the capitalist class at the beginning of capitalism, so if women are enabled to choose to become capitalists and parliamentarians, then every other choice that we make is without coercion. This would therefore make sex work liberatory as part of broader sexual liberation.

Many on the Left, while rejecting the notion that full liberation can be achieved under capitalism, have flipped this argument on its head with rhetoric that sounds socialist. The state routinely cracks down on sex workers, who also face discrimination in other areas such as social ostracism, employment discrimination, and rejection on the rental market and in social housing. They conclude that sex work should be normalised, using the slogan ‘Sex work is work’ in order to claim that the sex industry is no different to any other, and that sex workers are just like any other worker, where their exploitation is the same as the exploitation of any other worker.

The latter argument is convincing to many Marxists. The exploitation of workers is appropriation of their surplus value. Workers are paid less than the value they create, and are therefore being exploited, so shouldn’t we agree?

The fundamental flaw with this is that it ignores the fact that  the value of labour is derived from its being socially necessary. There is nothing socially necessary about sex work, so we cannot think in terms of surplus value. We instead have to understand that even things that do not have value can have a price. That reveals the true nature of sex work. Sex work is mainly done by women on the margins of society, largely poor women with no other options being treated as objects for the pleasure of people who are mostly men. There is no liberation in sex work, there are only the structures that exist under capitalism forcing women to surrender themselves to rape in order to survive. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to this, as they often have their passports and visas taken by brothel owners, have little knowledge of Australian law, and face language barriers that prevent them from getting the assistance that they need.

So what needs to be done to help sex workers? It’s true that full legalisation and anti-discrimination legislation needs to be adopted. We know from many studies that sex workers are safer when what they do is legal, and that discrimination against any oppressed group is detrimental to their well-being.

We should not, however, allow for the normalisation of sex work, and should instead adopt a full employment guarantee from the state with a wage that allows people to live comfortably in order to enable sex workers to exit their uniquely exploitative industry. We must not let a neoliberal view of sex work masquerading as a progressive view of sexuality prevent us from taking the action that is truly necessary for the  liberation of the women involved, abolishing the sex industry through preventing women from being in the position where they have to degrade themselves to survive.

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