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Monday, February 6, 2012

Sex Work, Leftwing Feminism, and Decriminalisation (2012)


http://www.gender-agenda.org.uk/discuss/775/sex-work-leftwing-feminism-and-decriminalisation/


J.K.Savage

Written in comradely response to this post: http://www.gender-agenda.org.uk/discuss/733/sex-work-feminism-and-the-new-moralism/


I am what I think of as a “class struggle feminist”. It’s a label that I just made up, all by myself, for the purpose of this article. Why did I make it up? Because “socialist feminism” is too narrow a label – I’m interested in gender inequality, objectification and so on as well as in issues of class organisation – and because anarchafeminism doesn’t necessarily require paying any attention to class whatsoever, and frequently has more to do with radical feminism than I do personally. I also realise at this point that “anarchafeminism” isn’t recognised by MS Word, so with audience in mind, it might be wise to proceed by using language that we can all relate to.

So what do I mean by saying that I am a “class struggle feminist”, and how does it tie in with the fact that I’ve decided to write this article in response to Swyn Haf’s thoughtful, but I feel often naive, piece on a very specific, and contentious, subject? Broadly, my social analysis has its foundation in Marx, although I am by no means an old-school “scientific” Marxist. It seems relatively obvious to me that we have arranged ourselves, or let ourselves be arranged, in a system of competition at national and international level, putting most people in a position of relative impotence and poverty compared to a wealthy minority – and it’s a self-perpetuating, status-quo machine.

Because I think that we need a major systemic changes to achieve anything resembling real, working equality, I have to check myself every step of the way, to be as certain as I can be that I’m not sacrificing real, immediate changes for the better in every day society in the name of some far-off goal. For example, I will always try to pull up those on the left who argue that they needn’t be explicitly feminist, as they believe that gender equality must be an inherent part of class equality, or it isn’t equality at all. Brush-strokes this broad are dangerous; we need nuanced, far-reaching theory to address all inequality, wherever it is encountered.

What does that mean for what I do in the everyday, and what I think in this particular case about sex work? The first thing is to say, I am not, nor have I ever been, a sex worker. I recently wrote a piece about how men shouldn’t try to lead or to define the women’s movement, because it’s not their liberation struggle, and they can’t, from their social position, know what it is actually like to live as a woman. At this point I reiterated that when I talk about women, I talk about all self-defining women; I think that point’s worth making every time it comes up so I’ll do it again here.

This means that I don’t think it’s really for me to say what I think the reality should be for sex workers; my position is that of an ally, of doing what I am asked to do by self-organised sex workers to help their struggle. I should like to make it abundantly clear now that neither I nor any other socialist, anarcha-, class-struggle or other leftwing feminist believe that the sex work industry as it is, is perfect. We are not fighting for the status quo, but we are fighting alongside an oppressed group for the material changes that they know best about, and that they would most like to see.

Obviously, not all sex workers are in the same position, nor do they all hold the same opinion. Many are particularly vulnerable; but all are made more vulnerable than they need to be by their current legal and social status. It is, however, not the case that there are no forums for sex workers to discuss, and voice, collective experiences and perspectives. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) isn’t something I harp on about just because, as a class-struggle activist, I generally think unions are kind of a good thing, and, you know, enjoy working in a country with weekends, maternity leave and… I think the collective noun is “labour laws”. I also think it’s particularly important that there be an international forum for marginalised people to share different experiences around the world, and look at what works where, and why.

Sex work – and the article I’m responding to seems primarily (solely?) to be about prostitution – is regulated in vastly different ways around the world. The IUSW believe that “It’s time to decriminalise sex between consenting adults”. They campaign for: “our human, civil and labour rights… our inclusion and decriminalisation…freedom to choose, respect for those choices and the absolute right to say no…” and “the full protection of the law for everyone in the sex industry.” (http://www.iusw.org/)

Specifically here in the UK, we have also the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), who have international links and, again, campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution, X-Talk, and the Harlot’s Parlour blog which, guess what, would like the existing laws taken off the books in order to allow sex work to become a matter of consenting sex exchanged between adults, according to their own arrangements.

The left doesn’t – or shouldn’t – make blind decisions based on a series of intransigent principles, like, “unions good, radical feminists bad”. We work with other human individuals and try to figure out how it’s possible to built equality, and genuine democracy. That’s what unions are for; that’s what collective arguments are for, and that’s why there is often a voice against “moralising” aspects of other ways of organising. It’s not because we’re immoral automata with no value system. It is rather that we question dominant moral perspectives, as probably serving those who already have power and privilege in society. We try to make decisions precisely because we know that real people’s real lives are at stake – and we are doing something wrong if we’re doing anything other than listening to the decisions those people make for themselves.

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