A Question on Prostitution and the Revolutionary Left: My response to Meghan Murphy’s analysis

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By B.J. Murphy

The question of prostitution has been a matter of debate throughout the progressive and revolutionary left for many years. To engage this topic as unbiased as possible, I must first admit that, as a white male, I cannot say that I am the best subject to take on this particular question under the personal perspective of the oppressed: that of women, who are predominantly not white.

They are the victims of a racist, capitalist system. And it was Karl Marx who correctly stated, “…the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” Though, Marx had only addressed the question of prostitution through the understanding of overthrowing capitalism and the Bourgeois State, not what is to be done by that of the revolutionary left while capitalism is still the current socio-economic system.

And that is where I and Meghan Murphy differ on the question of prostitution. She had written a brilliant article, “Why Does the Left Want Prostitution to be ‘a Job Like Any Other’?“, which was published by the People of Color Organize! blog. And I say brilliant, despite my objections, because she made a definitive argument by furthering the question of prostitution under a class analysis.

Having said that, there is a question within the question of prostitution that I do not believe Meghan had answered, at least not openly. That question is: what are we, of the revolutionary left, to do in regards to prostitution while under the capitalist system? She presents a slight, alternative idea known as the “Nordic Model,” in which correctly points out that women usually fall victim to prostitution due to poverty, racism, and sexism. As a result, legal assistance is provided to that of prostituted women instead of locking them up.

The problem with this, though, as the article states quite clearly in the very first paragraph, is that the question doesn’t directly address capitalism as being the reason for said social problems. Instead, the “Nordic Model” wishes to address this problem without addressing capitalism at the same time; it doesn’t want to address the fact that, even as you may provide services for women, under capitalism the problems will continue, regardless of there being safety nets.

What the “Nordic Model” essentially tells women is that, ‘while we’re not going to necessarily end the very system in which inflicts these very problems on you, nor are we going to try and end the system of exploitative and oppressive pimping, we will be there for you when you fall victim to prostitution.’

Is this what we really want for women, whether they be Black, Brown, or white? As someone of the revolutionary left living under this capitalist system, I cannot come to terms with this ideal in which doesn’t address, nor provide solutions to, the question of prostitution. The long-term solution to prostitution is the overall solution to capitalism: socialism! But when it comes to the short-term solution – a temporary solution as the capitalist system remains – the “Nordic Model” only partially answers the question.

Yes, we should provide services for women who suffer from poverty, racism, and sexism. Though, we also must prevent Pimps from harming our women as well through the exploitative and oppressive nature of criminalized prostitution. In fact, the question of prostitution is in correlation with that of the question of drugs under a class analysis.

While we can say that drug use will more than likely decrease exponentially, and quite possibly diminish completely, after the overthrowing of capitalism, to keep drug use criminalized would be to continue oppressing the victim, regardless if you provide services or throw them into prison. It still doesn’t address the questions of poverty or racism, in which drug use directly relates to that of prostitution.

Instead, as is for drug use as well, the temporary solution to prostitution under the capitalist system is this: legalization! It’ll be the only way in which to, 1) end the exploitative and oppressive work of Pimping, and 2) get women off the streets and into a regulated, protected environment of sex work – at least for those who wish to continue selling sex as their means of earning wages. The “Nordic Model” should also be applied to the extent in which we provide services to all women,  addressing the questions of poverty, racism, and sexism.

Those who are not in the business of providing sex for work tend to assert that it’s nothing more than, “about providing pleasure for one party (the male party) without any regard for the woman with whom you are engaging in this supposed ‘sex’ with,” as was so claimed by Meghan Murphy in her article. And while it may seem as simple as this for those of us who are not in the line of work that provides sex for wages, I believe it to be far more complex.

An ex-sex worker had addressed this question, herself, in which she stated:

“Anna van Heeswijk states that prostitution is not a job like any other, but why should it not be? Why should I be condemned by society and left unprotected just because I wish to work with my genitals rather than my hands or my brain? They are my genitals and I should be free to choose to do whatever I wish with them. There is a serious problem in society of negative attitudes towards sexual women, whether they charge for sex or not. Women as chattels may not be written in the legislature any longer, but we are still not free to own our own sexuality. The recent slut walks were a reminder that women are still judged as somehow deserving of attack if they fail to conform to the sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice straight jacket imposed by some men and so-called feminists alike.”

She had also addressed the problems with the “Nordic Model”, or as she called it the “Swedish Model”, stating that it’s incorrect to conclude the model in being a “success”, and that the model is wrong in claiming all acts of sex work is violent, in which is, “unsupported piece of propaganda which seeks to encourage patronisation and infantalisation of the many sex-workers who voluntarily choose to earn their living through sex work.”

The violence of sex work isn’t that of the mere act of having sex for money, per se, but the violence in which Pimps inflict upon women and the violence of the Bourgeois State as they release their attack dogs – cops – to raid union-protected establishments in which allow women to have sex for money.

And so, if we are to truly end the violence of sex work, then we must target the violent predators – pimps and police – and not the victims of racist pimp- and state-orchestrated violence! We must legalize prostitution, get women off the streets, end the business of pimping, and end the racist business of state-orchestrated aggression toward women, who are predominantly that of color, and instead toward that of the pimps themselves. Only then will we, of the revolutionary left, be able to address the question within the question of prostitution as we continue our struggles against the capitalist system.

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7 responses »

  1. Hi B.J.!

    I’m Ernesto from People Of Color Organize. I deleted the comment you posted, as it was just a link here, because we’re trying to foster discussion on the site that comments are intended for. You’re welcome to post a comment though!

    That said, I want to engage some of your points, as someone who agrees with you on many things (I also value a lot of what FRSO does, and consider many to be comrades).

    I have read no shortage of anonymous (and not-so-anonymous) ‘ex-sex workers’ online who say it’s their right to work with their genitalia and society needs to back off, essentially.

    Sometimes this discussion feels like what Western societies often do, favoring people’s desire to make money and to consume over the collective social need. The real question is, how does that particular desire for money impact patriarchal relations and the perceptions white male consumers have that women are for sale? And should revolutionaries be accepting the prostitution model because some prostitutes feel they have a right to make money any way they want, regardless of the impact on other women?

    Anti-capitalists hold corporations, the state and dozens of other examples of individuals and institutions socially accountable for how they make money. Some of us even think some kinds of business and business practices, like fracking and mountaintop removal, should be banned outright. Why the special dispensation for prostitution?

    I find it troubling that your piece mentions pimps and police as violent predators, but does not mention statistically the perpetrators of most violence directed at prostitutes, the men who prey on women by paying them for sex and discarding them afterward.

    Should anti-capitalists maintain this sort of business, largely composed of males consuming women, is the endgame for a socialist society?

    The normalization of prostitution as work, rather than the exploitation of women, I find quite surprising and encourage you to study this further. Is child labor also considered work? By the ex-sex worker you quoted, the children choose to do it freely. They too need money. Some may even like the people they work for or enjoy working. Some allege children can’t make their own decisions, but do just that every day. By this standard, it sounds as if utilizing children in factories and other employs is simply considered work. Thankfully all (except Newt Gingrich of course) understand we as a society believe exploiting people for money, even if they choose/want to and there are people willing to do it, is not a value we all share. How should prostitution be regarded differently?

    I salute your willingness to bring up racism aimed at women of color and prostitution, but I support you integrating a stronger gender analysis to this issue, and also considering how little legalizing prostitution does not protect women of color from racism and xenophobia.

    People of color are exploited. Rather than address systemic oppression, the dominant culture takes the approach that creating financial opportunities within their institutional framework makes it all go away. But legalizing drugs, prostitution or anything else does not objectively change the conditions of racism and white supremacy; people of color were policed long before these issues, and will be after, because the society is still racist, and expresses that racism in overt and covert ways.

    Many more thoughts, but wanted to stop there. Thank you for all you do.

    • Hello Ernesto,

      I truly thank you for taking the time to comment on this article, first of all.

      Second of all, in relation to your comment on the FRSO, I’d like to make it clear, not exactly to you since you probably know this yourself, but to others who may read this, the article written here is in no shape or form a stance taken as a whole by that of the FRSO, and is instead thoughts conducted by that of myself.

      Third of all, I truly appreciate the critiques you made. It’ll surely get me thinking more on the topic, which is what I was hoping as I had written the article. I wanted my thoughts challenged; for me to further explore the question of prostitution.

      And having said that, is there any particular articles, books, etc. that you’d recommend to help further an understanding on this question under a class analysis? Anything that’ll help will be great.

      Again, thank you for commenting and I’ll take everything said here as food for thought.

      Salutes to you comrade!

      • Hey again!

        Sorry for the slow reply. I tried to post this a few times, but the links to items tied up WordPress, it seems. You can find them easily, however.

        I greatly appreciate all you and Freedom Road do. I understand your thoughts are not an FRSO position. Thank you for engaging these ideas.

        I encourage those thinking about these issues from a progressive/radical perspective to take a few approaches.

        Please check out the views of those formerly in the sex industry, like Rebecca Mott and Our Voices Matter and Angel K, among others, who differ starkly in their experiences from those online arguing in favor of prostitution. Mott takes on a number of myths about the business too; click the Prostitution category of her site.

        [As an aside — and because Mott explodes the idea of consent and prostitution — a valuable documentary on women and the sex industry is called Hardcore, a BBC doc that relates one woman’s trip to Los Angeles to get into pornography. The tactics utilized to break down the protagonist, quite similar to things described by Mott, are some of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see. Hardcore is available free online.]

        Lots of statistics and analysis of same are available via sites like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Prostitution Research and Education. The former has some important studies related to women of color that are must-reads.

        From a class standpoint, it’s good to keep in mind that Marx’s ideas of economic determinism relate greatly to prostitution as a corruption of wage labor. Marx himself saw prostitution as an outgrowth of capital that would be done away with, and whose issues created could be addressed through socialism. The Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History has many good articles tracing prostitution’s relationship with the European Empire’s colonialism, use of women as chattel and management of race (with the use/disposal of women of color essentially as sex slaves), particularly in India, China and Southeast Asia. Also interesting in this context is the Bolsheviks, who ended the Tsarist practice of police regulation of prostitution and declared in 1918 women, being free and equal, would not be subject to prostitution; revolutionary Cubans, who banned it too, only to see a growth in underground sex industries due to (you guessed it) tourism; and other communist/socialist revolutionaries, who saw prostitution as an aberration resulting from women’s subjugation under capitalism. While there is historical notation that prostitution continues covertly, every system experiences corruption and, as per Cuba, the role of money and cultural imperialism cannot be clearer. Prostitution is something historically socialists believed to only benefit the bourgeoisie. Additionally the UK journal International Socialism had a unique cited piece on the arguments and class politics.

        Meghan Murphy has written several pieces on the left and the sex industry. People Of Color Organize posted one, but she’s spent a good deal of time relating race, gender and class. On Twitter, she, @thefwordmedia, @terristrange, @abolitionEVE and several others regularly share links and resources.

        I am absolutely certain my list is incomplete, but those are a few places to look. I’m sure others could chime in too.

        Thanks again, and I hope this discussion is food for thought for others. Nuclearnight’s comment is SO dead on. Also want to add the left needs to understand that, when there is exploitation happening (especially from virtually every left perspective of same), I support radicals in seeing the goal is not to normalize the free-market belief that anything is for sale because people feel they can (regardless of its impact on gender relations) or to normalize exploitation (meaning, I think the debate isn’t about whether alleged ‘sex workers’ on the Internet say that’s what they want to do, but rather that we see the majority of this business is built on exploitation), and then to fight for an economy and a society that affords livable conditions for all.

  2. This analysis is also not really addressing the answer being socialism. If you legalize prostitution as has been done in many states it becomes a business, capitalist governments getting tax money off of women who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy having to sell the last thing they have. It becomes a very public institution. Human beings and their bodies are not drugs. The product in prostitution is human orifices its a bit different.

    States with legalized prostitution have not reduced the amount of violence against women in prostitution, the fact that it is indoors merely makes that violence more invisible and it certainly hasn’t cleaned up the black market around prostitution (sex trafficking). When you get down to it the drug comparison really is false. What the consumers of drugs want is a clean, safe product. What the consumers of prostitution mainly want is access to the kind of sex they want and it has meant that they knowingly sleep with underage girls, women addicted to drugs, and obvious victims of pimps and traffickers. Johns are aware of this reality and its what many of them want. They get off on the degradation of women.

    So a legal market under capitalism doesn’t really address the demand aspect of this issue. The demand for degrading women is still going to be there and you’re still going to have people making profit off of the traffic in women for these things. It also puts more desperate prostituted women in danger of being criminals as if you have stds, or obvious drug addiction or lack certain physical beauty attributes you can’t work in brothels, so you’re nontheless left to street prostitution anyway, only your “trade” is more socially acceptable and only a few people will see you as a victim of society.

    I also wish more left wing men would recognize the toll that prostitution’s existence has on all women. The harassment we receive, the ways in which we’re degraded, the viewing of us as objects, each with our own price has a good deal to do with prostitution being normalized in this culture.

    I agree that the answer to the problem is socialism, however I don’t think creating legal companies which further alienate men from women’s humanity through normalizing our purchase is going to help any women, prostituted or not.

  3. sex based transactions are a fundamental part of human interaction. Much of the discussion I have observed seems determined to recast prostitution as a political activity. While it probably seems less overwhelming from that simplified perspective, prostitution as a political topic is doomed to be a feeble caricature of the true issue. As a hominid compromise between a tournament species and pair-bond species, humans have complex sexual behaviors that demand complex expression. Alone among the apes, we have conflicting evolutionary imperatives in our reproductive strategies. It will never be possible to divorce a certain amount of economic considerations from our sexual behaviors. Like Religion, Prostitution is a category of such breadth that it will not be gainfully attacked as a general concept. It must be engaged, and defeated, in detail – if it is to be engaged at all.
    A workable social construct might do away with the violence and certain objectionable behaviors associated with modern prostitution. But to combat the whole of the topic seems foolish, ill conceived, born of a fear of the conscious component of our sexual nature. Abolish slavery, coercion, vampirism, but leave peoples’ voluntary activities alone.
    Defend the economic basis of your own sexual behaviors. Let the rest of us make peace with our own as best we can.

  4. Pingback: A Question on Prostitution and the Revolutionary Left: My response to Meghan Murphy’s analysis | The Proactionary Transhumanist

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