Sex Work Is Not Work: A Marxist Feminist Analysis of Prostitution – PART II

Part II: Can ‘sex work’ be considered ‘labour’?

‘all [commodities] are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.’

Marx, Capital Vol I

Marx tells us that ‘human labour power’ is expended in the production of commodities — that ‘human labour is embodied in them’ — and that it is this which determines their exchange value. The worker, of course, expends physical energy in the production of commodities. His muscles, nerves, organs and cells work in the production of commodities. But Marx’s use of the word ‘human’ suggests a nod to the social context in which labour power is expended. Beyond the physiological aspects of work, we must consider the social, ‘human’ cost to the worker. Time spent expending labour is time in which the worker is not able to pursue leisure activities; it is time he is not able to spend with his friends and loved ones; it is time in which he is unable to seek social and emotional fulfilment. In short, the worker suffers alienation. This emotional ‘human labour power’ is also embodied in the exchange value of a commodity. 

We must also consider this social context in an analysis of the labour power expended in commercial sex. The ‘sex worker’ suffers all of the same physiological exertion as the abstract worker explored above: she physically exerts herself and she also suffers the emotional burden of alienation. Yet the physical, social and emotional expenditure of a prostituted woman goes far beyond that of any abstract worker.

‘[human labour is] a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’

Marx, Capital Vol I

The physical harm suffered in the sex trade is so high that we cannot reasonably suppose that Marx would have considered commercial sex to be labour. The potential physical consequences of commercial sex include pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, vaginal tears, anal tears, drug and alcohol addiction, rape, assault, battery, death, suicide and murder.

The mortality rate for female prostitutes in the UK is 12 times higher than the general female population. Although data is hard to obtain due to the often untraceable nature of the sex trade, it is likely that prostitutes have the highest number of murders of any demographic. Incidentally, recent data shows an increase in the number of prostituted women murdered indoors (in brothels, as opposed to on the street) which suggests that more ‘regulated’ conditions would not necessarily equate to safer conditions, as decriminalisation advocates claim. In fact, in countries where prostitution is legalised and regulated, murder rates of prostituted women are still disproportionately high. Comparatively, in other industries, the most common workplace injuries are stress, slips, trips, falls and repetitive strain injury. Do the decriminalisation lobby really consider office accidents to be a qualitatively identical occupational hazard to venereal disease and death?

A 2008 study showed that the instance of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in prostituted women is almost 70% — compared with just 13.5% of US soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. These rates are astronomically higher than other industries (most of which have near zero levels) and lays waste to the notion that selling sex is comparable to selling simple labour power in other industries. At a gargantuan 70%, the rate of PTSD in prostituted women shows that suffering trauma in the sex trade is the rule, not the exception. Marx defines human labour as the ‘productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’. Can liberal feminists seriously claim that a significant risk of developing PTSD — at a rate five times higher than those fighting in active war-zones — is simply the ‘expenditure of human brain power’? Are we seriously entertaining the possibility that this is how Marx intended his work to be interpreted?

Still, those intent on characterising prostitution as work could argue that it is merely a type of work with unique occupational hazards. However, they cannot deny that the occupational hazards of prostitution are plainly more dangerous and of more detriment to the ‘worker’ than the occupational hazards of other industries. It is fair to say, therefore, that if we consider commercial sex to be ‘work’, then the physical and emotional cost of this labour is significantly higher than the vast majority of labour in other industries. In a Marxist analysis the exchange value of a commodity (the price of a product) reflects the labour embodied within it. Therefore, the exchange value of ‘sex work’ must reflect this extremely high labour cost to the ‘sex worker’. In other words, due to the enormous risk of physical and emotional harm (STIs, assault, murder, PTSD, drug addiction etc) inherent in prostitution, commercial sex should be one of the most expensive products on the market. Yet it is not. This demonstrates that the exchange value of commercial sex is nowhere near representative of the labour power embodied within it and therefore does not fit within Marxist definitions of work.

‘Labour power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual.’

Marx, Capital Vol I

Similarly, Marx tells us that ‘simple labour power’ exists within every ordinary individual. That is to say, that all ordinary individuals are capable of performing labour — unless ‘specially development’ makes them uniquely capable of performing other ‘skilled’ labour (i.e. training, education etc). An exploration of factors which predispose individuals to sell sex shows us that the labour power involved in the commercial sex trade does not exist in the organism of every ordinary individual. 

The overwhelming predisposing factor which puts individuals at risk of entering the sex trade is being female. The overwhelming majority of sex buyers are heterosexual males exclusively interested in purchasing heterosexual sex with a female ‘sex worker’. Outside of a relatively low number of men serving homosexual male clients, there is simply no market for male prostitutes. Sex is overwhelmingly ‘women’s work’. Clearly, ‘femaleness’ does not exist in every individual — it only exists in half of the population — and it is unlikely that Marx considered biological sex to be a ‘special development’ of female workers. Femaleness is not a special training, skill, or experience — it just is.

Another predisposing factor is childhood sexual abuse. A 2007 study in Vancouver showed that the rate of childhood abuse in the sample was 73% for physical abuse; 32.4% for sexual abuse; 86.8% for emotional abuse; 84.5% for physical neglect; and 93% for emotional neglect. This level of childhood trauma creates a complex psychological profile which predisposes abused girls to become involved in the sex trade (often whilst still children; or later as young adults). Again, the specific psychological trauma associated with severe childhood abuse — and present in so many prostituted women — cannot be argued to exist in the organism or every ordinary individual. It would be a callous individual indeed who argued that childhood sexual abuse is a form of ‘special development’ which ‘trains’ girls and women to perform ‘sex work’ with the necessary detachment, learnt through trauma.

Drug dependency is also a significant predisposing factor for those entering prostitution. Over half of those working in the sex trade claim to have been addicted to hard drugs prior to selling sex — with estimates of current drug usage as high as 95%. Of course, drug addiction can create the economic necessity to sell sex but, unlike in other low paid and exploitative industries, the emotional detachment, low self esteem and dissociation common to addicts actively lend themselves to ‘surviving’ prostitution. ‘Sex work is work’ champions often frame these predisposing factors — the ability to withstand paid rape due to prior trauma — as robust personality traits of uniquely empowered women. It is ludicrous to suggest that Marx could have possibly envisioned prostituted women entering a dissociative state in order to survive each encounter with a ‘client’ as ‘ordinary labour power’ or even a ‘special development’.

These extraordinary and harrowing predisposing factors do not ‘exist in the organism of every individual’. The common profile of prostitutes — female, victim of childhood sexual abuse, drug dependent etc — makes them ‘extraordinary individuals’. Therefore, the ‘labour power’ which exists in prostituted women does not ‘exist in the organism of every ordinary individual’. Nor is the ‘labour power’ of prostituted women identical to the labour power of other workers, as pro-prostitution advocates claim. Their ‘labour’, therefore, cannot be considered to be labour power as defined by Marx.

This article is part of a series. Read Part I here. Read Part III here.

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