Part III: We cannot abstract labour from its social context
‘value converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.’Marx, Capital Vol I
In light of the enormous sex disparity between producers and consumers within the sex industry(majority female sellers; majority male buyers), prostitution and other ‘sex work’ cannot be considered outside of its historical, material, social context — and the context of prostitution is historic women’s oppression, societal sexism, misogyny, male dominance and male violence.
‘the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as material relations between persons and social relations between things’Marx, Capital Vol I
The social relations involved in the sex trade cannot be considered normal social relations between people — or even ordinary relations between men and women. When sex is exchanged in the market, it takes on a specific character which differentiates it from any other ‘product’. We must consider that — unlike in any other market exchange — the producer/seller almost exclusively belongs to one demographic whilst the consumer/buyer almost exclusively belongs to another. Specifically, the producers/sellers of the sex trade are overwhelmingly female (the historically and currently oppressed sex) whilst the consumers/buyers in the sex trade are overwhelmingly male (the historically and enduring dominant sex). It is absurd to deny that there is a monumental sexed power imbalance in this market exchange.
This is so unlike the social context which is realised at the point of exchange in any other industry. A fast food worker, for example, may come from any demographic (though likely to be of low socioeconomic status) and the consumers of fast food can also come from any demographic (including being of low socioeconomic status themselves). There is no intrinsic power imbalance between producer and consumer.
Even if we are to take professions dominated by women such as nursing, cleaning, caring and childcare where the wider social context is gendered. Clearly, these professions are woman-heavy due to historic and enduring sex roles — the stereotype of women as nurturing, caring and domestic. However, the specific social character at the point of exchange is not sexed. Consumers of these types of labour are not overwhelmingly male. Both sexes use healthcare, caring, education services equally. Similarly, nurses, carers, etc do not need to be female to perform their services. They are simply a result of enduring sex stereotypes. Of course, we must seek to address and destroy such stereotypes, but this work is not inherently misogynistic. A male patient, for example, would not reject healthcare services from a male nurse or object to having a male cleaner — the work is not dependent upon the sex of the worker.
‘from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form’Marx, Capital Vol I
In contrast, as the vast majority of sex buyers are straight men, most ‘sex workers’ must be female in order to meet to heterosexual male buyer demand. A heterosexual male buyer will only purchase the sexual services of female sellers and would reject the sexual services of male sellers— this is a non-negotiable aspect of the arrangement. The sexed social character of prostitution brings with it the historical and material weight of women’s oppression. Specifically, the oppression of woman at the hands of heterosexual men for the purpose of sexual and reproductive access. ‘Sex work’ is almost exclusively performed by the oppressed sex and consumed by the oppressor sex, rendering the sex industry inherently misogynistic.
The sex industry is built upon the power imbalance between the sexes and misogyny is evident in almost every aspect. From the rates of male violence against women (including murder); to the replication of the painful and degrading sex acts which their porn-addicted clients demand; to the predisposing factors of childhood sexual trauma; to the standards of beauty; to the scathing punter reviews of the female body.
The social character of ‘sex work’ — revealed at the point of exchange — is underpinned by millennia of misogyny and female oppression. We cannot abstract prostitution from the social and historical context of female oppression. Nor can we sanitise female oppression with talk of ‘choice’, ‘agency’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘sex worker rights’.
‘producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange’Marx, Capital Vol III
Through commodity fetishism, Marx introduces us to alienation. People are alienated from one another as they do not ‘know’ one another socially outside the act of exchange — leading to poor social relationships across communities and societies. In the sex trade, this must be considered in the specific context of male-female societal relations due to the monumental sex disparity between producer and consumer (female producers; male consumers). The sex trade allows male buyers to interact with women for paid sex and have no social relation with them outside of this exchange. As with more general alienation where people begin to see one another as mere producers and consumers — rather than social beings —in the sex trade this means male buyers begin to see female sellers as sexual objects, rather than social beings. They begin to associate women with sexual gratification and little more.
This transactional relationship between men and women has permeated all levels of sexed relations — even outside of the sex industry and even amongst men who do not buy sex and women who do not sell sex. Through ease of access to internet porn, a generation of young men have grown up in a world where porn usage is completely normalised (a stark contrast to the days of buying porno mags from seedy sex shops). This has given rise to a sort of hyper-alienation where men can consume women for sexual gratification online at the touch of a button without having any social interaction with them whatsoever. These women only exist to them during masturbation and cease to exist at the point of climax — their only purpose is an orgasm aid. This generation of men are experiencing more difficulty in forming fulfilling relationships (romantically, platonically and professionally) which is unsurprising as their porn habits condition them to experience women as nothing more than an on-screen conduit for their climax.
So, it is clear that prostitution does not readily fit Marx’s definition of a commodity due to the difficulty in characterising the exchange value of sex (as explored in Part I of this series). Nor is it reasonable to assert that prostitution is ‘labour like any other’ due to the immense physical, emotional and psychological toll on ‘sex workers’ . Similarly, it is unreasonable to liken commercial sex to ‘simple average labour’ as the common profile of prostitutes — female, sexually abused, suffering from drug addiction etc — is not the profile of the ‘simple average labourer’ (as explored in Part II of this series). Nor can low self esteem or the ability to withstand psychological damage due to prior trauma be considered a special skill of sex workers (also explored in Part II of this series).
We cannot allow the pimp-led decriminalisation lobby to abstract the sex industry from its historical, material, social context. It is this aspect which presents the most overwhelming structural rebuttal to the ‘sex work is work’ narrative. We must consider the sexed reality of these industries in which majority female producers provide sexual services to majority male consumers. We must recognise that the sex industry (from street prostitution to escorting, to cam girling, to OnlyFans) reflects the monumental power imbalance between the sexes which has existed throughout history.
This article is part of a series. Please read Part I here. Please read Part II here.