Why does the left want prostitution to be 'a job like any other'?

The go-to perspective on prostitution from many progressives in Canada these days seems to be a fairly hard and fast vote for decriminalization or legalization. Even many of our beloved East Vancouver lefties  seem convinced that the most progressive position to take is one of ‘sex as work’, arguing that debates around prostitution should prioritize labour rights, allowing women to come out from the underground and ‘into the light’ as free and autonomous workers.

The gaps in this logic are all at once complex and simple. While I have long been a supporter of labour rights, of unions, and have counted myself as a fighting member of the working class who has waivered somewhere between socialism and Marxism from the moment I understood the concept of class struggle, I’ve found myself suddenly misaligned with some of those with whom I share my end of the political spectrum.

These are the people I vote for. They represent my interests and ideologies and yet, when it comes to the issue of prostitution, it feels as though we’ve been pitted against one another.

On one hand there seems to be a distinct lack of class analysis – we forget that there are reasons that some women are prostituted while others are not, that some women have a ‘choice’ while others do not. On the other, because decriminalization has, in part, been framed as a labour issue (i.e. that this is a job like any other and, therefore, should be treated in the same way any other service sector job is, in terms of laws), the gender and race factors fall to the wayside and we forget that prostitution impacts women and, in particular, racialized women in an inordinate way. Prostitution simply doesn’t happen to men in the same way that it does to women. It is no mere coincidence that the missing and murdered women and that Pickton’s victim’s were, largely Aboriginal women, that many of the women on the streets in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are Aboriginal. Where is the race, the gender, and the class analysis within decriminalization rhetoric? How will licensing help women who cannot ‘work’ legally? How will decriminalizing male buyers, male abusers, pimps and johns keep women safe from these men? Particularly when so many of the women being bought and sold have little choice in the matter?

Why has decriminalization been positioned as the progressive position to take in Canada?

On November 4th, Forrest Wickam asked, in a piece for Slate Magazine “What did the founders of socialism think of prostitution?” Strangely, for those who count themselves among the group of progressives who maintain that the violence and abuse that is so much a part of prostitution can only be negated via a normalization of the industry via an ideology based in workers rights, those who brought us our class struggle, who provided us with the idea of a working class, did not view prostitution as ‘a job like any other’. Rather, it would seem as though they were, in fact, abolitionists.

Wickam explains that: “Karl Marx viewed prostitutes as victims of the capitalist system,” hoping that prostitution would vanish alongside capitalism. He goes on to say that Marx “viewed the abolition of prostitution as a necessary part of ending capitalism.”

So why are progressives promoting the idea that prostitution is simply the selling of a service? Why are abolitionists being paired alongside the Christian right? Why is the conversation around prostitution not one that is framed by a desire for freedom from oppression but, instead seems rooted in a starting place that says, decidedly, “well, we give up”.

And indeed, when our work is to normalize the industry rather than to provide exiting programs, social safety nets, public education programs, and other options for women who find themselves without a way to support themselves or who are vulnerable, I do think that we are giving up.

Decriminalization seems to assume that prostitution is inevitable and that, therefore, male power and dominance is inevitable and, as such, all we can do is to make the best of it.

Why are progressives giving up on women? And not only that but why are they giving up on men? Why is there an assumption that men must treat women as things to be used for their pleasure? Is the message we want to send out in Vancouver and, more widely in Canada: “this is what men do” or “this is what we expect from the society we live in”?

Not only that but when we frame sex as work, we work from an assumption that sex can be something that exists only for male pleasure. That sex can be something that happens to women but does not require that women feel pleasure as part of the act.

The reason for a man to buy sex from a woman is, without a doubt, because he desires pleasure without having to give anything in return. This is a male-centered purchase. If we are to define sex as something pleasurable for both parties then how on earth can we define prostitution as sex work? There is something decidedly unprogressive about calling something ‘sex’ when the act is, in fact, solely 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. Doesn’t this defy the whole enthusiastic consent model?

While I certainly support human rights and worker rights, I also support women’s rights and believe that, as a feminist, I cannot and will not work towards normalizing the idea that women can and should be bought and sold. I certainly will not promote this as part of my progressive politics.

Prostitution exists because of the inextricable link between capitalism and patriarchy. The two, under these circumstances, cannot be separated. Desperation, poverty, abuse, addiction, a lack of other opportunities for work, a need to pay the rent and feed the kids, a history of colonialism and racism, and of course, a misogynistic culture that treats women as things that exist to feed the capitalist wheel, to sell and to be sold,  all work together to create a society wherein prostitution not only exists, but thrives (if you consider an abundance of men profiting from prostitution and sex industries ‘thriving’). Why is the response to the abuse, to the exploitation, to the deaths, and to the trauma that many women experience as a result of being prostituted, to treat this as simply ‘a job like any other’? What other job demands that the employee be violated? Maybe raped? Maybe abused? Maybe murdered? Maybe called horrid names until self-confidence has been worn down to a thread? Maybe develop PTSD? What progressive person would argue that this kind of treatment should be legitimized? That women’s bodies, indeed, should be available for purchase by men? And that men should feel A-OK about that?

In what profession is it expected that ONLY women must provide for ONLY men as part of equitable workplace legislation (and I don’t believe I should have to remind everyone that yes, the vast majority of prostituted women service men)? How is it progressive to institutionalize gender inequity? Women as things that can be bought or sold when under duress, to men who have the means, is not a progressive position to take. Why our fellow left wing politicians and comrades have not explored alternatives to the normalization of sexism and abuse, such as the Nordic model remains somewhat of a mystery to me.

We want women to be safe, but we also want women to be human. We want women to have rights, but we also want women to have real choices. We want respect and equitable treatment for women but we don’t believe that johns will ever provide this. No man who thinks he has the right to purchase women is a man who believes in real equality and a man who can legally do this is a man who thinks that this is what women should do for him. No woman should be thrown in jail for having to do what she needs to in order to survive, but certainly we don’t need to accept and legalize exploitation from men in order to decriminalize the women?

Simply, no person who views themselves as progressive and who believes in working towards an equitable society should, from my perspective, also believe that an equitable society can exist in one where women are prostituted.

I support my left wing allies and my progressive representatives but I cannot understand how we can share a desire to end capitalism or corporate greed or oppression in any form and not all at once desire to end prostitution.



Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.