This article was originally posted at Manyfesto and has been republished with permission from the author, .
No one proposes ending war by unionizing arms manufacturers. Proposing to end violence against women in the sex trade by unionizing them is likewise
untenable. The best way to end violence against women in the sex trade is still to end the sex trade. The unionization strategy is a reformist position – and the position that we would like to live in a world where there is no such thing as prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, while it might seem fantastical, is a revolutionary position and the correct line to have for a leftist who calls herself a feminist. It’s not moralistic hand-wringing to criticize the base assumptions of the military industrial complex; why then, is it just my “personal baggage” speaking when I criticize the sex trade?
First, we should look at the conditions in which women in the sex trade live, and ask ourselves if these conditions could be alleviated by unionization:
Seventy percent of women in prostitution in San Francisco, California were raped (Silbert & Pines, 1982). A study in Portland, Oregon found that prostituted women were raped on average once a week (Hunter, 1994). Eighty-five percent of women in Minneapolis, Minnesota had been raped in prostitution (Parriott, 1994). Ninety-four percent of those in street prostitution experienced sexual assault and 75% were raped by one or more johns (Miller, 1995). In the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal) 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults, 70% experienced verbal threats of assault, 40% experienced sexual violence and 40% were forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances (Vanwesenbeeck, et al. 1995, 1994)… The prevalence of PTSD among prostituted women from 5 countries was 67% (Farley et. al. 1998), which is the same range as that of combat veterans (Weathers et. al. 1993).
Is this staggering violence a result of lack of unionization? Let’s see what the International Union of Sex Workers is fighting for:
All workers including sex workers have the right to:
full protection of all existing laws, regardless of the context and without discrimination. These include all laws relating to harassment, violence, threats, intimidation, health and safety and theft.
access the full range of employment, contract and property laws.
participate in and leave the sex industry without stigma
full and voluntary access to non-discriminatory health checks and medical advice
Here is where we begin to be mired in questions, a case by case judgment of “good” vs. “bad” prostitution. What defines coercion? What defines trafficking? What defines abuse? What defines empowerment? Certainly, the assumption of the IUSW is that the sex industry is a normal, neutral industry wherein women happen to be subject to incredible amounts of violence and poverty, where nearly half (47%) are under the age of 18 when they begin working. The idea of the IUSW and other unionists is that the trade is not the focus – the focus, as we so often find it when discussing sex work, is on the women themselves.
Unions often define themselves by their relationship with management – with the “boss” – but for sex worker unions this is hardly ever the case. As the women are primarily seen as independent contractors for the sake of analysis, the john and pimps are left out of the picture. The culture surrounding the sex trade is not up for analysis, either. It is a neutral, unchanging constant.
The boss is the john, and to take action against the john or the culture that encourages him is to shut down business. Instead, the union is supposed to either challenge the state (to legalize prostitution) or to perform the functions of the state (provide protection, legal counseling, health services). Yet, these are reformist measures that simply
serve to react to the conditions women live in, rather than challenging the very conditions themselves. Lest we forget : women are not raped and abused because of a lack of state regulation (or too much state regulation), they are raped and abused because the john, pimp and cop decide to do so, and exist within a system that shelters them from consequence.
Within the realm of the normalized sex trade, rape and abuse are no longer crimes against the person, but rather occupational hazards. In the blog, “Tits and Sass”, two articles underscore this quite well. The first, about rape, is written from the perspective that “unwanted sex” is still consensual when the woman sees material gain from the process. This agrees with studies of john behavior and attitudes, wherein a full quarter believe that the very concept of raping a prostitute is “ridiculous.”
It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.
“Enthusiastic consent” was conceived in an effort to eradicate the so-called gray areas of sexual assault, so it’s hard to talk about without also talking about rape. While I appreciate the centering of desire and consent, it wouldn’t hold that every sexual encounter taking place without the enthusiastic consent of both parties is rape… But I still turn over plenty of work-related questions in my head: what does it mean for a man to keep paying to have sex with a woman who doesn’t give signs of enjoying it?
Another article, entitled “On Stripper Burnout” advises women who are tired of the verbal abuse that goes with stripping to buy new clothes, look at photos of money to boost morale, eat sweets, or work for a cruel booking agent as “fear can be a great motivator.” There is no advice here on leaving the sex trade – emotional, verbal and physical abuse in the normalized world of pro-sex work advocates becomes a grey zone, where the woman’s personal attitude is what determines the difference between occupational hazards and something that might contribute to PTSD – putting the onus of responsibility on the woman rather than on the john.
The practical side of unionization brings us back to the current, atomized-view of sex work in general. It is a localized solution
which does nothing to address a global problem. Questions arise: Who do you bargain with? How do we unionize all women? If a woman was in the sex trade and did not belong to a union, would this be her choice? Are johns supposed to solicit union prostitutes out of a sense of guilt, a la consumer activism (fair trade hooking?). Do we really expect johns to spontaneously grow a conscience when they are told women are for sale and it’s okay to buy them? When it comes to women in pornography, the average career tenure is quoted in several sources at being between five months and three and a half years – how then, to unionize these women? Same with prostitutes, who on average enter the trade when they are underage – how to unionize these women? What about pimps and madams, pornographers and mobsters – are they allowed in these unions?
Any leftist worth their red will agree that punishing women is the most counter-productive way to handle prostitution or sex work. Yet unions stop short at criticizing johns who, on
the whole, generally acknowledge that women in prostitution experience homelessness, substance abuse and physical and emotional degradation. Johns know, on average, that women enter into it when they are underage and against their will. They buy sex anyway. Unionizing women will not end trafficking, will not end violent deaths – it simply turns what is a societal problem into an organizational problem. Like most unions as they exist under capitalism, a sex-worker’s union’s primary purpose is to keep the more politically-minded in line with the management. We should look elsewhere for solutions that liberate women.
is a writer in New York City.