“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
Ursula K Guin said that during her acceptance speech at the national book award. She was really addressing her fellow writers and creatives, in a call to arms if you will, against the profiteering nature of the book trade which is at odds with the creative and challenging nature of her work. However her words apply to us all.
Last night I saw a film about the sex industry, honest without being preachy, respectful without being normalising. Though it was called “Normal” those who told their stories had abnormal lives because of the very nature of the industry they have found themselves in. The sex industry (and those within it) exists on the margins. There is a normal inside but that is a different normal to the normal outside. This film allowed the audience to hear from those who find themselves making money in the sex industry both as pimps/agents/workers and as prostituted people/prostitutes/workers. It did present pimps as workers, though the researcher and director of the film (Nicola Mai) acknowledged he did not consider these people to be “sex workers”. He also went on to say the usual, that prostitution has always existed in every society and while ever it does continue to exist it must be made safe. Every person should be safe. This isn’t up for debate in any industry.
Prostitution has existed in every capitalist society. In order to thrive it needs poverty, inequality and people without power and influence. There needs to be those who will provide a service/those who can be bought and sold. And there needs to be people with power and influence who will choose to purchase sex. Wealth (and lack thereof) is influential. If you can buy sex, you can buy anything. Wealth is power. Greater inequality between people – gender inequality and socioeconomic inequality – is I believe both a cause and a consequence of the sex industry. Transferring money in inconsequential amounts from wealthy individual men to individual women and men who are not wealthy does nothing to raise living standards and life chances for the class of people for whom entering the sex industry is a viable option. It may support some individuals to get out (not of the industry but of poverty) but how many and for how long, who knows? Just like in other exploitative industries I don’t see the working class being paid enough to both survive and thrive, to live and to save, to work then retire, to support themselves and a family who then have more options available. Globalisation will always bring a worker who can be exploited and paid less, there is always a way to keep the money made to a minimum and to suppress incomes and increase living costs.
The cognitive dissonance required to believe decriminalisation is the answer (to the question of how to bring about safety for, and to respect the humanity of, those is the sex industry) is quite astounding. On the one hand you must be pessimistic enough to believe the sex industry, and capitalism, is inevitable. This is a belief that there is no other way for the working class to exist than as a human commodity. On the other hand you must be optimistic enough to believe that decriminalisation is different to legalisation. Optimistic enough to know that legalising brothels leads to mega brothels but still believe decriminalising the entire industry will only lead to small, safe workers co-operatives and safe conditions for independents, that it will not lead to mega brothels. This must be the kind of optimism that looks to other industries in a hyper capitalist society with growing inequality, say for example coffee service, and sees not a small army of chain stores dominating the market in every major city in the western world but thousands of empowered workers who choose this industry which has independent stores for those who want to run their own business and a secure career within chain stores for those who do not.
Insisting on on a difference between legalisation and decriminalisation as a way to address concerns about the sex industry and its future is wilful ignorance. If sex work is work and the sex industry is just like any other industry, find a decriminalised industry without it’s equivalent of a German mega brothel. When you can find those it will be safe to say decriminalisation is different to legalisation. Until then all I see is a future of primarily working class women staffing all you can fuck buffets of sexual exploitation and being told this is the safest, cleanest and most empowering way to escape poverty.