The conversation around sex work in the West has been a deeply polarized one ever since the early 19th Century. Yet, the debate rages on while the sex industry grows both legally and illegally across the world as a result of the successes of neoliberalism.
More often than not, the media has a tendency to only represent two quite extreme ends of this spectrum from a conservative religious rant about the ills and evils of a society degenerating at the hand of sex workers to a Vice journalist snorting coke with a dominatrix earning $200k a year.
When we remove moralism from the debate (even though that’s rarely done), there are three definable models representing what are purported to be the ideal policy and legal frameworks for sex work: full decriminalization, full delegalization and the Nordic model.
One of the hardest aspects of approaching a topic like this is that data and statistics are notoriously hard to gather on an industry that is criminalized across the globe and even in areas where its not, there may be aspects of the industry that still are such as the Nordic Model.
Yet, passion, moralism around sex, and lack of nuance tend to sprinkle their way through these debates so often that its worth examining each legal model individually, nonetheless.
Proponents of full decriminalisation are characterized or known in the mainstream by what would most commonly be called a choice feminist or liberal feminist position. At its peak, its arguably represented by almost solely middle class sex workers who increasingly make up a section of the Western economy that go into sex work as a response to declining living standards. More often than not though this type of sex work is taken up by women who know they’d make more money operating as an independent contractor or almost like a small business than at a typical 9 to 5 job (made possible by the advent of Internet advertising or Internet sex work). But fundamentally, these women can likely enter into the industry already having had some level of a social safety net — making arguments around coerciveness perhaps not as obvious or even present.
However, these types of sex workers only make up one part of a whole picture of sex work and in fact make up quite a small percentage of it. In NSW for example, the overwhelming majority of the sex trade is performed via massage parlours or brothels of whom almost half are East Asian on a permanent residency visa or student visa. The last collected data on sex workers in NSW put the median wage at around $500 per week and that is only within the formal economy — there is still an obvious informal economy of “massage parlours” and the like which are documented to compete by charging lower rates and paying lower wages. The only other report on earnings prior to this calculates a breakdown of a median $350 per 10 clients.
So, either way, this industry is hard work and the average worker walks away without about the same amount as a low-waged retail or customer service worker.
Of course, the most obvious and inarguable aspect of the decriminalisation demands are that it makes sex work safer, access to health services more available and disproportionately sex workers are more likely (and simply are able to) report violent crime to the police. Whatsmore, in NSW it means that legal brothels and so on are subject to operational checks and the ability to bust illegally operating massage parlours, as well as more thoroughly weed out any trafficked people that might end up in one of these establishments. In fact, one of the most common arguments against full decriminalization is that it produces an increase in sex trafficking — more often than not Germany is used an example of this. However, once again, data collection becomes the biggest issue here — how can we ever be sure that in areas of full decriminalization that they are not simply more able to catch and document sex trafficking.
After all, those disappeared refugee children by ICE mid this year certainly didn’t end up on a register anywhere did they?
But how far are we willing to take this perspective? Can we expect sex work to be considered an industry like any other and do we want to normalize the notion that the sex work industry can be given a green light to legally profiteer or make up a significant level of a countries GDP? What pundits of the green light at any cost argument tend to ignore is that while we work towards making the job safer for women we can also be giving the green light for monopolies to grow. Quite simply, monopolies don’t grow without also driving down the wages and living conditions of their workers.
Do we want monopoly capitalists within sex industries to be able to lobby the Australian government to ensure that this industry perhaps expands beyond what it might have otherwise? What if the government decides that sex industry business can be Work for the Dole certified? Or what if for example, as there currently has been in New Zealand, a push to make sex work a part of the skilled migration visa.
If all of these things are a possible reality under full legalization, then it seems the ultimate question any community or society living under this model should be asking is: is sex work actually just like any other work?
Delegalisation and the Nordic Model
Again, there are spectrums of nuance and lack thereof on the other end of this debate. Within radical feminism or general anti-sex work views, there are those who argue for complete delegalisation and for other alternatives like the Nordic Model.
The moral debates within the anti-legalisation arguments perhaps are what unfortunately end up clouding other empirical arguments — for example the claim that sex workers are somehow depleting their own value or moral standing by selling sex for money.
Obviously, these arguments aren’t useful and mostly present as a relic of a more conservative approach to sex relations in general.
Arguments for the Nordic Model and the delegalisation model both tend to rely on the reasoning that its morally or simply inherently wrong for men to buy sex.
Now leaving moral arguments aside, most studies find that the general commodification of sex and especially that buyers are disproportionately men and those being bought disproportionally women does unequivocally shape men’s perceptions of women.
One study by the American Psychological Association shows that the younger a man is when first exposed to porn the more likely he is to “want power over women” and another study show that increased porn viewing correlates with overall higher levels of misogyny towards women.
15.6% of men in Australia have bought sex with a sex worker and the overwhelming majority of that was heterosexual sex with a woman while only .1% of women bought sex. A revealing study done in California showed that men who buy sex view sex workers as “intrinsically different from other women” and that they have in common “a fear of rejection by women, a history of committing sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification.” These reported violent statistics include a high correlation with rape.
Overwhelmingly, we as a society would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t submit to the notion that the sex industry heightens toxic relations between the genders or at the very least provides a legitimacy to an underlying toxicity.
We can remove the relics around conservative attitudes towards sex and even accept that the commodification of sex doesn’t necessarily have to shape our relationship with it (although there are strong arguments to the contrary) but we can’t ignore what we are actually selling men.
Selling barely legal, spank me daddy, submissive women by the truckload and pretending that it won’t have some underlying chronic effect on the psychology of a society is a massive blind spot within the current conversation around this topic. But even if we remove some of the most ‘problematic’ elements of the porn and sex industry, we are still selling the idea that sex is a biological or psychological necessity that needs to be filled with a level of immediacy by a service or consumer market which is an idea that’s rarely ever challenged.
In fact this mentality — that feelings of isolation and worthlessness should be intrinsically connected to how much sex is available to you — is arguably fuelling the incel community.
So is there a middle ground?
Where both the conservative and oftentimes radical feminist arguments become quite limited is in their tendency to point towards this toxicity among men as being solely causationally related to the existence of the industry rather than as a symptom of something much broader.
For example, even under the Soviet Union where full employment existed and in fact those who didn’t engage in productive labour where possible were considered dissidents, sex work managed to remain. So, why? What about the underlying material relations of our societies seems to ensure the constant existence of sex work.
The answer, at least in part, comes down to the nuclear family. Even though there are plenty of examples where women have a right to work — rarely are families provided a right to collective child rearing, free childcare or in some cases extensive maternity leave. In this case, the family provides a way to privatize these services and disincentives women working or makes a womans relationship with the labour force more complicated. After all, historically marriage has always been a property relation and perhaps should simply not be distinguished quite as strongly as it currently is from forms of sex work.
At least the common ground for all these arguments often is (or at least should be that) that while there are less jobs or lower paid jobs for women, women will always find it necessary to some degree to participate in the informal economy including sex work.
Changing cultural attitudes and the way men view women may go some way to undermining this demand but its impossible to create some kind of large-scale structural change no matter what model we exist under without the elimination of poverty. Men aren’t just creating demand — without some level of investment in the creation of jobs or an expanded welfare system that is actually liveable, governments are necessitating the demand. When we put this into perspective is it really any shock that politicians both end up profiting from and accessing personally this industry?
In the same respect, we can never end trafficking without ending imperialism. With all due respect to the purported Hollywood representatives of anti-trafficking campaigns, global trafficking always begins with the violent destruction of sovereign countries and thus won’t be solved simply by expanding Western legal or NGO powers. A great case example is where the UN were caught trafficking women against their will through Bosnia after the NATO breakup of Yugoslavia. The UN have also more recently been caught doing this in Haiti and there have been numerous cases of sex trafficking out of Syria during the war. So, governmental policy targeted towards the ending of human trafficking is constantly and perhaps even deliberately necessitated by the military industrial complex.
Sexism or misogyny is of course an overriding symptom of unequal material relations and in this instance that inequality is being reproduced by women’s lack of access to a way out of poverty and towards their own increased levels of purchasing power. So, there’s every reason to see the fight for full employment and against low wages in feminized labour such as care or other service industries, for an expanded welfare system and the collectivization of child rearing as being inherently linked with the fight to improve the lives of sex workers. Because as many sex workers and women in general alike will understand, and is hopefully something that both sides of this argument can agree on, is that choice feminism is only relevant insofar as choice genuinely exists.