Prostitution as work: implications of legalising an industry

Discussions over the status of prostitution have raged over the past few years.  The current position in Scotland is that activies surrounding the sale of sex are illegal under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, however the purchase of someone for the purposes of sexual gratification is perfectly legal.  Internationally that is the main way in which prostitution – the sale of sexual services – is controlled.  By legally targeting the seller of sexual services while the buyer faces no legal consequence.  The three alternatives: legalisation, decriminalisation, and criminalisation of the purchaser are all implemented in different countries (for example in the Netherlands, New South Wales, Austrailia and Sweden respectively).

Almost all socialists, communists and anarchists agree that prostitution is an undesirable thing, the question become to what extent it can be considered work, and to what extent a form of compensation for abuse.  If we consider it work – the argument goes, then we should legalise and regulate in the same way that we do with other forms of work with a view to making the industry safer.  If compensation for abuse, we should eradicate such abuse by any means necessary.  Personally I think prostitution is sexual abuse.  The fact that wo/men in the industry accept this abuse in exchange for payment does not negate the abusive experience, any more than the choice of a woman to stay in a particular relationship negates any violence within it, but as a thought experiment, lets assume that prostitution is work.

What we have then currently is an illegal industry, which commodifies an activity which the vast majority of people both enjoy and participate in.  This activity is most usually performed within a “gift economy”, that the parties which participate in the activity do so for their own and the other’s sexual pleasure.  Although economics may enter into the equation, particularly within marriage and quasi-maritial relationships, it does so in an obtuse manner.  Although these concerns may be in the background, they are rarely foregrounded.

Up until perhaps a decade ago, nail grooming operated within a similar gift economy.  Women painted their own nails, or the nails of friends, for fun, bonding and mutual pleasure.  More recently this activity has been industrialised, with nailbars springing up all over the place, and it is now common for women to pay to have their nails painted.  In reaction to the industrialisation, hygiene and health regulations have sprung up to ward off any unscrupulous nail bar operators who may do harm to their clients by seeking greater profit.

In a classic worker, boss, consumer scenario, a worker is exploited by a boss who seeks to make maximum revenue from their labour from the payment the customer makes from the goods/services.  Such is capitalism.  I dont like capitalism very much, and I dont really like to see it expanded.  While I recognise that the development of the nail grooming industry has given opportunities for those who are skilled in the task to generate income from those skills, I think that we should be working towards a world where more and more goods and services are taken out of the capitalist economy and into a socialised method of production.  While nailbars have no inherent harm in them, and prior to the industry’s expansion there was no legal restrictions on them, that is not the case with prostitution, an industry which has been firmly kept out of the capitalist sphere.

If prostitutes are workers, they are alternatively exploited by bosses, or are part of the petty bourgoise.  We seek to achieve alternatives to other forms of exploitative labour – set up collective kitchens to overcome the exploitation in food preparation, run community farms to try to manage food production ourselves, legalising an industry in which it is widely acknowledged that the workers are abused like in no other makes no sense.  Although workers within an industry may object to that industry being shut down, it is for society as a whole to consider whether an industry is good and beneficial.  Workers who develop nuclear weapons may argue against their eradication, but that should not be a justification for our continued participation in the nuclear arms industry.

If prostitutes are the petty bourgoise,  they exploit themselves with a view to building capital on which basis they can eventually reduce their dependence on their own labour power and increase their income from capital.  Again, socialists, communists and anarchists tend to take a low view of the petty bourgoise and their concerns which are focussed on the development of their personal capital as a means by which to exploit others labour.  Those who are engaged in prostitution on such a basis may well argue against its eradication, as this the industry from which they intend to build the capital on which they will eventually be able to reduce or end their labour, living off the surplus value of others instead.

Neither of these scenarios make any sense to me.  Prostitution is not “work” that can be regulated and controlled, it is the sexual abuse of one person by another for money.  But even if you do see prostitution as work, from a socialist, anarchist or communist point of view, legalisation makes no sense except as a stalinist attempt to control the producers of a desired community good. Even if prostitution is work, just ordinary work like no other, there is no reason why an industry which is currently not open to the capitalist marketplace should be opened to it.




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