The ‘sex work is work’ viewpoint misrepresents what it is to be a human being, writes MICK PARKIN
AT THE TUC conference in September, Laura Watson from the English Collective of Prostitutes attempted to defend the idea that prostitution is simply another type of work by saying: “We’ve been told several times that it’s different to sell different parts of your body.
“So in one example, you’re selling your arms, and if you’re a sex worker, you’re selling different parts. But it’s a value judgement to say whether it’s better or worse to use different parts.”
These words misrepresent what it means to be a human being and undermine any attempt to defend our human dignity against a capitalist system which is constantly trying to turn us into commodities.
Basically, the statement is implying that our “self” doesn’t extend beyond our mind, and so our body can be seen as just an object we own — the same as we own any other kind of property, such as a house. In which case, there is no reason why a woman should not rent out her body to be used by a man, in the same way she might rent out a house.
The problem with this perspective is that it does not match with how we actually experience being a human being. In reality our sense of self is also invested in our body, to a greater or lesser extent.
It would be impossible to define exactly the subtle interactions between mind and body, but there is a simple way to prove the body is more than just an object owned by a detached self, and that is to consider the different ways we feel about different parts of the body.
For example, if someone spat on your elbow, you would just wipe it off. If they spat in your face you would be deeply insulted. And the parts of the body in which our self is most fully invested are the most intimate ones — such as those associated with sex.
As a result, if a shelf-stacker has her arms objectified, this is indeed a bad thing because she has been alienated from a part of her self — but that is on a completely different level from having the most intimate parts of her body objectified.
In fact, we know from numerous testimonies that most women in prostitution find this level of objectification unbearable, so they use an I-am-not-my-body strategy (ie they dissociate their “self” from their body) as a way to survive.
But then, if they are going to have a life outside prostitution, they have to reassociate with their body so they can be intimate with other human beings.
This constant disassociating then reassociating from the bodily aspects of their self creates a sort of psychological tearing which eventually manifests itself as post-traumatic stress disorder — a problem which is endemic in prostitution.
In other words, women sold in prostitution suffer the trauma which comes from being relentlessly and repeatedly obliged to accommodate the most destructive way in which capitalism uses people as commodities.
So, although prostitution does have some things in common with work — eg both involve the strange form of “consent” which is effectively forced from one party because they need the money which the other party is offering — we should not allow the prostitution industry to use this partial similarity to claim that a uniquely dehumanising activity (prostitution) can be redefined as “not ideal, but no worse than many other jobs.”
In essence, what we are dealing with here is the difference between someone “consenting” to be enslaved (in a relatively mild form, for most modern jobs) and “consenting” to be raped.
So we can use relatively slow methods to abolish wage-slavery in general, such as via trade unions or reformist legislation. However, given that prostitution is qualitatively so much more damaging, society is justified in taking extreme measures, such as criminalising the men who use women in prostitution.
For the same reason, we owe a massive debt of compensation to the women in prostitution, who should have their criminal records wiped and be helped to restart their lives with well-funded exit strategies: in other words, we need the Nordic model.
Let’s give the last word to Rebecca Mott, a survivor of prostitution: “Prostitution could be a bit like cleaning toilets — if you had to clean that toilet with your tongue.”