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Debating the sex industry: a quck scoot through the arguments…

An influential book by Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore, has opened a debate about the nature of sex work, criminalisation and moralism.

The debate about sex work has received much attention recently, and Melissa Gira Grant’s book, Playing the Whore, has been acclaimed for offering new insights into the discussions about the sex industry. Although there are some aspects of Grant’s arguments that socialists would welcome, there is much to disagree with in this book.

Grant puts forward two main arguments: that prostitution should be decriminalised and that sex work is like any other work. Rather than be stigmatised it should be treated as such. The implicit conclusion is that any criticism of the sex industry is a moral judgement of those who work in it.

The strongest part of Playing the Whore is its exploration of the role of the police and the state in criminalising women working in the sex industry and exacerbating the dangers they face.

Grant outlines how in the US prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic, how the videoing of those caught contributes to the “punishment” of women and how such methods are used to incite fear in the women.

According to the Sex Workers Project, “In New York City 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed reported near daily run-ins with police and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence.”

Shockingly, Grant reveals how in some areas in the US police target all women they profile as sex workers, stopping, harassing and arresting people as they go about their daily lives.

It is also true that the so-called “Nordic Model” of prostitution law which makes selling sex legal but buying it a criminal offence is not a solution. Grant points out that “women are still getting arrested in the course of busting johns”.

In addition, such legislation can push prostitution further underground and make it even less safe for women, while further increasing the stigma attached to the trade. Criminalising the buyers of sex can end up resulting in even more police harassment of those who sell it.

The criminalisation of prostitution makes it harder for women to access health and welfare services, and means that much violence against prostitutes is unreported.

Socialists agree that prostitution should be decriminalised and that sex workers should not be stigmatised or face discrimination. However, in her discussion of prostitution Grant claims that “the stigma and violence (from police) faced by sex workers are far greater harms than sex work itself”. This assertion is completely unsubstantiated.

While police harassment no doubt heightens the problems faced by prostitution, there is no doubt that it is dangerous. Women working as prostitutes face a high risk of assault and rape and are much more likely to be murdered than other women.

This brings us to the second main argument, that sex work should be treated like any other form of work.

Grant is not arguing that sex work is “empowering” or “liberating” (as many have done), but that it is not that different from any other exploitative job without hope of financial security or social mobility.

Instead she argues that, like most jobs, our attitudes towards what we do changes throughout the day, with good and bad parts. One problem here is the definition of sex work. Grant is clear “there is no one sex industry” but that the term covers many different activities. This is undoubtedly true.

Most people would agree that there is a big difference between working on the street as a prostitute and talking on a sex chat line — both are termed sex work. But it is also possible for the owners of escort agencies to define themselves as sex workers, although others might describe such people as “pimps”.

Most of the discussion in the book takes place with no reference to wider society or the forces that have shaped the growth of the sex industry, the specific oppression of women under capitalism and the wider commodification of sex.

Occasionally Grant touches on the economic factors that can lead women into sex work. As she puts it, these include “the labour market, the privatisation of education and healthcare and debt…and demands for housing, health care, education, a better life”.

Most of her arguments are targeted at those who oppose the sex industry. She refers to “coalitions of cops, conservatives and anti sex work feminists” and although she questions whether there is a coherent anti-prostitution camp, she says, “but for the sake of argument let’s limit it to the anti prostitution feminists and their allies loosely congregated in the secular left”.

This is problematic. There are big differences between these groups as to the nature of sex work and how and why it should be opposed. In contrast to the moralism of conservatives who oppose sex work, socialists want more openness about sex and genuine sexual freedom.

Our opposition to the sex industry comes from a desire for more real sexual freedom unmediated by money and profit.

Implicit in Grant’s arguments is that women who oppose sex work are “middle class” and “white” and have no understanding of the lack of choice facing many women. She argues that this is why they cannot understand that sex work is similar to other insecure, exploitative jobs.

By reducing the arguments to personal experiences and relations rather than explore the wider forces, Grant shuts down a real discussion about the effects of prostitution, sex work and the sex industry.

To assert that “the message of anti sex work feminists is it’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below” is shocking — as is the claim that those who oppose sex work do so because they fear becoming one of those “women”.

Socialists argue that it is possible to oppose the sex industry without being against the women involved, or to patronise them or to think they need “saving”. It is also possible to highlight the dangers of sex work without seeing all those involved as victims.

Any understanding of prostitution and the wider sex industry has to be rooted in the specific oppression of women and the increasing commodification of sex.

The selling of sex cannot be reduced to economic exploitation. Sex work is a product of women’s oppression, which has its roots in the rise of the family in class society.

The institution of marriage and the family developed with the emergence of private property and was a key mechanism for transferring property from one generation to the next. Maintaining the family in some form is crucial to the ruling class under capitalism.

The reproduction of labour is done privately in the family with no direct cost to the capitalist. However, the family is not just of economic value. It teaches us gender roles and hierarchy, as well as helping to provide stability in society.

In turn the family is constantly reinforced ideologically, held up as the ideal to which to aspire and to emulate. So whether a woman lives in the traditional model or not, the family shapes the role of all women in society.

At the heart of this are women as “sexual partners” and as “nurturing, caring mothers”. This gives rise to alienated relationships between men and women under capitalism and the distortion of sex and sexuality.

Rather than undermining the family, sex work is in fact its flip side. Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai described prostitution as “the shadow of the family”.

Capitalism seeks to make a profit out of every aspect of our lives, including our hopes, dreams and desires. Today the market intrudes into every aspect of our humanity.

It takes the human desire for sex and sexual relations and turns it into a commodity to be bought and sold. Sexual pleasure, rather than being an expression of real relations between people, becomes something that can be bought.

Paying a woman for sex rests on the premise that the buyer can do what he wishes with her body in the time he has purchased it. Grant argues that the acts performed are negotiated between client and sex worker and therefore “should be proof enough that this is labour rather than selling one’s body”.

But this does not negate the central element of ownership (if only for a period of time), and therefore control, that comes from sex being sold as a commodity.

The sex worker’s own sexuality is not taken into account. She is providing a service. Many sex workers recount that what often happens goes far beyond what was originally negotiated — with a high risk of rape, assault and murder.

This is not only potentially damaging for the individual sex worker, but the sale of sex as a commodity feeds into the general objectification of women in wider society.

The sex industry offers a very narrow vision of sex and sexuality and perpetuates some of the worst stereotypical and sexist ideas of women. As such the sex industry is not only rooted in the oppression of women but also reinforces it.

Socialists fight for a completely different world where all aspects of life will be transformed. Nothing should be a commodity, from which a profit can be made, only available for those with money.

Sex would no longer be something that can be bought and sold. Socialists want a society without prostitution. We want real sexual freedom for everyone, not a world where poverty or addiction forces people to sell their bodies.

However, while the sex industry and prostitution do exist we support all attempts to make them safer for the women involved.


Features of the socialist argument for Scottish Independence

A sense of panic had begun to grip the British establishment as the break up of the United Kingdom looms as a possibility. A sense of panic had begun to grip the British establishment as the break up of the United Kingdom looms as a possibility. Socialists should support the dissolution of a key imperialist state and that the left has been able to shape the independence campaign. argues socialists should support the dissolution of a key imperialist state and that the left has been able to shape the independence campaign.

With two months to go until the Scottish Independence referendum there is a serious whiff of panic coming out of Westminster and from across the Atlantic. Growing fears that opinion polls continue to show a narrowing of the No camp’s lead to around 8 percent have prompted both Barack Obama at the G7 summit and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pitch in to defend the need for a “strong, robust and united Britain”.

Their intervention follows that of ex- Nato general secretary and former UK minister of defence George Robertson. He warns that “independence would be cataclysmic for the world” and that “the forces of darkness”, Britain’s enemies, “would love it”. The right wing pro-war think tank Royal United Services Institute bluntly declare in its April 2014 report Dissolution and Defence that “a Yes vote would leave the rest of the UK in a state of humiliation and existential crisis having to ask difficult questions about its own identity (including its name and flag).”

Cameron faces the nightmarish prospect of being the last prime minister of Great Britain! For the coalition government a defeat in the referendum coming so close off the back of losing the European elections to Ukip will trigger a major political crisis that could feasibly lead to the collapse of the coalition before the general election in 2015. In other words, the stakes for the British and American ruling class are incredibly high. As Tommy Sheridan has been putting it at his highly successful pro-independence Hope Over Fear tour of Scotland, “It’s squeaky bum time for the British establishment.”

For socialists it is the desire and real opportunity that the referendum gifts us to undermine and weaken British and US imperialism that is at the core of why we are actively throwing our weight into the Yes campaign. There are two main anti-imperialist grounds that make Scottish independence worthy of full support north and south of the border and indeed across the world.

Firstly, independence for Scotland would diminish Britain’s role as the junior partner to US imperialism, seriously weakening both sides of the so called “special relationship”. In practice the break-up of the British state would make it much harder for what’s left of the rest of the UK to support further US military adventures and illegal wars in countries like Syria and across the wider Middle East.

On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war it is not lost on the hundreds of thousands of Scottish people who took to the streets of Glasgow to say Not In Our Name that Bush and Blair’s wars left a legacy of devastation and destruction. The cost of both these wars to Britain alone has been £55 billion. That’s money that would have been better spent on education, pensions and the NHS. It is also the tenth anniversary of the death of a young Scottish soldier, Gordon Gentle, who lost his life needlessly in Iraq, a war based on lies. Put simply, a Yes vote is a vote against more immoral and illegal imperialist wars.

Secondly, the removal of Trident nuclear submarines from the Clyde would be a massive blow to Britain’s position as a leading nuclear state and a real threat to the ability of the US to use Britain as a launch pad for its missiles in Europe. The generals in Washington and at Nato HQ are terrified of losing the Faslane nuclear naval base. This is because they are acutely aware that there are no other deep waters around the UK to host Trident that won’t involve spending tens of billions of pounds to relocate it.

Furthermore, the £100 billion that it is costing to upgrade Trident could be saved and invested in creating thousands of green jobs and helping to combat climate change. “Losing” Trident would help relegate Britain from its top position in the pecking order of world states. What is causing apoplexy among our rulers is that Britain may lose its seat at the top table of the United Nations Security Council. That is a very good reason for voting Yes in its own right.

The whole issue of Trident is closely tied up with Britain’s membership of Nato. Britain has been a major player in Nato’s failed and bloody operations in Afghanistan. It also led the bombing of Libya and is now menacingly threatening to bomb Iraq again and increase its involvement in countries like Ukraine. An independent Scotland that stood outside of Nato could not only avoid being embroiled in more US/UK led wars but also make it more difficult for American imperialism to act as the world’s military policeman.

The Nato question in the referendum campaign is also significant because Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have ditched an immensely popular 30 year old policy of opposing Nato in favour of being in the nuclear club, albeit while opposing Trident. Socialists and anti-war activists will need to fight to ensure that an independent Scotland quits Nato and be ready to oppose Salmond and an SNP which is committed to staying in this nuclear club.

The ideology of unionism is being nakedly exposed for its xenophobia, its racism and anti-immigrant hysteria. An overload of scare stories from the media about floods of immigrants coming to sponge off an independent Scotland and blaming immigrants for unemployment, poor housing and every other social problem is the order of the day. It is this toxic brand of British nationalism that has contributed to Ukip winning its first ever elected seat in Scotland at the European elections.

British nationalism is the main danger that must be opposed, whatever our criticisms of Scottish nationalism, and there are plenty. Socialists are putting anti-racism at the heart of the Yes campaign and are challenging Cameron’s view of a Christian Britain and his jingoism about Britain’s civilising role during the First World War. Recently Humza Yousaf, the SNP minister for external affairs stated that one of his first wishes for an independent Scotland is to shut down the gates of Dungavel Immigration Detention centre. We share that vision and will hold any new Scottish government to it.

A central plank of the independence movement has been opposition to more Tory austerity. The campaign has not been characterised by a narrow and hardened Scottish nationalism. On the contrary, the independence movement and its various offshoots — Radical Independence campaign, Women for Independence, Tommy Sheridan’s Hope Over Fear tour — have fast become a political lightning conductor for much of the class anger that exists against austerity.

This class anger is finding its political expression in raised hopes and expectations of a Scotland that is opposed to privatisation, zero-hours contracts, child poverty and the whole package of neoliberalism on offer from Britain Plc. One sign of how much opposition there is to Tory austerity is in a recent opinion poll that shows if workers in Scotland think there is going to be another Tory government in Westminster in 2015 support for independence moves from 43 percent to a majority of 59 percent.

Yet there are many good trade unionists and labour movement activists who are opposed to independence. The Red Paper Collective, which is made up of Labour Party members, the Communist Party and some left trade union officials, is putting a left wing version of the No position. They argue that a Yes vote will lead to a divided working class and is tantamount to abandoning the unity of Scottish, English and Welsh workers that was forged out of the great battles of the Chartists, the General Strike of 1926 and up to the defeat of Thatcher’s hated poll tax in 1990.

Even Gordon Brown has tried to invoke the spirit of Red Clydeside to appeal to trade unionists to support remaining part of Britain. But it is a grave mistake for some socialists to give left wing cover to the pro-union case on the grounds that this is how to preserve workers’ unity.

Workers’ unity
The unity of the British state and the unity of the working class are not the same thing. Unity between workers north and south of the border does not rest on the maintenance of the British state or the capitalist interests it represents. Neither will the need and opportunity for solidarity between workers north and south disappear if Scotland becomes independent. There is a rich history of workers supporting each other against unscrupulous bosses: from the great miners’ strike of 1984-85 to the poll tax.

Workers in Scotland should continue to make every effort to build unity and solidarity with each other and share the lessons and take confidence from what we are able to achieve in the struggles against austerity with workers in England and Wales and vice versa.

The other position put by the left No camp is that Westminster is the only institution capable of confronting multinational capitalism and neoliberalism. Yet corporations like Amazon, Starbucks and Vodafone have all managed to avoid paying their taxes, while privatisation, lower corporation taxes and tax evasion have been driven forward by successive Labour governments over the last 30 years. There is no evidence that Westminster has any plans to reverse this process under Labour. So whatever way you package it the No camp inevitably rallies forces behind proausterity parties of the Better Together that are committed to making huge cuts and attacks on workers’ living standards in the future.

Interestingly, there are serious splits developing inside the Labour Party and the trade unions as it becomes more difficult to defend voting No. Former president of the STUC Pat Rafferty has declared his support for independence as has Stephen Smellie, a key Unison activist in the Labour party. George Mudie, MP for Leeds East has come out as a Yes supporter. Labour for Independence are attracting a lot of support as they argue that independence will create the chance to reclaim the Labour Party and take it back to its old roots and the traditions of Keir Hardie.

For the SWP in Scotland it will be important to stress that the far left must continue to engage actively in the Yes campaign and put anti-imperialism and anti-austerity politics at the centre of the debates. To take advantage of the current radicalisation and to win real gains for the working class this will necessarily have to involve more struggle from below whether Scotland remains inside or outside of the Union.

English and Welsh socialists have a role to play here too. We invite you to come to Scotland over the summer and help us put an end to the British state and win the referendum.


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