Dec 23, 2012

Some thoughts on sex positivity* & purchasing consent

I've not really written on this topic before, because my views were not very strongly formed for one thing, but also because it's one of those incandescent intra-feminist controversies that I think should be given time to run out of fuel naturally. However the subject has been everywhere in the last couple of weeks (even Woman's Hour!), and that means that I've been thinking about it a lot and possibly coming up with new insights. Sorry of my ideas are actually old & hackneyed; blame it on parallel intellectual evolution.

Given the framing of the debate around the professional choices some women make to engage in sex acts for money, it seems sensible to me to look at it from an economics point of view. In that context it seems to me that pro-sex work thinking is mostly quite neo-liberal or libertarian in its conceptions, emphasising the choices & freedoms of individual persons as having the key moral weight in the debate. It is therefore incompatible with feminism in its guise of a progressive, left movement, with at least some roots in radical, class based analysis.

First of all, I'd like to establish that saying that sex acts should not be exchanged for money is not by definition a puritanical or anti sex idea. There is a well established core of things that we see as exchangeable for money and things that we see as being in the realm of interpersonal relationships. The economist Dan Arieli gives the example of holiday dinner (topical!). If you were to turn around and offer your mother in law £20 at the end of the meal, instead of a big hug and maybe some help with the washing up, she and everyone else at the table would be scandalised. it is understood by all of us as a basic underpinning of a private life that certain things are exchangeable for money and others are not. This is called the difference between market norms and social norms, and in most cases it is quite uncontroversial.

A lot of the new sex work thinking seems to me to blur the distinction specifically when it comes to the ability to consent to sexual contact. What it seeks to do is square the monetary circle: claim that doing something for money is equivalent or even identical to doing it out of a social/emotional impulse. So me bringing you a cup of tea because I'm your friend is no different to me serving you a cup of tea because I'm a waitress, to use one Twitter example. Essentially it seeks to monetise consent.

I find this an alarming and reactionary development. Far from being in any true sense sex positive, it seems to me to be yanking consent out of the realm of social norms into the world of market norms. Market norms operate very differently and we need to be very very careful how we approach them. Yes, sex was always purchasable for money: but consent was not.

The feminist analysis of prostitution has always been that people who perform sex acts fr money are in some way coerced: by poverty, by force, by enslavement and so on. It did not, therefore, involve meaningful consent. The moralising view on the other hand was that prostitutes are somehow inherently immoral - it was seen as a moral failure, as sin and a mark against the person's character rather than a result of economic choices (often rational ones unconstrained by anything other than financial considerations, it should be added). In other words, the patriarchal conception of prostitution was that people who engage in it do so out of pleasure, and therefore their consent is meaningful (i.e. we don't need to worry that they are being essentially raped).

But sex work campaigners often tell it the other way around: sex workers on their view are liberated people making authentic choices, whereas as feminists who object to the sex trade are moralising patriarchalists attempting to coerce women out of their natural inclinations.

By implying that sex work can and does involve true consent however, the sex positive thinkers are potentially undermining the enthusiastic consent model and feeding into the transactional view of sex: the traditional one where sex is something men "get from" women in exchange for the things women are truly interested in - marriage, children, or in this case cash. I struggle to see this as truly progressive, and I don't think it's helpful at all to insist that this is somehow the true feminism and if you don't agree your feminist analysis is useless.

To sum up, the problem here is not that sex workers exist; the problem is  that there is a move to blur the distinction between market norms and social norms by moving consent (not just the performance of the sex act, but the subjective state of consent) into the column of things that can be bought, and therefore sold. I think that's a dangerous direction to go in.

*ETA: I've changed the title of the article to properly reflect the fact that it is not sex work per se that I am querying here, but the attitude that posits that it is in principle unproblematic, which is part of a wider set of "sex positive" approaches.


  1. I'm really missing something in your argument; perhaps this is due to a lack of economics background and therefore I'm missing something. Basically, I'm a bit baffled as the examples you link don't seem to demonstrate your point.

    Firstly, Arieli's example of the Christmas dinner is highly problematic as it reinforces the notion that housework and family support should not be acknowledged as a job, but, rather, as something women should just do anyway. I'd thought we'd moved on from this position and that we weren't continuing to accept that it's always the women who do domestic labour without critique. I recall once upon a time there was a moment to get women properly reimbursed for the domestic labour they undertake--I take it you disagree with this?

    Secondly, it looks to me as if the tweet you linked does not say what you say it says: it says that other forms of wage labour are also inherently coercive.

    And this is something that must be acknowledged when we talk about sex work--that the whole wage labour system is exploitative, getting people to do things which they would not ordinarily do. Far from arguing that a friend bringing a cup of tea is the same as a waitress bringing a cup of tea, that tweet argues that work is exploitative.

    And so I find it curious that there is so much focused on sex work as opposed to all of the other forms of exploitative labour, particularly when sex workers often have fewer rights than other workers in the first place. Under capitalist patriarchy, work--and sex work--is always going to exist, and if we wish to attack this root cause, we cannot simply focus on one type of already-marginalised worker, saying the work they do is worse than any other.

    And finally, you only link to one piece including the voice of a sex worker, dismissing her view as you continue with your argument. I'm very concerned about this: of all the people we should be listening to, it is the sex workers, for it is their experience we are discussing.

    And if sex workers find a collectivist explanation of what they are doing offensive, wrong and demonising, then perhaps we need to listen all the more and be better allies.

    1. Looking back on this comment, I realise I structured it poorly, as I should have put the bit about the primacy of listening to sex workers first, as it is the most important thing here.

    2. I'm not naturally very focused the sex trade as such (beyond questions of violence such as trafficking & rape of sex workers). It's never been my primary interest, as is evidenced by the fact that this is the first time I've ever commented on it on this blog or elsewhere. My views, such as they are, are almost entirely formed by relatively recent exposure to the blogs & books of several sex workers.

      I don't want to link to them here because I don't like the way that sex workers on both sides of the issue who speak out turn into political footballs in the hands of so called allies. You can believe me, or I can email you some evidence of the fact that I do read and engage with the voices of sex workers - I just don't like to appropriate them. The example I gave of someone making a claim that anti sex work feminists are the real patriarchal oppressor is just that - an example. I happen to have read it yesterday so it was fresh in my mind, and coincidentally it was made by a sex worker. I could probably find similar if not identical quotes on Pervocracy.

      Now that I've hopefully established my bona fides, what do you think of the actual argument?

      Let's say your dad is the one cooking Christmas dinner this year. Would you offer him £20 at the end of it, because all wage labour is slavery? Do you, as is implied (but I don't think truly meant) in your first paragraph, truly believe that there is NO human relation that is outside of the realms of capital exploitation?

  2. I pointed out that the example you used was a human relation which is very much steeped in capitalist patriarchy. Merely gender-flipping this won't make it go away: we both know (I hope) the history and present behind this discussion. It's a flawed example.

    And, as I said in my previous comment, what I think of your actually argument is that it is nonsensical to single out sex work rather than critiquing the impact and function of all work.

    I personally do not want to throw any more shit at an already-marginalised group like sex workers. I don't want to single sex work out when people feel that this actively contributes to stigmatisation. Even if not every single sex worker feels this, I don't want to harm some by pursuing an ultimately unhelpful line of argument.

    1. But we are singling sex workers out by saying that the exchange of money buys consent. Consent is a subjective state, like say enthusiasm or hunger. We don't make claims about those states for other forms of paid employment - we acknowledge that the labour is alienated, we accept that the employer buys our time and skills (or our body, as Reni puts it) but not the inside of our heads. I'm not making any claim about whether or not selling sex acts is good/bad/whatever. My beef is with the claim that there is no problem with consent here, and if I say I am, then I'm "sex negative".

  3. Not sure I understand your argument. You don't like the fact sex workers can still give consent when receiving payment so you want to change the definition of consent to make all paid sex "rape"?

    1. Well, it's a rather vexed question and to be honest I don't know. The simplistic argument is: sex without consent is rape; you can't buy meaningful consent because it's an internal state & not produceable on demand; therefore paid sex would seem to come out as rape. But it's not a very satisfying argument as far as those engaged in sex work who do not feel they are being raped go.

      I think we used to acknowledge that prostitution exists in some shadow land between complete coercion and complete consent. But with this push for sex positivity and viewing sex work as in principle unproblematic, we lost that middle ground, in which case you have to ask yourself: well, what is the client paying for? The performance of the acts, in which case consent is coerced by payment, or the consent itself, in which case we're commercialising an internal state? I haven't seen any discussion of that particular point, and it's worrying to me.

  4. "The economist Dan Arieli gives the example of holiday dinner (topical!). If you were to turn around and offer your mother in law £20 at the end of the meal, instead of a big hug and maybe some help with the washing up, she and everyone else at the table would be scandalised. it is understood by all of us as a basic underpinning of a private life that certain things are exchangeable for money and others are not."

    ... I've literally just gone out to lunch, and paid for it to be cooked and served to me. We call this "restaurants". Of course you wouldn't offer your mother-in-law twenty quid; I wouldn't charge my boyfriend money for sex. But there are lots of things that are done sometimes for love and sometimes for money - childrearing/child-care is sometimes done by family for love, and sometimes by professionals for money. Empathic, helpful listening - sometimes done by friends for love, and sometimes by therapists for money. I'd add that both child-minders and therapists might also themselves *be* parents and friends, and thus do for love in their personal lives what they do for money professionally.

    I don't understand what the sentence, " Yes, sex was always purchasable for money: but consent was not" means. Are you saying that until the invention of 'sex positivity', all sex work was rape? Or that it is all rape now? Or ...?

    Your thoughts about how "sex work campaigners often tell it the other way around: sex workers on their view are liberated people making authentic choices" are also kind of confusing. I don't consider myself "liberated" - I consider myself a person with a job. Other sex workers might self-describe as liberated, which I think is an understandable way of pushing back against the stigma that we face ("you think we're worse than you, whereas in fact we BETTER!") - but I think it is kind of a misrepresentation of the sex work argument to claim that we *focus* on "choice" and "liberatedness". 99% of the time when I encounter those tropes, they're coming from someone outside the sex industry.

    The whole stuff about neoliberalism and libertarianism is slightly insulting, to be honest - sex work trade unions are extremely difficult to set up, because if we work collectively, our workplaces are illegal, and even if we work independently, we risk eviction and stigma if we're 'out' as sex workers. Furthermore, sex workers are often precarious and marginalised in other ways. Nonetheless, sex work trade unions do exist - I'm a member of one (are *you* in a trade union?) - because sex workers around the world have been extremely tenacious in trying to claim our labour rights and work to make our industries safer. (Gregor Gall's book 'An Agency of Their Own' is a good intro to sex worker self-organising.) I don't think that asking that policymakers, other activists, and feminists give credit to the self-representations of marginalised people - who are telling you that we're workers - is neoliberal. Imagine if this was about childcare (also often done informally by women living in poverty), and you were like "no no, this is monetizing something that has always hitherto been done for Love, and therefore I will explain to these people that their request for labour rights is actually neoliberal!". That would be not that cool.

    1. Hang on though, that's not really fair - I never said anything about not wanting employment rights & protections for sex workers. You write on your blog about "people who want to eradicate my industry", and I suppose I am guilty as charged - but that doesn't mean I want the people involved in the industry to suffer in the meantime... I mean, there are all kinds people I'd eventually like to see out of a job - oil drilling engineers, or deep sea trawler fishermen, or child soldiers, or domestic servants. It doesn't mean I want them all to not have employment rights in the meantime though! What made you draw that conclusion?

  5. I fail to understand why women's sexuality, vaginas and choices regarding them are always up for discussion, everywhere and anywhere in the world.

    Choice is choice. If I choose not to have the state dictate what I can do with my uterus and vagina in terms of carrying a pregnancy to term, I damn sure don't want it in there if I decide to have sex for money, jewels, a new car, a trip to Paris, the rent, my mortgage, my next meal or support for my kids.

    No sex worker who willingly chooses the work -- and the vast majority in the trade do for reasons ranging from economics to sexual enjoyment to independence to flexible hours -- sells consent. That is tantamount to saying she sells her agency, her will, her choice, her control, herself. That is saying she is selling the rape of her body.

    A sexworker sells her time, her work, her talent, just as I sell mine as a journalist. True, she uses her body as well as her mind while my body tends not to enter into the job requirements. But, when I used to be a TV presenter, my body was all too much part of the equation. Nobody thought I needed rescuing.

    What is the client paying for, you ask? Time, work, talent, as well as, depending on the sex worker, affection, approval, attention, companionship, conversation, entertainment, relaxation, therapy, the list is endless.

    Feminists who align themselves with social conservatives who object to prostitution on moral, religious or just plain women-should-know-their-place grounds confound and anger me. They apparently see no connection between their wanting to cede control of women's bodies to the state for the purpose of eradicating prostitution (yeah, good luck with that) and taking away women's reproductive choices.

    How many sex workers have you known, spoken with, studied? Note I am not talking about the addicted, psychologically-damaged survival street sex worker who is disproportionately represented in the media and some very spurious statistics.

    If your answer is none, or next to none, I can only compare your blogpost to those on anti-choice sites that claim that abortion causes depression, infertility, cancer etc. We both know that those claims are based on spurious, if any, research.

    This, I hope, explains my comment to you on Twitter which was in response to a thread that appeared in one of my streams, the one on sex work.

    1. -- "Feminists who align themselves with social conservatives who object to prostitution on moral, religious or just plain women-should-know-their-place grounds confound and anger me."

      Feminists like you, then? Because you've just said *exactly* what I said - that consent is not a saleable commodity - but jumped to the conclusion that this makes me (but not you) an anti-sex work moralist. Without showing your workings out.

      And what's the bona fides obsession? Nobody seems to be allowed to raise any concerns about prostitution these days without presenting their credentials to the review panel. Anyway, I dealt with that in my reply to stavvers above, which I guess you haven't read.

      More than anything though, I find two things about your comment disturbing:

      1) Your blazé dismissal of the views of the people most damaged yb this industry as "over-represented". They don't have blogs, or book deals, or TV series with Billie Piper made of their experiences, so how you justify that claim is puzzling; but in any case, so what? Shouldn't the victims of an unjust system *be* over-represented in the discourse about reforming it?

      2) Your frankly disingenuous implication that your third person snark on Twitter had anything to do with my views (which you've still not really understood, beyond locating them, wrongly, at one end of a childish binary spectrum). You've never heard of me or my modest little blog before, you chose to be a dick on Twitter entirely for your own amusement, and you're shoe-horning this piece into a post-hoc justification of your bad behaviour. Not getting any less uncool here.