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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise! #78 - Response to: Prostitution is Not Compatible with Anarchism

Date Thu, 06 Sep 2012 09:59:16 +0300

This is a response to the authors of the leaflet distributed at the “Sex work and Anarchism” workshop at the London Anarchist Bookfair 2011 (the original leaflet is attached below). The leaflet was written and distributed by people who were in no way connected to the organising of the workshop. It did not clarify on the leaflet who the authors were or what organisation they were from and merely said “London Anarchist Bookfair 2011” under the title. As it was handed to people coming into the room my comrade asked the woman handing it to her who had written it and the woman responded “We did.” This response was at best vague and at worst misleading. Most people handed the leaflet assumed it was written by the organisers and consequently it skewed the discussion until we were able to clear this up. I am a sex worker and was part of organising this workshop.

The content of this leaflet concerns me and
I would like to respond to some of
what is written in it. I’m writing this
purely in an individual capacity.
In my response I’m going to attempt
to counter individually each argu-
ment which is used in the leaflet to
undermine the collective organising
of sex workers. My point overall is
that critiques of sex work in no way
amount to a justification to attack
sex workers’ self-organisation, as ide-
as about how things ideally should
be do not amount to a rejection of
attempts to deal with the way things
actually are.

The title of the leaflet “Prostitution
is not compatible with Anarchism”
hints at a confusion between an
anarchist response to the present
conditions and a vision of what an
anarchist society will look like, which
becomes more explicit upon a fur-
ther reading of the leaflet. Our ap-
peal for an anarchist analysis of sex
work, an anarchist mode of organis-
ing around sex worker issues, and
the support of other anarchists when
organising around these issues, in no
way implies that sex work is in any
way compatible with an anarchist-
communist society. While most an-
archists would consider the abolition
of all work to be an eventual aim, we
need to struggle within the system
we have now to move forward and
to improve our conditions in such a
way that lays the foundation for this
change. An anarchist analysis of the
problems in the sex industry and
what problems in our society it feeds
into, in no way precludes this.

The authors set up a straw man in
the first paragraph. They attribute
to us the claim that it is sex workers
supposed choice to sell sex which
justifies our concern for sex workers
safety, ability to earn money, and
persecution by the state.

However, workers’ safety is impor-
tant in and of itself. Sex workers are
in no better position to choose not
to work than anyone else and many
workers, including many sex work-
ers, have had little choice in what job
they have to do to survive. Though
there are some people who may
claim that sex workers have chosen
this particular line of work, this obvi-
ously does not apply to all of us and
even those who chose this job over
others are merely choosing which
form their exploitation is going to
take. The authors claim that 90% of
sex workers want to exit, and cite a
reference that refers specifically to
a 1998 study of San Francisco street
prostitutes and is not in any way
comprehensive. Even if we were to
accept this statistic as generally ap-
plicable, it still changes nothing. As
someone who has only ever worked
in low-paid, unrewarding, service
industry jobs, I am fairly confident
that anyone asking my colleagues
whether they would rather have
been doing something else, would
be looking at at least that percent-
age. However the need of workers to
organise collectively to better their
material conditions is one anar-
chists should support irrespective of
whether the work is chosen or not.

Workers who would rather be doing
a different job are not in less need of
better conditions.

The authors contrast sex workers un-
ions with “workers unions (that) are
necessary for essential production”.
However, it is not for the sake of
the work, or whatever commodities
that we happen to be producing at a
given moment, that workers should
organise. If we are organising for the
benefit of the production process,
then we’re missing the point. We
organise for ourselves. The work we
are directed to perform is relevant
mainly for tactical reasons – striking
workers in ‘essential’ industries use
this to their advantage, whilst man-
agers try and use it to theirs. Wheth-
er or not the industry we work in
is essential or in any way beneficial
to us does not make our material
interests as workers any less impor-
tant. The leaflet begins by rightly
criticising the liberal notion of choice
when it comes to the work that we
are coerced by capitalism into doing,
yet the same notion is implicit in
the authors’ expectation that work-
ers should just choose to work in
an essential industry to deserve our
support in fighting to improve our
conditions – a frequent argument
trotted out by neoliberal ideologists
when low paid or otherwise particu-
larly badly treated workers seek to
use collective action to improve their
immediate conditions.

One argument the authors make
is that sex is freely available even
under capitalism and that therefore
the act of paying for sex is not about
sex. People pay for many things
which they could find for free even
within capitalism. They pay for a
number of reasons, for example the
convenience, or for the ability to be
more specific about the product they
are after. While this may be gener-
ally problematic, and in the case
of buying sex, arguably even more
problematic, it does not mean that it
is not about sex, even if other factors
are present. The authors also claim
that because sex is available for free
that it is not a commodity. Sex is a
commodity when it is being paid for,
and it is not a commodity when it is
free. Nothing is inherently a com-
modity. Rather, it is commodified. As
depressing as it is, under capitalism
nothing is spared commodification.

Exactly how disturbing it is when a
certain thing is commodified de-
pends on what that thing is and how
we relate to it, as a society and as

The authors criticise those anar-
chists who fetishise the exchange of
money for sex. The idea that there
is something liberating or empower-
ing about sex work is lacking in an
analysis of the nature of work and
is possibly a reaction against the
stigma associated with sex work.

This results in the sex worker being
constructed by some as a subversive
queer identity. As with most at-
tempts to counter stigma by embrac-
ing the stigmatised behaviour as
an identity, countering shame with
pride, we become trapped by the
structures that oppress us. Attempts
to legitimise sex worker activism
by insisting that sex work will con-
tinue to exist in a post-revolutionary
society are neither promoting a
desirable outcome nor one which is
in any way a pre-requisite for sup-
port in the here and now. However,
the authors attack on these ideas
doesn’t uphold their conclusions.

Were the anarchist movement not to
be infested with identity politics we
could still reject the notion that we
should be ashamed and we would
still expect support from our com-
rades. The false dichotomy between
“sex work is good and so sex workers
should be supported in their strug-
gle” and “sex work is bad and so sex
workers should not be supported in
their struggle” ignores the actual ma-
terial needs of sex workers in and of

Attempts to abolish sex work before
any other work is as naive as the
war on drugs but with the additional
logistical problem that it involves a
commodity which can be produced
at any time by anyone. Given that
society is organised the way it is,
with a large group of dispossessed
wage workers, with poverty and un-
employment, and with the gendered
division of humanity and all that
entails, it’s no surprise that some
workers, overwhelmingly women,
end up selling their capacity to per-
form sex work. While everything is
infected and distorted by capitalism,
an analysis of how sex is affected by
this does not invalidate the need for
sex workers to struggle to improve
their conditions. We should be able
to rely on our comrades’ support in
this as solidarity between workers
is a vital part of the struggle against


This is the leaflet to which the au-
thor of the above article objects, re-
produced for information only, not
because Organise editors consider it
a useful contribution to the debate
around sex work.

Prostitution is Not Compatible with Anarchism


The concept of women’s ‘choice’ to
sell sex is constructed in line with
neo-liberal and free-market think-
ing; the same school of thinking
that purports that workers have real
‘choices’ and control over their work.
It suggests that women chose to sell
sex and we should therefore focus
on issues to do with “sex workers’s
“ safety, ability to earn money, and
persecution by the state. Whilst
women’s safety and women’s rights
are paramount, the argument for
state regulated brothels and unioni-
sation is reformist at best, naive and
regressive at worst. Even the pro-
posal for “collective brothels’ ignores
the gendered nature of prostitution,
and its function in supporting male

An anarchist response should de-
mand the eradication of all exploita-
tive practices and not suggest they
can be made safer or better.
Anarchist Perspectives: Anarchism
comes from a Greek word mean-
ing “freedom from domination”. It
is premised on “the essential de-
cency of human beings”; a desire for
individual freedom and intolerance
of domination (Woodcock). It calls
for radical and revolutionary social
change, not reformism. Underpin-
ning beliefs include:

Opposed to domination and all hier-
archies, including gender hierarchy
(Goldman). No state apparatus is
needed (Kropotkin). Social justice is
part of our human nature (Godwin).
Social change will occur through
collective action (Bakunin). Those
with power will surrender it for the
common good (Godwin). Mutual aid
and reciprocity results in an ex-
change between equals (Proudhon).
Humans can be sovereign individuals
who participate in voluntary associa-
tion (ie not for payment) (Kropotkin).
Women’s emancipation must come
from themselves “First be asserting
herself as a personality, and not as a
sex commodity. Second by refusing
the right to anyone over her body”

Questions from an Anarchist Per-

1. The question: Why do men believe
they have a right to buy sex?

Analysis: Gender is a power-based
hierarchy and prostitution is one
manifestation of that power inequal-
ity. The overwhelming purchasers
of sex (from women or from men)
are men. The entitlement for men to
purchase sex is dependent on their
privileged hierarchical position and
the subordinate position of women.
Women from poorer socio-economic
backgrounds are overrepresented in
the sex industry.
Solutions: Men should be encour-
aged to relinquish their hierarchical
power, not supported in maintaining

2. The question: Why do men pay for

Analysis: Prostitution is “a financial
transaction for sex”. Sex is freely
available, even in the current capital-
ist system! Consensual sex can be
negotiated between any adults with
no financial exchange necessary.
Therefore the act of paying for sex
serves another purpose: it allows
the man to assert power and control
over that which he has purchased.
The assertion of power and control
by the man, and the domination of
the woman are part of the transac-
tion. It is not about sex.
Solutions: Men who buy sex should
be challenged on their abuse of
power and control over women.
3. Question: Are unions or collectives
of “sex workers” the answer?
Analysis: The majority of women
sell sex primarily because of lack of
alternatives. 90% of women in-
volved in prostitution want to exit,
but have limited choices (Farley,
1998). When people are exploited,
we support them, not the exploit-
ers. Workers unions are necessary
for essential production: sex is not a
commodity - it is freely available to
everyone. Unions or even collectives
of people selling sex to men ignore
the issue that the act of purchasing
sex is problematic within an Anar-
chist analysis. Normalising power
imbalances and inequalities does
not make them reduce or disappear;
they are only reinforced.

Solutions: People should have equi-
table choices in how they live their
lives. The majority of women in pros-
titution to do not have a range of eq-
uitable choices. Men who purchase
sex do have choices. Anarchists
should challenge the status quo of
gendered power hierarchies by ques-
tioning men’s right to purchase sex,
rather than supporting ways that
makes [sic] it easier for men to exert
power and control over women, and
thereby alienating themselves from
human nature.

Other radical ideas

If women have limited choices,
men aren’t doing them a favour by
paring them for sex: just give them
the money. People who think that
prostitution is a service for socially
isolated men should offer to have
free sex with these men.
People who think prostitution is the
same as any other manual work,
but better paid, should try to earn a
living wage from it on the Romford
Road. (The majority of women are
not working as “highly paid escorts”).
Those who fetichise [sic] the ex-
change of sex for money are not
Anarchists... or radical in any way,
but promote human beings [sic]
alienation from each other.

An afterthought on feminism
Feminism brought the notion of “the
personal is political” into conscious-
ness. The requirement from a femi-
nist analysis to examine interperson-
al interactions as either supporting
or challenging gender hierarchy
results in the same conclusions: the
act of men purchasing sex makes
them complicit in the subordination
of women as a group.
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