Solidarity, morality and sex
Simon Wells reviews: Gregor Gall An agency of their own: sex worker union organising Zero Books 2012, pp97, £9.99
Gregor Gall’s An agency of their own: sex worker union organising is a follow-up to his more substantial 2006 study, Sex worker union organising: an international study. The publisher of that book, Macmillan, described it as “the first study of the emerging phenomenon of sex workers - prostitutes, exotic dancers such as lap dancers, porn models and actresses, and sex chat line workers”.1
This current, shorter work looks at the problems for both union organisation and workers in the industry. But it can only provide the reader with a brief introduction to the subject. It could be described as primer in sex worker organisation - a manual or guide for action for the workers themselves, while for the general reader it serves as an overview.
Gall’s understanding of sex work does not come from first-hand accounts: he has not gone out and conducted interviews or issued questionnaires. This is more of a historical tour bringing us up to the current period. What he is doing though is bringing his area of interest as an academic (according to his university website page, “the collective mobilisation of workers, primarily in their workplaces, in order to prosecute their collective interests”2) - to bear on the sex industry. And in this book he has certainly highlighted the interests of workers in different sectors of the industry and from different parts of the world.
By providing positive examples of organisation, the author is attempting to further the interests of sex workers. However, he does not deny the negative experiences and problems they face. And this aspect is interesting in relation to the author’s own position on sex work ... and the comrades with whom he has been associated (being a former member of the Socialist Workers Party and Scottish Socialist Party and currently as a contributor to the Morning Star.)
For example, the SSP is “unequivocal in its condemnation of prostitution as a legitimate activity”. Its ‘Prostitution briefing paper’ comments: “We see it as sexual abuse perpetrated primarily on the vulnerable, in exchange for payment.” It continues: “Various strategies have been suggested to try to make the industry less exploitative and more safe ... All of these strategies fail ultimately because they conceive of prostitution as ‘work’ rather than abuse in exchange for payment.”3 Obviously, if prostitution is not work, then prostitutes cannot be workers. Therefore SSP-type ‘socialists’ and feminists cannot be expected to show solidarity and support attempts at unionisation.
In the majority of examples that Gall highlights, it is clear that the presence or absence of such support is a factor in the success or otherwise of attempts by sex workers to unionise. This is because it provides a boost to those workers’ confidence. But, more than that, this attitude weakens the working class by trying to separate off one of its components, just as feminism itself divides our ranks by posing the interests of women of all classes in opposition to the needs of the working class. If Gall ever shared the SSP’s feminism, thankfully he has now left it behind.
Feminists of the SSP type argue that the underlying cause of the economic subordination of women is their sexual subordination; and that this, in turn, is ultimately a matter of male violence. This type of feminism is thus class-collaborationist - and, when it comes to sex work, promotes women’s dependence on the state, not on their collective organisation as part of working class struggle. In parallel there has been a gradual and insidious extension of the idea of ‘abuse’ - not just, say, child sex abuse, rape and domestic violence, but any sort of sexual relation which, though on the face of it consensual, involves inequality of power.
In the case of Tommy Sheridan, the SSP cultivated his image as a clean-living, conventionally married, straight politician. The News of the World campaign to out him as a ‘swinger’ not only blew apart that image, but the SSP’s policy on prostitution indirectly led both Sheridan and the SSP to play into the paper’s hands in their different ways. Attending a sex club could not be viewed purely as a private matter. Sheridan insisted on denying his attendance, while the leadership failed to insist that he should on no account pursue his disastrous defamation case.
It is only natural that as a professor of industrial relations Gall would view the obvious absence of a discourse as a barrier to the unionisation of sex workers. However, it is for the sex workers themselves, he argues, to insist that what they do should be categorised as work, which would put them on a par with other workers and allow them to pursue questions of unionisation more effectively.
Gall does not fully examine the question of morality, but it is worth engaging in a brief diversion to rebut the usual arguments. What appears immoral to some in a system based on commodity exchange can be seen in quite a different light when the origins of women’s oppression are examined.4 Whether or not men are abusive and whether or not prostitution degrades women, unionisation should be seen as a moral step towards overturning all forms of oppression. That is where we should be directing our energies and solidarity work as communists.
When sex workers have the confidence to unionise, to go on strike, it is those who break the strike, break the picket line, break class lines and effectively side with the bourgeoisie and the state who should be condemned. Moral legitimacy resides with those workers, not their detractors. Once sex workers gain the legitimacy that comes with being recognised as workers just like any other, that will aid their own perception of themselves as having separate class interests from the owners and employers of sex industry establishments and a common interest with the class to which they belong.
Where Gall is weak is in his summing up. He has identified the need for sex worker collectives, political lobbying, rights campaigns and decriminalisation. But surely, if we are to believe the message of the title - An agency of their own - then sex workers should have no truck with the sort of regulation and registration schemes the author suggests. They should rely only on their own collective strength and the solidarity of our class.
4. See, for example, ‘World-historic defeat of women’ Weekly Worker April 19.