A manifesto and chronicle of the sex workers’ struggle for labour rights, Revolting Prostitutes is an invaluable read. Juno Mac and Molly Smith compiled an incredible variety of information. The book does not just cover the struggles of sex work, but dips into work under capitalism as a whole.
From the moralisation of sex work to the origins of the prison system, here are eight things I learned from reading Revolting Prostitutes.
1. Sex work is often discussed in terms of sex, but not in terms of work.
The main argument throughout Revolting Prostitutes is that sex workers are, fundamentally, workers. And like any other group of workers, they need rights.
People sell sex to get money. This simple fact is often missed, forgotten, or overlooked.
Much of the discourse around prostitution is highly moralised. Instead of focusing on the material needs of sex workers, much of what is argued around sex work is limited to ideology. This applies especially to so-called feminist spaces.
A key struggle that sex workers face in feminist spaces is trying to move people past their sense of what prostitution symbolises, to grapple with what the criminalisation of prostitution materially does to people who sell sex.
2. The representation of human trafficking we see in the media is wildly inaccurate.
While sex work as a whole is highly moralised, human trafficking is perhaps taken even further into the abstract. The media like to portray human trafficking in terms of ‘stolen innocence’ and dangerous foreigners. As the authors illustrate, however, the images of white girls getting kidnapped are little more than misleading propaganda.
Cases of kidnap are very unusual, essentially because it would make little sense to ‘give’ someone the services of taking them across a border for free, when people are willing to pay up to thirty thousand pounds to be taken across that same border.
The realities of human trafficking are about migration and the exploitation of precarious, undocumented workers. Those who have more money or a family waiting for them across the border can afford to be smuggled.
The people who are considered trafficked, on the other hand, have to get into debt with the smuggler. Once they reach their destination, they often take up forced work under an exploitative employer. What’s important to remember is that despite these working conditions, most trafficking victims do not wish to leave the country. Throughout years of horrible working environments, they hope to pay off their debt and begin building their new lives.
The discourse of trafficking largely fails to help people in this situation, because it paints them as kidnapped and enchained rather than as trying to migrate.
3. Borders make workers vulnerable and increase their likelihood of being exploited.
If trafficking victims are vulnerable to exploitation, so other migrants with unstable documentation are at risk of violence and deportation. Their ‘undocumented’ status keeps them out of reach of assistance and legal aid, making them easy prey for abusive managers. Bosses can cut their pay, change their working conditions, and confiscate their documents with the threat of reporting them to the authorities.
The vast, vast majority of people who end up in exploitative situations were seeking to migrate and have become entrapped in a horrifically exploitative system because when people migrate without papers they have few to no rights.
4. The legacy of American slavery lies in the prison system, not in human trafficking.
Shackles are often used in representations of human trafficking. This once again symbolises the loss of innocent white girls to ‘modern slavery’ and dangerous, foreign men. It’s ironic that it is instead the heavily racist prison system that is derived directly from slavery. As opposed to being fully abolished, in fact, slavery was
explicitly retained in the US Constitution as punishment for crime in the Thirteenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states that ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’
This historicisation of the American prison system helps to put the disproportionate discrimination that workers of colour face into perspective. Throughout Revolting Prostitutes, the authors include statistics of black and Asian sex workers being harassed, fined, and jailed while white co-workers are left alone.
The legacy of colonialism and slavery continues to hurt workers of colour disproportionately through the prison system and systemic poverty. These institutions are exacerbated by border and immigration controls.
5. Operations to stop prostitution have little to do with women’s safety, and everything to do with ‘cleaning up the streets.’
While many politicians and organisations like to frame their anti-prostitution efforts as ‘rescue missions,’ most just want to remove prostitution from the public eye.
Anti-prostitution law wishes the ‘orderliness’ of death upon those who most visibly sell sex. It is no coincidence that the police and the men who murder sex workers share a preoccupation with ‘cleansing the streets.’
Raids and arrests of sex workers prove that ‘rescue’ missions don’t stem from a concern for the workers’ wellbeing. Once removed from the job, prostitutes are fined, jailed, and evicted, with no concern for their future income and housing. Undocumented sex workers arrested during these ‘missions’ are often deported after all their money is taken by the police.
6. Feminists who campaign for criminalisation often fail to consider its effects on sex workers.
Despite much hatred for sex workers being spewed by all sorts of groups, it’s particularly outrageous that much of it comes from self-proclaimed feminists. Carceral feminists – those who actively support the prison system – are especially engaged in anti-prostitution debates.
Anti-prostitution feminists are so focussed on criminalising clients that when a legislative proposal contains this measure, they support it – seemingly without checking the ‘detail’ of what the proposal includes for sex workers.
Most legal measures passed to ‘end’ prostitution are in fact incredibly harmful for sex workers. Legal systems based on criminalisation do not benefit precarious sex workers in the slightest. Instead, they give more power to clients and managers. Sex workers are left with no rights and nothing to fight abusive conditions with.
7. Capitalism is at its most extreme in criminalised markets.
As the authors of Revolting Prostitutes passionately argue, criminalising sex work does not get rid of it. Like drug trafficking, the sex industry carries on despite its criminalised status. In fact, both thrive as some of the most brutal underground markets out there.
When you criminalise something, capitalism still happens in that market.
The most important thing to note here is that while criminalisation does not stop an economic activity from happening, it does provoke changes within that market. As you can imagine if you have read this far, those changes are usually at the expense of precarious workers.
Capitalism is in many ways at its most intense in criminalised markets. This is because in criminalised markets there can be no regulations, no workers’ rights.
The poorer a sex worker is, the more heavily they will rely on sex work to survive. Criminalising their only stream of income will not make them look for another job. Instead, it will throw them into an incredibly dangerous industry with no access to legal recourse. Employers will be highly aware of the illicit nature of sex work and can use it to threaten their employees. This often forces them to continue working under highly exploitative conditions.
8. The ‘evils’ of sex work are often blamed on singular ‘bad guys’ as opposed to legal and economic issues.
By framing the law as humanitarian, the state shrugs off responsibility for damage done to sex workers and trafficking victims.
The exploitation of sex workers is often blamed on ‘evil’ employers and violent clients. While there is some truth in this, the violence of the state and its laws is often overlooked. It is pre-existing poverty under capitalism that leads prostitutes to seek out dangerous and illicit work in the first place.
If a right-wing politician downplays the extent to which sex work is about generating a decent income and instead emphasises the extent to which it is driven by a ‘criminal underworld’, he can sidestep awkward questions about the connections between prostitution, poverty, and government policy.
Instead of acknowledging the ways that legal and economic systems damage precarious workers, politicians prefer to approach sex work with ‘rescue’ missions and ‘humanitarian’ deportations of trafficking victims. This allows them to frame their efforts not as evasions of true change, but as heroic acts.
While the above points are important lessons to internalise, Revolting Prostitutes ultimately draws a crucial conclusion:
Decriminalising sex work will not suddenly make anyone less poor; sex work is an effective strategy for resisting poverty, but it doesn’t address poverty systematically.
We know now that decriminalising sex work is a big step towards allowing prostitutes to access social services. However, we also know that it does not solve the poverty that remains at the heart of capitalism. The roots of precarious work lie in capitalism as a system, not in the ‘evils’ of singular markets and people.
Don’t trust my opinion – go read Revolting Prostitutes for yourself! You can go snatch yourself a copy from Verso Books right now. If you’d like to discuss the book further, feel free to leave a comment down below. Alternatively, get in touch with me on Instagram or Goodreads.
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