Sex Work, Unpaid Labour, and the Strike

by Margaret Corvid

11 March 2017

Sally T. Buck/Flickr

Wednesday was the day of the International Women’s Strike. I was telling a friend about the strike, and she compared it to the Women’s March that took place around the world the day after the inauguration of Trump. The strike is different than the march in quite a few ways, but one way I would like to highlight is the different ways that the two actions, both considered feminist, have addressed the issue of sex worker rights. In the United States, the January women’s march official platform initially supported sex worker rights, then withdrew that language, replacing it with language expressing concern for coerced women in the sex industry. Then, sex workers raised a blistering response on Twitter, and the language was changed back.

Reproductive labour.

The Women’s Strike is different. Not only is support for sex worker rights a central tenet of the strike, sex workers have been front and centre in the organising. That’s because of the specific purpose of the strike: to highlight all of the different kinds of work that women do, paid and unpaid. The idea of work, and the idea of a strike, are depicted in a deeply gendered way in this culture; men punching in at a factory, men walking out on strike and picketing. But women have always worked, in and out of the home, and the strike call challenges us to withdraw all kinds of labour — whether we are teaching for a wage or caring for children or performing sexual or emotional labour for our partners.

Sex work is at the heart of this strike, alongside other forms of feminised, largely precarious labour, including care work, teaching, and administration; because this strike pushes back against the mainstream feminist narratives that focus merely on issues of representation of women in boardrooms, the pay gap, and “leaning in.” In the era of Trump, Brexit, racism, and brutal cuts, movements are redefining struggle as single issue campaigns unite with other campaigns around broader critiques. This strike isn’t just challenging sexism — it is challenging capitalism itself.

Sex is part of a type of work that Marxists call reproductive labour — the continual work of creating ourselves as humans and as workers, intergenerationally. Reproductive labour includes listening to your boyfriend rant about his bad day, making doctor appointments for your kid and driving them there, keeping your grandma with dementia safe, and having a shag.  Most reproductive labour is done by women, and most of it is unpaid. When it is paid for, it’s often done by women of colour, undocumented women, and people living on the margins — and it’s generally the rich who can afford to pay.

Unpaid labour.

Much of our reproductive labour is done during our “free time,” but we are born into a system that doesn’t give us much of a choice about what kind of people we want to create ourselves as. Whether we want to or not, we send our children to schools that inculcate them with ideas that equip them for their roles within an oppressive system; if we want to teach them how to resist, we must teach them that ourselves. Reproductive labour is work, but neither employers nor the government pay us to do that shift. Instead, capitalist society pressurises women in particular to love and care for our families and households out of the goodness of our hearts.

And that’s why sex work grinds capitalists’ gears — whether it’s right wing moralist capitalists or ostensibly liberal feminists, they all hate us. Sex and intimacy and the emotional labour around sex are the most sacrosanct of work that we are supposed to perform for free, and when we charge for it, society is horrified. It’s fine, say capitalists, for a woman to leave her own kids, in a flat three buses away or with relatives an ocean away, to care for the home and children of a rich family, but it’s not fine for that same woman to do sex work so she has the resources and time to care for her children. She’s criminalised, or her clients are criminalised, and she is stigmatised and could lose custody of her children if she is found out. And the so called liberal feminists who want to eliminate her work claim their campaigning is for her own good — that they are the ones who are caring. But any kind of criminalisation does not eliminate sex work — it just makes it more dangerous.

Hidden labour.

Criminalisers can’t decide whether they believe that sex work is an easy job or a hard one. What it is is a job. We do more than perform sex acts — we listen to clients’ problems and make them feel cared for. We screen clients for our own security and safety.  We manage our appearances and we hone our performances. We promote and advertise ourselves, and we bear the exhausting stigma of our work, all while facing risk from police and from predators who pose as clients. And yesterday many of us went on strike, because, contrary to popular opinion, we are not set apart from other women or from other workers. Our work is part of the same fabric of feminised, othered, hidden labour.

Striking sex workers wore red yesterday, or didn’t see clients, or charged double. School districts in the US closed for want of staff, and a thousand Australian care workers walked off the job to demand better pay. Dublin traffic snarled as strikers closed streets, calling for free and legal abortion on demand. The solution for women everywhere isn’t the fragile boardroom feminism of Theresa May, which dreams of a future where even a woman can cut the NHS while she speaks up for mental health. The solution to patriarchy, to male violence isn’t yet another awareness raising campaign. This strike is part of the solution; it is a strike whose purpose is not to raise awareness but to highlight what women everywhere are already aware of — that the world could not run without our work, and that we don’t just want a place at the boardroom table, we want to destroy that table.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.