Marxism versus moralism
The recent murder of five women in Suffolk has underlined the vulnerability of sex workers. Helen Ward argues that those who see it as simply violence against women misunderstand fundamental features of women’s oppression under capitalism
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“Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker”.1 This quote from Marx might suggest that prostitution is a relatively straightforward
issue for socialists, but instead it has proved a real challenge, with leftist positions ranging from advocating repression and abolition on the one hand, to decriminalisation
and union organisation on the other.
Much of the current debate centres on whether prostitution can really be considered as work or whether it is best dealt with as a form of violence against women.2 The two positions lead to diametrically opposed strategies. If prostitution is work, then fighting for self-organisation and rights are a key part of the socialist response. If, on the other hand, prostitution is violence and slavery then the participants are victims who need rescuing.
Kathleen Barry, organiser of an international feminist conference on trafficking in 1983, expressed the latter view when she refused to debate sex worker activist Margo St. James, arguing that “the conference was feminist and did not support the institution of prostitution . . . (it would be) . . . inappropriate to discuss sexual slavery with prostitute women”.3 More recently writer Julie Bindell has echoed this view, writing about the GMB decision to start a branch for sex workers, she argues, “how can a union on the one hand campaign against violence
against women, but unionise it at the same time? Rather than society pretending it is a career choice, prostitution needs to be exposed for what it is – violence against women. Unionisation cannot protect the women in thisvile industry”.4 Most recently the Scottish Socialist Party (SS P) has entered the fray and declared that prostitution is violence against women [see page 17].
A Marxist position on prostitution
Prostitution is the exchange of sex for money. However, since there are other situations in which such an exchange occurs – in some forms of marriage, for example – most dictionary definitions go a little further. In the Oxford English Dictionary a prostitute is “a woman who offers her body to indiscriminate sexual intercourse especially for hire”.
A more extensive definition is offered by the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, where prostitution is the “practice of
engaging in sexual activity, usually with individuals
other than a spouse or friend, in exchange for immediate
payment in money or other valuables.” These definitions
add “indiscriminate” or “other than a spouse” to
try and encapsulate what we all intrinsically understand
– prostitution is sex outside of those relationships where
sex is usually permitted.
The term prostitution appears to unify many different
people and relationships over time. The hetaerae of ancient
Greece, the Japanese geisha, the European courtesan, the
street walkers of Soho and the brothel workers of Mumbai,
all share the label of prostitute. This appearance of a
timeless occupation, contained in the cliché of the “oldest
profession”, shields many different social relations.
The thing these women share is that they perform sex
outside of the private family sphere where sex is linked
to reproduction and maintenance of a household.
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