By Qamar B.
Sex work will not continue under communism. This may be obvious to many of our readers, however it has been a continued source of controversy, to such the degree that we find it requires more investigation. While it is inevitable that sex work will, in some ways, regrettably continue into the initial phases of the socialist transition pending its abolition, it is absurd to say that it would continue to exist into the late stages of socialism, and eventual communism. However before we elaborate on this, it is important to first understand commodification as it relates to sex and labor. This, as Marxists, necessarily colors our understanding of the issue.
Commodities and Sexuality
In the capitalist mode of production, we understand a commodity as Marx described it as consisting of both an exchange-value and use-value: use-value being the quality of the commodity which makes it desirable, whether it be for necessity or simple desire; exchange value being the quality of a commodity which tells us the degree that that it can be exchanged for other commodities. This relates directly to the Marxist understanding of labor and labor-power, where labor is the physical act of working, and labor-power is the capability to work. The latter being sold as a commodity on the market for a wage
The various types of concrete labor is incredibly expansive in the capitalist mode of production, as nearly all human activity can be commodified as labor power for one purpose or another. Sex, of course, is no exception to this rule. Though what really creates sex and sexuality as such a useful commodity is, of course, the patriarchal aspect to capitalism. After all, women have been the primary laborers in sex work throughout the history of bourgeois society. Female sexuality, as it exists in patriarchy, is imagined in a relationship to men that only intensifies its existence as a kind of commodity. Women exist materially in a state of sexual subjugation to men, so the development of the sex industry in capitalist society follows naturally.
Therefore when discussing sex work under the capitalist system, of course we are talking about a labor issue which is inherently bound up in the specificities of gender. It is not just an “intersection” but a codevelopment in the ideological systems of capitalism and patriarchy which have come to reinforce each other’s existence. So when analyzing sex work, we understand that it exists as an outgrowth of the logics of class and gender. Therefore we know full well that sex as it relates to labor is not a question of “morality,” but a question of power. Sex work is legitimate work in the sense that it relies on the commodification of sex and sexuality, whose use-values are in part realized and further developed by a patriarchal view of women’s sexuality. However, just because sexuality is commodified for exchange, does not mean that it should be.
Communism or Socialized Patriarchy?
Labor under capitalism can be any kind of human activity that has been commodified, and is understood with an emphasis on the division between productive and unproductive labor. Productive labor is that which is exploited for surplus value, while unproductive labor in the form of “services” and circulation of capital which both utilizes, and is remunerated by, value generated by productive labor. What sex work represents is any kind of sexual service carried out as a result of exchange, whether it be for a wage or compensated contractually. It is not utilized as a stepping-stone to production, but as an economic manifestation of patriarchal ideology. Under socialism and communism could such an economic relationship continue to exist?
So long as patriarchal ideas and bourgeois economics exist it can, certainly. As long as exchange relations are still utilized, and people must work to eat, there will be room for such practices. However simply because it exists does not mean we should be at peace with it or the foundations which make it possible. The commodification of human intimacy results in the same objectifying practices which are present in all forms of labor: the reduction of human beings to their use-values. For the productive laborer, that means the reduction of their humanity to their hands, strength, or dexterity which proves useful in the production of commodities; for the service worker it means a reduction to their servile capacity; and for a sex worker, it of course means the reduction of themselves to their sexuality.
There is no more shame in being a sex worker than there is in being employed in any other sector, as conditions of capitalist society demands we all sell our labor in one form or another to survive. However the reduction of sexuality to a commodity is something inextricably tied to the codevelopment of patriarchy and bourgeois exchange relations. Production will inevitably continue after the abolition of exchange and economic exploitation, however there is no justification for the continued commodification of human sexuality or emotional service. The basis sex work relies on this dual relation: it economically nurtures the idea of sexuality as being something to which a group of people are entitled based on their gender or their finances, and it is a duty to another group based on their gender or their finances. In the patriarchal system, there is a myriad of reasons why access to the sexuality of gender oppressed people is considered a right of the entitled stratum, and why they are obligated in such a staggering number of ways to comply.
The economic aspect, that of exchange, is dependent on the fact that everyone must participate in the bourgeois economic system. They must sell their labor, or shift about their existing finances built from the labor of others, in order to obtain that which they need to survive. Why would this relation continue through the socialist transition toward communism? In the communist mode of production there is no such commodification or exchange for commodities. In fact, there are no commodities whatsoever. The “exchange value” which is so vital to the creation of a commodity, is no longer present. Instead we have a circulation and utilization of use-values, and all production and labor is undertaken freely for the creation and distribution of those use-values. Where would sex and sexuality fit into this construction? Would there still be a need for sex as a form of social labor which a group of people would be inclined to fulfill?
By now, you are probably seeing the issue with this train of thought. The fact is that the “use-value” of sex is created by a patriarchal view of sexuality: of entitlement to sex on one hand, and necessarily a kind of duty to submit it on the other. How could such a dichotomy exist in communism without the existence of patriarchy, or at least a new development in patriarchy? Sure, so far patriarchy has developed alongside exchange and class society in some form, however the belief that it cannot continue after the abolition of exchange lacks any basis. Sex work could continue after exchange, however it would require the continuation of an antagonistic patriarchal contradiction. A contradiction which suggests an obligatory sexual relationship between two groups of people would have to be defined in this new, exchangeless world.
This would be the preservation, in some way, of a gendered system. The only other alternative to a system relying on a sexual/intimate obligation provided as a duty to another group of entitled individuals, would be for it to follow an exchange relation. But how could this exchange relation be any more communist? The result remains the same. The continuation of sex work in any form requires the continuation of a system of exchange and/or patriarchy. It is by necessity a patriarchal system and qualified today on a system of exchange. It simply cannot continue to exist without this. Access to someone’s sexuality is not a right, and should not be guaranteed by any political institution or economic relationship.
Abolishing Sexual Obligation
If we can establish that sex work should be abolished, then we need to clarify how we think the relationship of obligational sexuality can be undone. First of all, to reiterate: sex work is as legitimate a kind of labor under capitalism as any other, and it is unacceptable to evoke animosities against sex workers on the basis of “morality.” There are no “respectable” ways to make money under capitalism, though there are certainly ways that are oppressive and exploitative. Sex work, however, is not one of them (at least not for those providing the service). So how do we propose to actually abolish this relation?
Just as any other oppressive contradiction, there is both the oppressed and the oppressor in this situation. Since this is a codevelopment of patriarchy and exchange, we can see there are the primary recipients of such a service, and there are—in many cases—the crooked bosses who oversee and profit, from a distance, off the gendered/money relationship. This is who should be targeted as the antagonists in the emancipation of sex workers and the abolition of sex work altogether. So long as it is necessary for their survival, sex workers should be able to defend themselves and control the terms of their continued labor. We must come to realize that the contradiction extends also to those who are ordering the continuation of these services.
There exists, outside the economic contradictions of class and capitalism, a profound obligation on the part of women to submit their sexuality to men. This antagonistic contradiction which exists between them is not purely economic, and that is part of what must be realized. When we say that exploitation and exchange must be abolished, we do not suggest that this must be done through the punishment of the oppressed classes. Furthermore, when we say that patriarchy must be abolished we do not believe this can or should be done through an attack on women who are subject to its relations. Yet, strangely enough, our position on the abolition of sex work is taken to mean that we believe it should be done at the expense of sex workers who, for the moment, depend on their own labor for their survival.
Such misconstructions of our position are a side-step from something that is very logical to communists. If an institution represents the collaborative development of two poisonous systems of oppression, we must destroy that institution. Sex work is such an institution, and is dependent entirely on the continuation of patriarchy and capitalist exchange. Without these two preconditions, human intimacy will no longer reduced to a money relation, nor will it be the object used to transform human beings into gendered beings whose rights and bodies are subject to the entitlement of others. At their very foundations, the governing logics of sex work are incompatible with the communist mode of production.