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If I had any doubt about the contribution of our paper on “Towards new perspectives on work precarity and decent work of sex workers” to feminist debates, the key note lectures of the 9th European Feminist Research Conference “Sex & Capital” at the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi (Finland) made it very clear that many feminists would not be ready to accept sex work as work, let alone support the labour approach to sex work that Silke Heuman and I propose in our paper that was co-authored by the Empower Foundation, a sex worker organisation from Thailand. In her keynote address, Suvi Ronkainen, University of Vaasa saw the idea of reconstructing prostitution as sex work as one more argument for limitless commodification of women’s bodies.

I have been aware of the silences surrounding sex work in discourses about and interventions for decent work. If at all, prostitution is mentioned as a hazardous occupation in the context of the worst forms of child labour, of forced labour and as an issue for HIV prevention. Advocates and scholars of labour rights do not seem to take much interest in ordinary sex workers’ labour conditions and how they could be improved. Working together with Silke during the past year, I have started seeing this as an expression of the implicit refusal to see work and employment to be related to people’s sexuality – and vice versa.

blog foto KS 2Yet, I was surprised to see many fellow feminists’ faces freeze when you refer to ‘sex work’ rather than to the term prostitution. In our paper, we refer to sex work as the explicit exchange of sexual services for material gain. The term ‘sex work’ acknowledges the provision of such services as work, entitling sex workers to labour rights’ guarantees in principle. According to an abolitionist feminist stance, however, this acknowledgement brushes under the carpet that men’s paid access to women’s bodies forms an extreme expression of patriarchy and violence against women.

No doubt, sex work takes place in the context of patriarchy. But: are women the only providers of paid sexual services and are all customers men? And, true: sex work is often associated with violence and very hazardous working conditions. Yet, is this inherent in the occupation or rBlog foto KS 1ather a result of sex workers’ social and legal stigmatization? I asked Suvi Ronkainen whether the features and risks of sex work that she highlighted were not very similar to the conditions in domestic work, especially regarding the involvement of body and emotion as well as concerning the occupational hazards involved. Domestic workers have successfully fought for recognition and rights as workers, recently culminating in the ratification of an international convention on domestic work. Her answer was brief: The forms of commodification in domestic work and sex work cannot be compared.

I have yet to understand, why not.

The paper that Silke and I presented during the conference is based on the analysis of debates at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) around new regulatory instruments for forced labour. We argue that dominant discourses about ‘prostitution’ and ‘trafficking’ silence sex workers’ legitimate demands to implement policies that really end exploitative labour conditions in the sex industry. We propose an alternative labour approach to sex work that acknowledges sex work as work and argue that this helps strengthening sex workers’ agency and improving their working conditions. This acknowledgement alone is not sufficient, though. We point out that sex workers’ precarious labour conditions need to be understood in the context of a global (neoliberal) political economy that marginalises the majority of workers world-wide. Only then would action to empower them economically and socially succeed.

The concern for sex workers’ precarious labour conditions motivates antagonistic feminist discourses and policy prescriptions. We left Rovaniemi with the impression that a labour approach to sex work has the potential to help bridging this divide and setting modest steps towards decent work of sex workers.

Karin Astrid Siegmann, with Silke Heumann


International Institute of Social Studies

CIRI aims to scale up and identify synergies between existing research at ISS on civic agency and change agents, as drivers of societal change and development. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.

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