» Posts tagged: ‘sex work

Liz Hilton, Empower Foundation


We were asked “What makes sex work a precarious and often dangerous occupation?” For us it is more interesting to be asked “What makes sex work such a viable occupation for millions of people when it seems precarious and often dangerous?”

The majority of people in the world have no qualifications, no capital and a need to earn cash for their survival and the survival of the people they love. In many countries, children of 8 or 9 years begin to earn money to help the family income or look after younger siblings while parents are out working. They work after school, weekends and holidays. By the time they reach the age of full time work, usually 15 years old, they have experienced many jobs. The adult labor market for those without qualifications or access to capital offers work that is often either excruciatingly tedious and/or physically grinding on our bodies. This work takes up more than a third of our days, which is our life. It rarely provides access to social protection and rarely leads to any opportunities.


Not work, but ‘labour of love’?

As women and mothers much of the work offered to us is the work of caring e.g. cleaning, cooking, washing, child minding, aged and disabled care. This is the kind of work we are expected to do free in our homes as a ‘labor of love’, so of course it is not valued much more when we do it outside the home for money. We are also expected to have sex for free, another ‘labor of love’. Asking to be compensated for sex in cash rather than in flowers is actively condemned both legally and morally. However, we find that men value sex more highly than ironed shirts etc., so are willing to pay more for this than any other service we women provide in the market. Still, it is just a small minority of women who will decide that the opportunities sex work provides are worth the risks of working outside State protection and social approval. Sex work provides a chance to end generational poverty for themselves and their families. It is not surprising people decide to do sex work; given the inequality between rich and poor combined with the tyranny of the man-made market.


Criminalisation and lack of recognition as work makes sex work precarious

Tens of millions of people, mainly women, decide to do sex work. It does not seem reasonable that the punishment for this decision should be total disregard for their right to human dignity, physical integrity, access to protection and justice. Even people who have committed serious crimes are still accorded their full human rights – why not sex workers?

I am looking forward to discussing these thoughts with you during the ISS Dialogue on Civic Innovation Research on “Decent Work for Sex Workers” on 24 May 2016. Also, have a look at Empower’s recent research report that details steps for “Moving toward Decent Sex Work“.

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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