Critical discussion on how sex work is talked about and presented in relation to other jobs within a capitalist economy.
Work is hell. Regardless of the job, the institutions of wage-labor, money, and capitalism all function in devastating concert to keep poor people poor, rich people powerful, Black and Brown people incarcerated, and most people miserable. If we agree that work is hell, we should be accurate in our descriptions and discussions of how and why work is harmful. Moreover, if we care at all about sex workers, it is important that we avoid conflating sex work with work that is not sex work. Supporting sex workers includes both anti-capitalist praxis as well as an understanding that sex work differs from other ways that workers sell their bodies and their labor.
In describing non-sex-work as being “like sex work,” one not only discounts and erases the experiences unique to sex workers and that industry, but also dilutes arguments against work and capitalism. Among non-sworkers who are both anti-capitalist and pro-sworker, I have noticed some thoughtlessness in their descriptions of non-sex work jobs.
Here are a few examples of links that non-sworkers attempt to draw between their work and sex work, and some discussion of why this is both inappropriate and harmful. 1. “My boss acts like a pimp.” Nah, your boss acts like a boss. Pimps also act like bosses. Both are assholes; both put their hands on the money earned by the worker’s labor. Capitalism is an insidious web of monetary and social networks and relationships. Managers, bosses, and pimps all make money off the access they have (or at least purport to have) to the clients and money the worker needs. In exchange for linking the worker to the money, the boss takes a (massive) part of the money paid by the client.
The problem is capitalism, and it is indeed horrible and untenable. In addition to these dynamics which are inherent to all workers who work with/for bosses and managers, pimps and sex workers experience particular and unique dynamics, and it is possible and worthwhile to describe the impacts of capitalism without eclipsing these particular and unique dynamics. Bosses are categorically assholes because their position in the economy requires that they ascribe to toxic power dynamics. But to describe a non-pimp boss as a pimp erases the experience of sex workers whose finances, livelihood, and safety are enmeshed with pimps. 2.” I spend so much time and energy trying to market myself as fuckable, it’s basically sex work.” It isn’t. It’s just the ubiquitous-under-patriarchal-capitalism objectification of the body and the worker.
Marketing oneself as beautiful, desirable, attractive, worthy, usable, and even fuckable is much more ubiquitous to work generally than sentient to sex work specifically. Food service and hospitality workers are often hired based at least in part on how beautiful and fashionable they appear. Models are paid explicitly for how they look in what they are modeling AND for whatever fantasy they are helping to sell to the consumer (which, spoiler alert, is often sex). Office workers, especially women, are subject to scrutiny which varies from passive to harassment based on how they dress and present themselves. Instagram is one of many internet platforms in which users clamber for consumption by other users in hopes of turning social capital, often rooted in sex appeal, into actual capital.
In many fields workers are pressured not only to complete their job, but also to look good doing it. 3. “My whole junk was out, and they were poking and prodding. It was basically sex work.” Capitalism almost always hinges on the worker selling their body: the construction worker who exhausts themself in the elements day after strenuous day; the office worker who sits in the same unnatural position at a desk, slowly developing carpal tunnel and tendonitis; the athlete who gambles their body and career on the odds of coming out on top of the cycle of physical damage and devastation followed by rest and, not infrequently, surgical repair. The fact that the genitals are involved, or even centered, during the job, does not make it “like sex work.” Many workers, from health educators to med study participants, use their genitals to earn a wage. But in these scenarios, the genitals are not specifically, explicitly, necessarily sexualized.
If anything, there is often much done in the work environment, on the part of the workers as well as the students, clinic personnel, et al to ensure that the interaction specifically avoids hints of sexualization. It is, partly, the sexualization of the genitals that makes sex work sex work, and with that sexualization, inherent or manufactured, comes a whole host of opportunities and challenges that non-sworkers who use their genitals to make money simply do not experience. So they don’t get to claim those dynamics. 4. “I have to do the sex work thing where people are really just paying me to talk.” That thing is called “relieving people of their crippling isolation produced by an individualistic capitalist society in which people are necessarily starved for human contact and connection so that they trade their money for hints of what intimacy might feel like in a positive feedback loop where the result is often a deeper and prolonged sense of isolation,” and you can find it on the clock in so many fields.
Because jobs and money are so scarce, and because capitalism is so ineffective at meeting people’s needs, many workers end up performing talk therapy in addition to their alleged paid position. Workers are essentially coerced into providing this double service because other workers in their field are also performing the double service. In order to compete for a wage and attract and maintain clients, workers must not only sell the goods or services of their specialty, but also include in their clients’ money exchange a largely unquantified, unregulated exchange of the worker’s emotional labor From personal trainers to hair stylists, nannies to bartenders, huge swaths of non-sworkers are well-acquainted with their customers’ or employers’ expectation that part of what is being purchased is the worker’s labor to make the customers feel good about themselves.
Sometimes the worker receives money based on their expertise or craft or service, but sometimes, though meetings and sessions are scheduled based on such goods and services, the worker shows up to find a paying customer interested only in the talk therapy portion of their job. The relationship develops where the worker is largely paid to provide encouragement, insight, and affirmation, sometimes to the extent that the clients themselves impede the dissemination of worker’s goods/services by their own incessant talking and requests for advice and affirmation at the expense of the worker’s attention on doing their stated job. 5.
“My job requires so much schmoozing that sometimes it feels like sex work.” If you don’t know how sex work feels, stop claiming experiences you don’t know. Workers in myriad fields have to endure the often dehumanizing labor of clambering for potential clients’ attention even before any money exchange occurs. There are more people in need of resources than there is life-sustaining, dignified money flow into workers’ pockets. The scarcity of money-making opportunities translates into pressure on most workers to do so much more than just their actual job. This pressure is felt from bosses, who prefer to employ workers whom their customers like and want to interact with. In an economy rampant with offerings of shit people don’t need, bosses and owners are pressured to compete with each other to make their useless bullshit more attractive than the next guy’s, so workers are expected not only to provide their goods or services but also to make the people with the money enjoy the experience of soliciting the goods and services.
In jobs where the worker survives mostly off tips, this pressure is felt even more directly in customer interactions where the worker literally does not earn money unless the customer, having already received their good/service, feels inspired to leave “additional” money for the worker as a tip, without which (and often even with which) the worker cannot afford to live. Even workers without bosses are forced to participate in the same scarcity economy, competing with one another, offering basically the same good or service as all the other comparable workers. In an era where someone will leave you or your source of income a one-star review if your face didn’t look like the customer wanted it to, workers of many varieties are under financial pressure to make customers like them personally.
Schmoozing to attract and maintain customers is not “like sex work” any more than it is “like an inherent function of the desperation and scarcity of late capitalism.” 6. “When clients move on, it’s kind of like sex work, where I have developed this certain way of relating to a person and then they just stop paying for that relationship.” A customer-worker relationship developed and then lost is not complicated because it is “like sex work;” it is complicated because it reveals the effect that purchased intimacy can have when the customer leaves and the emotional labor the worker was conducting was real, even if the connection they were selling was feigned. The worker can develop relatively healthy ways of engaging the work — establishing boundaries and maintaining professional distance — but when a worker cares for a client, either sincerely or not, there is still a psycho-emotional reaction that may occur at the termination of the money-exchange-based relationship.
In so many jobs, the performance and charade, with varying degrees of sincerity and connection, maintains and endures through the one revealing moment of money exchange. Even though they’re clocked in, workers are still having these experiences. Or, they are dissociating, which itself has short and longterm effects on the worker. People sometimes come home emotionally and energetically exhausted from this type of work not because it’s like sex work, but because human connection is an exhausting commodity to sell. Conclusion: The challenges of non-sex-work can and should be described in their own terms without drawing false comparisons to sex work to illuminate why work at large is toxic. When non-sworkers draw such comparisons, they erase the experience of sex workers and minimize arguments against work and capitalism generally.