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‘Sex As Work And Sex Work: A Marxian Take’ By Laura Agustin

July 4, 2012

One of the key themes explored here at Graunwatch is the ‘conservative’ ‘anti sex’ and ‘anti sex work’ feminism espoused by the Guardian ( and others). So I thought it was about time we featured the work of Laura Agustin, whose groundbreaking work on migration, trafficking, sex, gender and sex work has influenced many, annoyed some and inspired quite a few, including me.

Agustin works outside the ‘establishment’ of academia and I think her work is more interesting for that.

One of Agustin’s key concepts is The Rescue Industry. That is, the organised and sometimes lucrative activities of those who campaign against sex work across the globe. This creates some ‘strange bedfellows’ from ‘radical’ feminists such as Julie Bindel to Christian fundamentalists to right wing politicians.

Talking of bedfellows with a commercial, transactional element to their liaisons, Laura has recently published an essay on ‘sex as work and sex work’. This looks at how not only ‘prostitution’ but also many other forms of sex and even romance and ‘love’ involve labour, money and contracts. I am delighted to have received permission by the author to reproduce an extract here. It begins with a joke…

‘An army colonel is about to start the morning briefing to his staff. While waiting for the coffee to be prepared, the colonel says he didn’t sleep much the night before because his wife had been a bit frisky. He asks everyone: How much of sex is ‘work’ and how much is ‘pleasure’? A Major votes 75-25% in favor of work. A Captain says 50-50%. A lieutenant responds with 25-75% in favor of pleasure, depending on how much he’s had to drink. There being no consensus, the colonel turns to the enlisted man in charge of making the coffee. What does he think? With no hesitation, the young soldier replies, ‘Sir, it has to be 100% pleasure.’ The surprised colonel asks why. ‘Well, sir, if there was any work involved, the officers would have me doing it for them.’

Perhaps because he is the youngest, the soldier considers only the pleasure that sex represents, while the older men know a lot more is going on. They may have a better grasp of the fact that sex is the work that puts in motion the machine of human reproduction. Biology and medical texts present the mechanical facts without any mention of possible ineffable experiences or feelings (pleasure, in other words), as sex is reduced to wiggly sperm fighting their way towards waiting eggs. The divide between the feelings and sensations involved and the cold facts is vast.

The officers probably also have in mind the work involved in keeping a marriage going, apart from questions of lust and satisfaction. They might say that sex between people who are in love is special (maybe even sacred), but they also know sex is part of the partnership of getting through life together and has to be considered pragmatically as well. Even people in love do not have identical physical and emotional needs, with the result that sex takes different forms and means more or less on different occasions.

This little story shows a few of the ways that sex can be considered work. When we saysex work nowadays the focus is immediately on commercial exchanges, but in this article I mean more than that and question our ability to distinguish clearly when sex involves work (as well as other things) and sex work (which involves all sorts of things). Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious. Efforts to repress, condemn, punish and rescue women who sell sex rest on the claim that they occupy a place outside the norm and the community, can be clearly identified and therefore acted on by people who Know Better how they should live. To show this claim to be false discredits this neocolonialist project.


The sex contract

Even when love is involved, people may use sex in the hope of getting something in return. They may or may not be fully conscious of such motives as:

  • I will have sex with you because I love you even if I am not in the mood myself
  • I will have sex with you hoping you will feel well disposed toward me afterwards and give me something I want
  • I will have sex with you because if I don’t you are liable to be unpleasant to me, our children, or my friends, or withhold something we want

In these situations, sex is felt to be and accepted as part of the relationship, backed up in classic marriage law by the concept of conjugal relations, spouses’ rights to them and the consequences of not providing them: abandonment, adultery, annulment, divorce. This can work the opposite way as well, as when a partner doesn’t want sex:

  • I will not have sex with you, so you will have to do without or get it somewhere else

The partner wanting sex and not getting it at home now has to choose: do without and feel frustrated? call an old friend? ring for an escort? go to a pick-up bar? drive to a hooker stroll? visit a public toilet? buy an inflatable doll? fly to a third-world beach?

People of any gender identity can find themselves in this situation, where money may help resolve the situation, at least temporarily, and where more than one option may have to be tried. Tiring of partners is a universal experience, and research on women who pay local guides and beach boys on holidays suggests there is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex. That said, our societies are still patriarchal, women still take more responsibility for maintaining homes and children than men and men still have more disposable cash than women, making the overtly commercial options more viable for men than for others.

We don’t know how many people do what, but we know that many clients of sex workers say they are married (some happily, some not, the research is all about male clients). In testimonies about their motivations for paying for sex, men often cite a desire for variety or a way to cope with not getting enough sex or the kind of sex they want at home.

  • I want to have sex with you but I also want it with someone else

This is the point in the sex contract many have trouble with, the question being Why?Why should someone with sex available at home (even good sex) also want it somewhere else? The assumption is, of course, that we all ought to want only one partner, because we all ought to want the kind of love that is loyal, passionate and monogamous. To say I love my wife and also I would like to have sex with othersis to seem perverse, or greedy, and a lot of energy is spent railing against such people. However, there is nothing intrinsically better about monogamy than any other attitude to sex.

If saving marriages isa value, then more than one sex worker believes her role helps prevent break-ups, or at least allows spouses to blow off steam from difficult relationships. Workers mean not only the overtly sexual side of paid activities but also the emotional labor performed in listening to clients’ stories, bolstering their egos, teaching them sexual techniques, providing emotional advice. Rarely do sex workers position clients’ spouses as enemies or say they want to steal clients away from them; on the contrary, many see the triangular relationship – wife, husband, sex worker – as mutually sustaining. In this way sex workers believe they help reproduce the marital home and even improve it.’


Laura Agustin’s essay was originally published by The Commoner (2012). It has also appeared at Jacobin and Libcom. You can read it in full here (copyright Laura Agustin 2012).

More from Laura Agustin’s blog including this fascinating piece on the ‘sex wars’ and ‘extremist feminism’:

Laura Agustin’s book is available to buy at Amazon: Sex At The Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and The Rescue Industry

11 Comments leave one →
  1. L. Ron Weasley permalink
    July 4, 2012 2:18 pm

    “If saving marriages is a value, then more than one sex worker believes her role helps prevent break-ups, or at least allows spouses to blow off steam from difficult relationships.”

    There was something on the Guardian life/love and sex section a while back about a girl not being supportive of her partner’s fetish but having a problem with him looking to get his kicks elsewhere. Some of the comments were of the usual CiF quality but I remember there being some good points too. Will try to find a link.

    Surely it’s better in that scenario where one partner is unwilling or unable to cater for a fetish for the other to seek out someone who can satisfy that need?

    Having been in relationships with people with fetishes which I couldn’t wholeheartedly entertain or satisfy, I realise that this is difficult.

  2. L. Ron Weasley permalink
    July 4, 2012 2:23 pm

    Randomly, this post also reminded me of the media outing of the actor Hugh Bonneville for seeing a prostitute. I remember thinking at the time, he’s an actor, he might be away from his wife for long periods of time. In which case, paying for sex with a pro is better than a potential emotional & romantic entanglement with another? Maybe they had an agreement on the matter. Who knows – it’s not really anyone else’s business besides his, his wife’s and the sex worker.

    Had no idea who Laura Agustin was before, thanks for the links.

    • July 5, 2012 10:45 am

      interesting case study. I agree, sex work can provide services and roles that would be much more complicated/traumatic if it was a ‘romantic’ or non-commercial interaction. Well it could, if we weren’t all so prejudiced about sex work(ers)!

  3. July 4, 2012 2:27 pm

    Splendid stuff.

    According to Wiki – I confess I didn’t know of her before – Augustin fights against the habit of confusing the term “Human trafficking” to include ordinary prostitution. She is correct: this is one of those utterly dishonest misuses of words that happen from time to time. Indeed the strand of feminism that is anti-sex-work seems riddled with disingenuous nonsense about “men’s view of women” and “objectification”. The fact that some prostitutes are exploited or mistreated is turned by sophistry into the claim that all sex-workers are victims

    • July 5, 2012 10:46 am

      yes it is one of the more blatant examples of feminist ‘double speak’, but also one of the more accepted.

      • Kendall permalink
        July 6, 2012 12:54 am

        What gets me is how often that bit of feminist dogma is propagated by the mainstream media, police, politicians, and charities/organisations that aren’t explicitly radical feminist.

        In some cases the belief that prostitution is inherently violence against women seems to have crept in recently. Radical feminists often play the oppressed and powerless victim, as if they have no influence at all within “the patriarchy”, but they’ve been very successful at pushing this.

        For example, Amnesty International used to support sex worker rights, and even worked with pro-decriminalisation activists. That only seems to have changed in the last few years. I’ve donated to them in the past, but after seeing them promote the likes of Melissa Farley and Gunilla Ekberg, conflate sex trafficking with prostitution, push the myth of increased trafficking at sporting events, and campaign to criminalise paying for sex in the UK, I’m definitely having second thoughts about supporting them again.

    • elflojo84 permalink
      July 8, 2012 11:05 am

      Couldn’t agree more, I remember a couple of years ago Bindel writing a piece reporting on a “study”* on human trafficking of sex workers, which she herself had been directly involved in. As it you’d expect, it concluded that sex trafficking was rife, that 135% of sex workers were trafficked or whatever – but then a little bit of digging revealed that the methodology involved phoning a couple of brothels and asking what nationalities the workers were – and extrapolating “foreign” to mean “trafficked”.

      I think on a deep level this sort of feminist actually hates these women, for various complicated reasons they are not bright or intellectually honest enough to understand or explore – but at the same time they are so committed to notions of feminism and “sisterhood” that they cannot accept this hatred in themselves. Thus, unconsciously, they have to transfer to another negative emotion which does not compromise their feminist ideals – i.e., does not hold women responsible for the things they (the feminists) hate. To hate someone you have to grant them moral agency – so, these feminists unconsciously remove the moral agency from sex workers and make them victims. In other words, “I don’t even hate you; I just pity you”, a sentiment which in many other circumstances is used to be insulting – you are not even important enough to hate. At root, I think it is a way of avoiding admitting the visceral hatred to themselves.

      *that’s “study” in the graunfem sense, not the accepted academic sense

  4. July 5, 2012 11:26 am

    Reblogged this on Kultural Yakuza.

  5. elflojo84 permalink
    July 8, 2012 11:33 am

    A very good article overall, I had heard of Laura before (possibly through you QuiRi) but don’t think I had ever read anything by her before.

    One part which particularly resonated with me was the rejection of the term “meaningless” to describe sex which is not that “pure”, sanctified, in-a-loving-relationship, more-important-than-merely-fucking, monogamous sex which is the socially accepted pinnacle of sexual activity – all else is just a bit icky. This sex is not meaningless at all, nor is it emotionless – as it is often characterised. There are all manner of different emotions, negative and positive. You could even argue that NOTHING in the human experience is emotionless, but certainly above all areas sex is one of the most emotionally-charged experiences. Emotion is taken to mean love, respect, passion etc., but the thrill of the unexpected, feelings of domination or submission, feelings of pride coming from a sense of achievement (“I’m such a fucking stud, I charmed her into sleeping with me”) are all emotional responses. Even some of the really horrible aspects of sex like rape or paedophilia or abusive sex are emotional – based on sick, horrible emotions which should not be allowed to flourish.

    “Emotion” is not a simple by-word for “niceness”.

    • July 8, 2012 6:50 pm

      “This sex is not meaningless at all, nor is it emotionless – as it is often characterised”

      Good point that. I remember a friend tacitly implying that he had seen prostitutes, his was not the first story that told me that there is often some emotional content in these encounters, as there can be with affairs, one night stands etc. It’s quite different from a long term relationship, but then love never meant one clearly defined thing anyway.

      I think that one of the things that stands out for me about Augustin’s description of the “sex contract” is the realistic human understanding of it – she actually sounds as though she has talked to one or two real people.

      Compare and contrast with Naomi Wolf on “social conditions that treat women as disposable sexual objects” which would be hilarious but for the tedious fact that someone somewhere is taking her seriously. Most of feminist writing is similar: often pretending to be academic work, it merely manages to be theoretical, as removed from reality as it can get away with being, speaking of a world of imagined power-dynamics and infinitely malleable definitions.

  6. redpesto permalink
    July 8, 2012 9:19 pm

    One part which particularly resonated with me was the rejection of the term “meaningless” to describe sex which is not that “pure”, sanctified, in-a-loving-relationship, more-important-than-merely-fucking, monogamous sex which is the socially accepted pinnacle of sexual activity – all else is just a bit icky.

    I’ve said it before: Gayle Rubin’s ‘Thinking Sex’ pretty much nails this kind of thinking for the potentially conservative ideology that it attempts to hide. And yes, that includes feminists who think along such lines as well.

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