‘Sex As Work And Sex Work: A Marxian Take’ By Laura Agustin
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.’
More from Laura Agustin’s blog including this fascinating piece on the ‘sex wars’ and ‘extremist feminism': http://www.lauraagustin.com/satanic-sex-on-sunday-gunilla-ekberg-sex-war-and-extremist-feminism
Laura Agustin’s book is available to buy at Amazon: Sex At The Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and The Rescue Industry