Trade unions that never fight the sex industry bosses

Excerpts from Being and Being Bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Spinifex Press, 2013.

Ekman, a Swedish journalist and critic, brings together a Marxist and feminist analysis of prostitution and surrogacy in this groundbreaking book. This is the second part of a synopsis and brief commentary of the book by Daphna Whitmore. Part 1 was published here.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century ‘trade unions’ became a magic word in the debate about prostitution. The term ‘trade union’ lent respect to advocates of prostitution who then appeared to be engaged in the fight for the rights of prostituted women. It  opened doors to both the political Left and feminists who promoted legalisation of all aspects of the sex industry. Even the political Right applauded this move. Ekman notes that the Right now argues for the abolition of collective bargaining for everyone except prostitutes.

As we pointed out in the previous article on Being and Being Bought, proponents never enumerate the demands of these unions. Should a prostitute “have to have sex with 10 men per day, or should the line be drawn at 5? What is one act of intercourse ‘worth’ – $15 or $1500? How do you enforce legally binding contracts with the heavily armed mafia? Is ‘sex work’ where women and girls are hit and urinated on in compliance with legislation for safe work environments? And what about the law against sexual harassment? How does that fit in?”

Ekman spent two years meeting representatives from ‘trade unions for sex workers’ or ‘support groups for sex workers’ around Europe. They all promoted legalised prostitution. The British International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) has just a few hundred members out of an estimated 100,000 prostituted people in Britain. Its website has articles about the pleasures of being a ‘sex worker’ and the horrors of feminism. The majority are written by Douglas Fox who calls himself an independent homosexual male escort. But Fox isn’t an escort. He is the founder and co-owner of one of England’s largest escort agencies. Douglas Fox is, in other words, a pimp. IUSW encourages buyers, sympathisers and escorts to become members and donate money.

Is it not strange that an alleged trade union makes no demands on the sex industry? The IUSW, in fact, defends the industry. A trade union that not only is led by a known pimp but also fights measures intended to prevent exploitation should cause most people to raise an eyebrow but seems to have gone unnoticed.

In France Les Putes is comprised of three active members. Another French ‘trade union’ Le Syndicate de Travail Sexuel (STRASS) have approximately 100 members. It is closely connected with Les Putes and doesn’t engage in union-related activities.

The International Committee of the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) is an umbrella organisation established in Holland, claiming to be comprised of ‘sex workers’ and their allies. When Ekman met the organisation’s leader she was told ICRSE doesn’t even attempt to fight the industry: “[W}e have our hands full fighting the abolitionists, feminists who want to abolish prostitution.” The ICRSE fails to act as a union at all, even where the sex industry is legal. Instead, they work to convince politicians across the globe to legalise the sex industry.

The story in New Zealand is similar. The Prostitutes Collective here focuses on ending ‘stigma and discrimination’ and bears little resemblance to a trade union. It doesn’t disclose its membership numbers and in fact, has no requirements to join. Nor does it negotiate collective agreements. It states if you are a prostitute you are automatically ‘a member’. The business-friendly approach is very evident. On their webpage they advise brothel owners on how to run their businesses smoothly: “People who have run businesses in other industries may not appreciate the particular issues that arise relating to sex work. There can be unforeseen hurdles in hiring people to work with you, and in meeting legal obligations.”

Eckman was not able to find any group that functioned as a trade union in the true meaning of the term: an organisation run and financed by its members, negotiating with employers to promote the best interests of workers. If the goal is to improve conditions for prostituted women, these groups are a complete fiasco she says. If, on the other hand, the goal is to encourage the view that prostitution equals work, it seems to be advantageous for them to call themselves trade unions.

As a consequence of this facade, prostitution becomes romanticised and feminism is demonised. 

Prostitution is the deadliest situation a woman can be in. The death rate is 40 times higher than average. In Amsterdam’s display window Red Light District still one woman is murdered each year, usually in the adjoining room.  In what other work would this be accepted? Would we accept nurses or teachers getting murdered in the workplace?

While  in New Zealand the sex industry has been decriminalised and regulated since 2003 that has not made it safe. In the The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth  Julie Bindel interviewed many New Zealand prostitutes who told her they feared for their safety. Five prostitutes have been murdered since decriminalisation.

Ekman notes that police officers and military personnel, who also risk being subjected to violence at work, are generally equipped with firearms, batons and bulletproof vests. Postal workers and bank tellers have bulletproof glass windows to protect against armed robbery. But prostitutes stand in their underwear, if that, and have direct contact with their potential assailants. 

Even where prostitution is legal the prostitutes seldom have secure employment. They are commonly regarded as ‘self-employed’ with the brothel owners acting as landlords without responsibility for what happens and with no obligation to take care of the women.

In 2003 research involving 800 prostitutes in 9 countries (Canada, Columbia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the US and Zambia) showed that while in prostitution: 71% had been physically assaulted, 63% had been raped, 89% wanted to leave prostitution, and 68% met criteria for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.

The rebranding of prostitution as sex work is a contemporary saga of progress and a revolt of sexuality against morality. In the 19th century prostituted women were seen as defective and impaired, according to logic similar to that used to justify slavery, colonialism and class society. 

The revolts of 1968 deprived the powerful of their moral legitimacy. People around the world rebelled against power – against capitalism, against patriarchy, against authority. These popular movements were not able to crush capitalism, but they gave rise to the idea that ‘power’ is bad and ‘rebellion’ is good.

Since 1968, a very interesting process has been taking place in which those in power have redefined themselves according to the principles of rebellion. So everybody is the underdog, and any new product is ‘revolutionary’. Ekman cites the right-wing Swedish Conservative Party which rebranded itself the ‘New Workers’ Party’ just like former French President Sarkozy’s party, sought to be known as the ‘New Revolutionaries’. Companies, media conglomerates, best-selling authors – name one who doesn’t pretend to be a norm-challenging, marginalised dissident.

The story of the sex worker fits right in, unifying an old sex-role-preserving practice with rebellious discourse. It becomes a symbiosis of the neoliberal Right and the postmodern Left. The neoliberal Right uses language that explains prostitution as a free choice on the free market. The postmodern Left, which loves language games and shuns political action, has an excuse not to fight the sex industry by claiming to listen to the voices of marginalised people. 


    • Besides working on needle exchanges what other necessary things could be being worked on? Psychological exchanges? Friendship groups?
      Interesting there to be no union fee. What proportion of most union work is involved in chasing fees rather than the actual process of helping?

      Readers may be interested in the early “Match Makers Union” “The child lives only on bread and butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where ‘you get coffee and bread and butter, and jam and marmalade, and lots of it.”

      Read more from the Autobiography of Annie Besant:

      • Enduring unwanted sex is recognised as harmful, therefore services to exit the industry are where the most positive contribution could be made. Some jobs, even under capitalism with its love of all forms of commodification, are considered too dangerous or harmful to be allowed.

        In the Nordic model there is an emphasis on exit services (not just criminalisation of pimps and johns)

        There is no other ‘job’ where being young with zero experience you can be paid 100 times more than an experienced worker. In what other ‘job’ is it common for the worker to be drugged? The prostitutes’ ‘unions’ rarely talk about the ‘work’ as such. That’s because prostitution really does differ from other forms of work and entails bodily exploitation in a very distinct way.

        Ekman’s investigations revealed that the prostitutes’ unions were not really about the welfare of prostitutes, rather they are promoters of the industry. They include pimps in their ‘membership’, so are more of an employers’ agency than one that advocates for the rights of the prostitutes. There is no effort to provide real support for prostitutes to exit the industry.

        The Prostitutes Collective in NZ plays a public health role with advice about condom use and STI testing but they don’t take cases to the employment court, or negotiate collective agreements.

        The way I see it women’s liberation includes ending the sexual exploitation of women and girls, not accommodating it.

  1. You may be interested to look at a current aim of the US government in empowering women, which of course a lot of prostitutes are a subset of. Trying to coordinate private sector work which is many times the donations or government funding. I’m interested in the Marxist reply here.

    • I didn’t watch the whole presentation but what I gathered from the bit I did watch (at double speed setting!) was that US imperialism (and other imperialist countries) are looking for areas to expand in. This requires sweeping away feudal remnants to enable unfettered capitalist growth and development. I think these representatives of monopoly capitalism genuinely want to see women take their seat at the capitalist table.

      Modern capitalism doesn’t need a patriarchal system, it can work better by drawing women into the workplace and to be owners of capital. But patriarchy is very ancient, and ingrained, and will take a big drive to get rid of, and that’s not really a priority for capitalism.

      At the human level people from any walk of life can see that prostitution is a deeply abusive form of work, and it is no accident that it’s women and girls from the third world, indigenous and women of colour who make up the bulk of the sex industries’ workers.

      • Daphna:”US imperialism (and other imperialist countries) are looking for areas to expand in.”

        The current admin has cut hundreds of millions that Obama was supplying to Central America which would presumably have been bound up with CIA drug business and the thousands of minors without parents coming in who may be from the Central American drug gangs and or for prostitution.

        So the expansion there has stopped under Trump and China is likely to step in.

        Trump’s election platform, “Make America great again,” does not have to imply imperialist expansion.

        Furthermore, daughter and presidential advisor Ivanka Trump says the economy is some 22 times in some places what government and donations can supply. She seeks to mobilise women in it who will give back to their families and communities more than men.

  2. Sure, the Trump administration has a more protectionist, pro-tariff approach than Obama’s administration, but US capital is still seeking out growth opportunities. Quite a number of US supply chains have moved offshore to Mexico (and elsewhere) to bypass the tariffs.

    The bourgeoisie have always liked philanthropy and to be seen to do ‘good works’, and to exert their own influence on events. It seems Ivanka wants kudos as someone working for women.

    • Ivanka explained that philanthropy and government can only do something tiny. Ivanka is a mother who spends the mornings and evening meal time with her 3 young children. She believes hours worked should not be a measure of value, it should be the focus and achievement. Work places need to value mothers these days that most mothers have to work even if their partner does. Trump organisation has employed many women, including herself. She believes that entities which don’t will fail. Do you think the NZ women seeking universal suffrage were seeking kudos?

      • Barbara Ellen says in the Guardian: “A welfare system that drives mothers into prostitution is not a safety net.”
        Whereas Ivanka Trump is working for businesses to take on women on terms where they are able to access quality child care. She does not think a welfare system to be sufficient.

        Daphna, whether or not Ivanka can be classed “bourgeoisie” she said in campaigning for her father that she is neither of the left or the right. Her mother who largely gave her her upbringing comes from Czechoslovakia as it had been, where two of my music teachers also came from and they had a strongly constructive character. Ivanka’s father, Donald’s mother had been a poor Gaelic-speaking Scot.

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