‘Sex for tuition fees anyone?’ is the latest of a spate of headlines sensationalising the depressing trend of women turning to sex work in order to pay skyrocketing university tuition fees.
First off, some qualifiers – it is appalling that young working class people are faced with a choice between insecure employment on starvation wages, the dole queue, or paying tens of thousands of pounds for an education which provides no guarantee of employment at the end of it. It is appalling that students who don’t want to take on a life time of debt now have few other options, and that profit hungry creeps are seemingly so hungry to exploit this. All of this goes without saying.
I’m also sure there will be some trollish discourse from MRAs about how it’s really men that are the victims here because male students can’t make money the same way (they can, but not in the way MRAs would want to imagine), and how of course women sex workers are the real exploiters here because they’re selling something they should really be giving away freely (because plentiful sex with conventionally attractive women is every man’s birth-right, yawn…) Those people are idiots, and not the issue I’m addressing here.
However, I think we (socialists) need to speak more carefully about sex work, and this is an opportunity to discuss how.
Because the bourgeois media isn’t sensationalising this story to improve things for all students; barely any of the articles pose an alternative to our increasingly individualised, privatised and prohibitively expensive higher education system. The narrative here is about protecting young, “middle” class, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, women from “falling victim to prostitution” – to give the editors credit the term ‘sex work’ is properly used, though unfortunately without replacing the objectifying sentiment.
Why, as Marxists, shouldn’t we just jump on the sensationalist bandwagon? Firstly, we need to understand that sex work is just that – work. We don’t call for the end of certain types of work under capitalism just because they’re exploitative – all work under capitalism is exploitative. Can we say that sex work is more damaging to sex workers, society or the environment than every other form of work? Does a sex worker’s sale of intimacy undermine their interpersonal relationships any more than do jobs which separate workers from their families for long periods of time, leave them with health problems or cut short their lives? One could blame the sex industry as a whole, but even that could stand as a criticism of every industry which perverts and alienates labour for elite profit accumulation.
The ‘sex positive’ sex workers movement is loudly proclaiming the legitimacy of this form of work – empowered workers who are striving to destigmatise their work, often organising in trade unions to gain better pay, safer working conditions, and more agency over how they work – struggles we wage in our own workplaces every day but which can only be waged once hand wringing about the type of work in question is put aside. Making it clear that sex workers are only as much ‘victims’ of their work as are the rest of us under capitalism is fundamentally empowering – yes super-exploitation exists, but this is compounded not helped by stigmatisation – some of us are lucky enough to enjoy our work whatever it is, and some of us hate our jobs, are underpaid, harassed, bullied and abused in the workplace – and frankly in desperate need of a fighting, democratic union to get organised in. Indeed until the right to be safe at work is extended to sex workers, even rape of sex workers will remain seen as par for the course and ignored by society and the legal system.
But avoiding stigmatising sex work is only part of the story here. Once we stop casting sex workers as a special sort of victim, we also need to recognise that sex workers are as varied (if not more so) as any other group of workers. The present bourgeois media sensation about student sex work is part of the wider sex-slave trope wherein young women with every sort of privilege imaginable save their gender are stolen or tricked from their promising, respectable lives and irreparably sullied and ruined by taking part in sex work, until they are either saved by some outside hero (but of course remain ‘spoilt goods’) or become another statistic – perhaps turning up dead and reported as a ‘murdered prostitute’ (defined forever by their profession). This discourse doesn’t help anyone, and I would argue is part of the problem.
To summarise – sex work is only one symptom of the problem of students being forced to find ways to cope with the escalation of cuts to the right to free, publicly-funded education. To be sickened and disgusted by this symptom draws attention away from its cause, as surely intended, and further serves to stigmatise sex work and sex workers. We should struggle alongside students and sex workers for free lifelong education, legalisation of sex work with full employment rights, for a fully funded NHS, for inclusive public services to provide support to those who want to leave sex work, and for decent jobs, homes and services for all to allow the decision to undertake sex work to be free from economic necessity.