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Paternalism, Prostitution, and Paying for It on the Left

Paternalism, Prostitution, and Paying for It on the Left

. 5 min read

CW/TW: rape, sexual assault, misogyny, police/state violence

I’m not saying that Jay-Z and UGK’s Big Pimpin’ starts playing on a loop every time a hot take on sex work drops from a new Twitter account with a rose emoji in the name. (Although, in recent months I’ve switched up my rotation by including WAP and Kentheman’s Rose Gold Stripper Pole.)

But I’m not not saying that either. Although, if I were saying that, I think I should be given credit for taking a moment to twirl my imaginary nipple tassels while thinking up a (relatively) calm, measured response supported with facts and logic and not general annoyance.

I do, in fact, think that I deserve a cookie for not immediately laying into every “leftist” committed to doing thought experiments about the existence and rights of sex workers and their place in a “post-revolution” world. It’s exhausting to constantly defend your agency, autonomy, and expertise on your own needs to people that profess to be on your side as comrades in the classed hell that is capitalism.

Sex Work and the Left

But I’m coming to understand that not everyone is as well-versed in the realities of sex work as other sex workers. I will admit to being lax in my social obligations as a (former) academic and dubious scholar with middling social cachet in some circles.

In my defense, I just hate talking about sex work with people that aren’t sex workers. The time and energy required to undo decades of moral sanctimony, government funded propaganda, general infantilization of women, transphobia, and run-of-the-mill misogyny constitutes a full-time occupation that’s light on compensation and laden with mockery.

But, I would be remiss if I didn’t take every possible opportunity to address the gaps in the collective understanding of sex work with an eye towards explaining (and debunking) the most pernicious and persistent of beliefs. Most important, and urgent, is addressing the rampant paternalism and chauvinism that has surged amongst self-professed leftists of assorted varieties.

Long-dead Western Philosophers

Through a combination of truly impressive navel-gazing and a pathological inability to shut up and admit that they don’t know what they’re talking about, a new generation of leftists have taken to espousing ironically zealous and literal interpretations of Marxist theories regarding the sale of sex. I would like to begin by reminding everyone that Marx, Lenin, Stalin, et. al. are dead and they cannot come beat you up for considering improvements and alternatives to their generations-old vision of a utopia.

So maybe it’s not actually unreasonable to think socioeconomic postulating of relatively wealthy and powerful white men from Industrial-era Western Europe is out of date and inapplicable to some concerns of the working class in a society in late-stage capitalism. As leftist thought developed, its greatest champions could only imagine the world of almost 200 years later.

The material reality of the newly “liberated,” agriculturally dependent, regionally isolated workers was far removed from that of a globally-connected mass fighting centuries of capitalist propaganda and government conditioning.

Acolytes of Dated Theory

Marx and Co. were woefully unprepared for a world where physical disability, the limitations of single parenthood, the financial inability to eat regularly, or a lack of transit access precludes community involvement is the norm. The religion-derived quibbling over consent, morality, and the sanctity of intimacy are distractions encouraged by the same white notions of purity and virtue that would label Black nudity a dangerous affront to decency.

Despite this, the current generations of leftists would have you believe their words are incontrovertible gospel, a guide book meant to be taken literally and studied uncritically. One after another, acolytes to outdated theory take to the internet with pseudo-intellectual treatises on the immorality and inevitable demise of sex work and those who do it.

These hot takes are often couched in hypothetical thought experiments that aim to imagine a world where “intimacy” is no longer a commodity to be traded and women are not forced to trade their consent for material goods. Because in a communist utopia, sex and intimacy are inextricably linked and everyone will have access to sex whenever they want it with consent from all parties.

Genocide Lite

When reading these detailed fantasies of genocide lite, I’m reminded of a common potential solution to ending rape and sexual assault -- just give the whores to the rapists and it will cure them of their misogyny and mommy issues. For people that think this way, consent exists in a vacuum entirely of their own making. Once consent is given in exchange for money or material needs, it cannot ever be revoked because a price has been set. If you throw enough money at a prostitute, she can’t say no. (This logic is also popular with cops, prosecutors, social workers, evangelicals, and rapists.)

The most pressing issue with this train of thought is that it’s simply not true. Consent is not a zero sum game nor does  it exist in perfect shades of black and white. Consent is conditional by design, it requires specific circumstances and/or conditions to be maintained continuously. The introduction of money or some material good as a requisite condition does not negate this basic fact. To argue otherwise is to deny the agency and autonomy of every adult engaged in sex work whether they do so to keep a roof over their head or because they really enjoy showing hole on social media.

'Comrades'

The specific brand of patriarchal paternalism that drives this never-ending discourse on the rights, needs, and decision making skills of sex workers feels most distressing because it comes from alleged comrades that should understand the futility of assigning moral value to labour in a capitalist society. No labour is better, more deserving of compassion, or more virtuous than another when we all balance on the precipice of financial ruin, subject to the vicious whims of capricious billionaires and trillionaires.

When someone chooses criminalised labour to meet their basic and material needs, it is an indictment of the system that forces its citizens to make an impossible choice. Listing the reasons why someone would risk constant state surveillance and violence, lifelong stigma, and social ostracism shouldn’t be required to acknowledge their expertise in their own needs. Single parents, disabled people, trans people, students, drug users, and women constitute the overwhelming bulk of people that trade sex and true leftist values demand interrogating and dismantling the systems that make this true. Instead, pointless quibbling and endless attempts to delegitimize how someone else chooses to survive their  circumstances.

Same Hot Take, Same Old Principles

Which is why I don’t argue anymore. There’s something vaguely narcissistic about reintroducing my old Twitter threads every time a new hot take drops but there are never new talking points to address and I truly loathe repeating myself. The core principles of any necessary rebuttal are as follows:

  1. All labour in a capitalist society is coerced;
  2. Crypto is stupid and exclusionary to anyone without preexisting wealth;
  3. Encouraging criminalization of sex workers or their clients is encouraging state violence and surveillance; and,
  4. Ignoring, erasing, and/or outright silencing the voices of sex workers when it comes to their lives, needs, and experiences is an act of violence.

When every argument boils down to one or more of these points and can be dismissed with a momentary consideration that isn’t based in a false moral dichotomy or general misogyny it’s no longer exciting to play along with the thought experiments. Without providing direct, sustained material aid that replaces or exceeds a sex worker’s needs, it’s an exercise in vicious futility to force a marginalized person to defend their survival and the choices they’ve made to ensure it. But mostly? It’s cop shit.


Adrie Rose

Adrie is a grad student and freelancer living in Pittsburgh. She primarily writes about sex work, social media, race, and gender. When she's not writing or grading, Adrie works as a photographer.