Bratty customers, harsh managers, no breaks, little time off, and coming in if you’re sick. These are all characteristics of minimum and low-wage jobs. Many of us have experienced some or all of these working conditions; at one of my jobs, I was forced to work 8-hour shifts with no breaks and often felt sick with anxiety from being overworked.
There is a reason why so many of us have similarly horrible experiences at working-class jobs. Living under a capitalistic organization of the economy means that society values profits over people. Rather than concerning themselves with the physical and mental well-being of workers, corporations are worried about net profits. This means exploiting workers as close to their “breaking point” as possible.
Not only do we prioritize profits over people under capitalism, but the threat of death is held over working-class folks to ensure that they don’t quit their nightmarish jobs. For many people, the alternative to a minimum wage job is houselessness, in which our own citizens are subjected to humiliating conditions in which they are forced to dig through trash to survive.
In other words, we are forced to offer up our labor for exploitation because death is the only other option. In order to make the most profits, the working conditions for low-wage jobs exploit and dehumanize the working class; pay is often unlivable, hours are strict, hiring processes are discriminatory, and many struggle to even get adequate time off.
If all labor under capitalism abides by these principles, then sex work (a highly stigmatized form of labor) isn’t any different. While many people refuse to consider sex work as legitimate work because of the commodity being sold, sex workers face the same struggles as the rest of the working class. We tend to think of sex work exploitation as the stereotypical pimp-worker relationship. And while this is often true, sex workers are actually exploited by conditions perpetuated under capitalism: a lack of access to jobs, unaffordable housing, unlivable wages, and increasing inflation.
Similar to low-wage jobs, sex workers often engage in sex work to survive under capitalism. Many sex work opponents claim that all sex workers are victims who are forced into the industry and that they need to be “saved.” But even when we consider sex workers who don’t love their job, this isn’t a symptom of sex work, but a symptom of capitalism. For many, sex work is the best economic choice in a capitalistic society that only offers exploitive and strict low-wage jobs.
Now, I would like to stress that sex work is NOT a monolith. Not all sex workers are victims, not all sex workers love their job, but similarly, some workers do love their job! Still, the point is that we need to acknowledge this nuance rather than claiming all workers are victims of the patriarchy; instead, they are victims of capitalism, just like all workers!
What is great about sex work, however, is that while sex workers are also subjected to the perils of capitalism, it also presents many benefits that reject capitalistic notions of productivity and traditional forms of labor. For many, sex work offers a great alternative to low-wage jobs. You can choose when to engage in sex work, set your own rates, access quick cash, and even choose when to give yourself a break. Consequently, sex work provides better hours, higher pay, immediate pay, and a flexible schedule, which is extremely difficult to find. This is especially ideal for folks who are already pushed out of the market for low-wage jobs, like undocumented immigrants, formerly incarcerated folks, disabled people, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Because of this, we can view sex work as a class issue, rather than a primarily gender-based one. As noted, sex work is highly appealing to those who cannot survive under capitalism due to systematic reasons. Thus, if you are someone who hates sex work, you should consider why. As noted by the director of communications for Decriminalize Sex Work, Kaytlin Bailey, “if you have a problem with someone doing something they otherwise wouldn’t for money, you don’t have a problem with sex work - you have a problem with capitalism.”
In fact, many anti-sex work policies actually fuel and feed into capitalism. For example, under the Nordic model, buyers are criminalized and sex workers are decriminalized. Proponents of this policy argue that sex workers are victims of patriarchic systems that need to be rescued. In reality, however, the Nordic model completely disregards the economic conditions that often drive people to sex work. In turn, the Nordic model turns a blind eye to capitalistic exploitation and instead seeks to diminish sex workers’ ability to generate income.
Policies that criminalize sex work follow similar logic. However, criminalization pushes sex workers even further underground, because they have to work with the risk of incarceration. When sex workers are prosecuted, their subsequent criminal record makes it even harder to find adequate housing and to leave the sex work industry. Even when they are able to find a “legal” low-wage job, they are subjected to the exploitive practices that caused them to pursue sex work in the first place.
Ultimately, sex work is work. We need to decriminalize sex work immediately so all workers don’t have to live with the impending doom of a criminal record and so we can help destigmatize their labor. However, even if (for some weird reason) you hate sex work, then you need to recognize what is actually driving workers to the sex work industry. Rather than directly harming sex workers as a result of your misplaced hate, fight for policies that will actually reduce the need for sex work. Support labor unions that make low-wage jobs less miserable, fight for affordable housing, and advocate for social safety nets that help meet workers’ basic needs.