Sex Work and Consent at @transmediale

Transmediale 2012 is over. R15N is closed again, until the next occasion. As usual, lots of great people  at the festival, and lots to talk and think about.

On Saturday I attended the discussion "Commercialising Eros" with Jacob Appelbaum, Zach Blas, Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, Aliya Rakhmetova and moderated by Gaia Novati. Aliya Rakhmetova, supporter of sex workers' right working as a co-ordinator with SWAN, gave an overview of her organization and it's campaigns defending the rights of sex workers, including campaigns to fight violence against sex workers. Jacob Appelbaum went over his experience working in the IT department of, a leading internet pornography company, which he left as a result of his opposition to exploitive pay inequality at the company which paid the performers far less that the executives at the company. Liad Hussein Kantorowicz talked about her work as live erotic performer at a internet pornography site, and performed her job on the stage for her online clients while the other panelists gave their presentations. Zach Blas gave an overview of the work of the "Queer Technologies" art collective.

I enjoyed the presentations and discussions and applaud the panellists for their support of sex workers. One question stuck with me, I didn't expand upon it at the discussion, but I'd like to here.

Several of the panelists referred to the issue of consent as a justification for sex work and a way of arguing against legal repressions of sex work, and against the opposition against sex work that some feminists and other have, as well as a way to distinguish sex work from rape. Sex work is distinguished from rape because it is consensual, and neither legislator nor moral campaigner has any place interfering with what consenting adults do. Yet, this argument is unsatisfying.

Within the capitalist system, where workers and their families face destitution and homelessness unless they work, no work can be truly described as consensual. What's more the pretense of consent, is often used as justification for exploitation and to excuse the exploitive behaviour of employers. After all, the worker chose to accept the job. Yet, as the cliche goes, in context this choice is not much different than the one that a mugger gives you. "Your money or your life" is also a choice.

Like all professions, there can be no doubt that many sex workers feel empowered by their work, and take great pleasure in it. However, there can also be no doubt, that many sex workers are directly or indirectly coerced into doing this kind of work, and face emotional and social trauma as a result.

"Consent" seems to justify not only the sex-work itself, since the sex worker consents to perform sexual services for a client, but the conditions of the sex-workers labour as well, since the sex-workers, like other workers, has consented to the terms of employment. Thus while consent may help us differentiate sex work from rape, it justifies the economic exploitation of the sex worker at the same time, since both the workers relationship with the client and the employer are ultimately consensual.

I would prefer to see a stronger line of argument that says that sex work is a valid form of work not merely because it is consensual, but because it is valuable. Rather then a week liberal argument based on the sanctity of what consulting adults to, a strong social argument that argues that sex workers do necessary and beneficial work and should be protected and supported.

Like the consent argument, the value argument also differentiates between sex work and rape, as rape clearly is not socially valuable, but unlike the consent argument it doesn't excuse the economic exploitation of sex workers, since such exploitation is not socially valuable.

If we accept that sex work is valuable work that has a place in society, then we can focus on the health and well being of the sex workers directly, and acknowledge that many of them are not empowered consenting workers, but rather victims of coercion, trafficking and exploitation, often forced, unwillingly, into their work. Pretending that they have consented to their own exploitation is both delusional and disrespectful when it's quite likely that the empowered sex worker who takes pleasure in their work is the minority within an industry that recruits most of its workers by way of terror and desperation.

The value argument also confronts the moral issues more directly, since the consent argument doesn't necessarily dispute the immorality of the work, it only argues that nobody that is not directly involved has any business with it. The value argument makes a much stronger social statement: that sex work is not just a private business between consenting adults, but a form of work that benefits society and, far from being immoral, is a vital part of human civilization and always has been, despite persecutions and prohibitions. And that such persecution and prohibition should stop, not simply because it interferes with liberal rights, but because it is wrong and harmfull.

First we must reject capitalist ideological notions of consent, these do not help sex workers, only make them responsible for their own exploitation, and exploitation aint sexy. Once we see sex work as an essential form of work, we can fight for the conditions of these workers along with those of all other workers.

I'll be at Cafe Buchhandlung for Stammtisch tonight at 8pm or so, I hope some transmediale folk who are still in town will join for a drink in celebration of a great event.

Stammtisch is here:

Dmyri Kleiner
Venture Communist

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