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
smut.com, 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
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
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
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
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: http://bit.ly/buchhandlung
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