Dr. Zahra Stardust & Helen Hester
September 13 2021
There is no doubt that automation is changing work. The widespread automation of industrial and service jobs has sparked concerns that robots will bring about the ‘end of work’ – although we should perhaps be more concerned about changes to the ways in which work is allocated, managed, and overseen, than with the highly unlikely proposition that technology will soon eradicate work altogether. In some cases, robots have already become our bosses.
For theorists associated with post-work ideas, the changing labour conditions of the twenty-first century present a moment of political opportunity. If many jobs are in fact ‘bullshit jobs’, incapable of delivering social equality or purpose, then perhaps work is the problem rather than the solution. Rather than arguing to preserve jobs, many of these theorists advocate for putting automation at the service of people, not profit, in order to reduce the working week, increase leisure time, and reject the glorification of the work ethic. Post-work thinkers have imagined futures from universal basic income to ‘fully automated luxury communism’.
Unfortunately, however, post-work ambitions often focus on a fairly narrow subsection of waged labour, and simply assume that historically ‘feminised’ and undervalued forms of labour will continue much as they are. Reproductive labour – such as childcare, healthcare and elder care – requires substantial redistribution in order for a post-work world to be equitable.
Organising against work
As a form of physical, affective and intimate labour, sex work can be seen as a form of social reproduction that regenerates people, workforces and communities. But investments in the end of sex work are highly politicised. Calls to abolish the sex industry and reduce demand often have nothing to do ending capitalism, poverty or criminalisation and more to do with rescue industries and NGOism.
Sex workers have argued that ‘sex work is work’ for the last four decades. Many turn to sex work as an alternative to ‘straight jobs’, due to employment discrimination or for flexibility to manage chronic illness, disability, study or carer responsibilities. Exchanging sex can be survival work when other options are unavailable. But as precarious labourers in a hustle economy, sex workers have simultaneously been organising against the glorification of work. As well as contesting the structural oppressions that shape sex work, sex workers are demanding that access to social services, healthcare, housing and dignity should not be conditional upon the status of work.
Sex work is work: the rhetoric of demand-making
The political slogan ‘sex work is work’ remains a powerful rallying cry in advocacy and has aligned sex work with other forms of intimate, caring, domestic, feminised and precarious work. Situating sex work within a broader framing of labour has been a deliberate strategy to advance social, cultural, and legal change. Coined by Carol Leigh in the late 1970s, the term ‘sex work’ has been adopted by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others.
Across the globe, sex workers have mobilised to insist on the recognition of our work as work and to demand fair working conditions. The phrase ‘sex work as work’ has been used to resist criminal and licensing laws, to push for anti-discrimination protections, to help ensure occupational health and safety standards, and to provide opportunities for collective bargaining. Understanding sex work as work has been crucial to initiatives like the unionisation of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, profit-sharing among the Can Do Bar collective in Chang Mai, and the banking credit programme established by the Durbar Mahlia Samanwaya Committee in Calcutta.
Vectors of dignity: legitimacy through labour
Some commentators, however, have critiqued this. In her book, The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks suggests that activism pushing for the acceptance of sex work as work risks reinforcing the perceived intrinsic virtue of labour and shoring up its role as a discourse of distinction.
From this view, the adage ‘sex work is work’ operates as an appeal to classify sex work as a legitimate occupation, and as therefore deserving of respect. Sex work moves from being classified as a ‘vector of disease’, and instead, via the social recognition afforded to remunerated work, becomes positioned as a vector for dignity. Sex workers’ insistence on dignity can be seen to warrant esteem because we are as industrious and self-sufficient as waged workers from other sectors of the economy.
Happy hookers and respectability politics
When looking at mainstream media, it might appear that the appeal to be recognised as workers buys into the glorification of work. When sex workers attract positive exposure, media narratives emphasise high incomes, entrepreneurial attitudes, and choice of flexible working conditions. These individualised and depoliticised narratives selectively present sex work as easy, lucrative and convenient work, appealing to cultural fantasies about personal agency and autonomous working conditions. It is the professionalisation of sex work that attracts social reward here, and a relatively safe and respectabilized version of sex work that is seen to redeem the supposed transgression of sex itself.
However, these representations do nothing to improve the structural or systemic factors that govern sex work, such as criminalisation, licensing, policing, stigma, and discrimination. We should follow sex workers in turning a critical eye upon the ways in which we are expected to perform narratives of an empowered ‘happy hooker’ with a job ‘like any other’ in order to avoid stigma. We should critique the presumption that sex workers ought to find our jobs fulfilling, enjoyable, a form of self-expression, a route to self-realization, or something we would do regardless of whether or not we are being paid. The ‘happy hooker’ narrative not only invisibilises labour and the need for workplace organising, but serves to extract more labour power.
Collective solidarity and dismantling 'whorearchy'
When we look to sex worker advocacy, we can see that sex worker rights movements do not merely ‘take for granted the desirability and legitimacy of wage labour’, but rather engage in discourses of work strategically and critically.
Many of the key tenets of the sex worker movement are based not upon the celebration of work, but upon practical tactics for maximising autonomy in relation to it. Think of Empower Foundation’s ‘Last Rescue in Siam’, a film in which sex workers escape from social workers, police and NGOs to continue working in their brothel, or the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers’ logo, which features a sewing machine with a red circle and slash through it. Sex work here involves resisting the pressure to submit to more ‘respectable’ forms of labour.
Sex worker advocacy is further concerned with dismantling the ‘whorearchy’ – the hierarchical systems within sex work that determine who is afforded privilege, social capital, and respectability. A key slogan of the movement, ‘No bad whores, just bad laws’, demonstrates an investment in solidarity between workers, regardless of the type or legality of our work. And because sex work does not always operate in the form of remunerated labour, the movement supports sex workers whose work is opportunistic, for trade, or for goods. Many sex work projects are linked to campaigns against gentrification, police brutality, HIV criminalisation and drug criminalisation, and projects for unionisation, queer rights, prison abolition and open borders. These objectives relate to safety, de-stigmatisation and autonomy rather than respectability or legitimacy.
Abolitionist feminism, rescue industries and careerism
Sex work provides potent examples of where aspirations to abolish work have missed the mark. Calls for the abolition of sex work have typically come in the guises of ‘exit strategies’, ‘demand reduction’, and anti-trafficking policies, which have variously sought to ‘rehabilitate’ sex workers and provide incentives for them to leave the industry (to be redirected into other forms of ‘acceptable’ work – often low-status, poorly paid labour).
These solutions also involve criminalising clients (making it difficult for sex workers to screen for safety), and targeting migrant sex workers via brothel raids, immigration checks, and deportation (instead of improving pathways for safe migration or access to industrial rights mechanisms, for example). The overall effect of abolitionist models has been not to end sex work, nor to improve labour conditions, but rather to reduce sex workers’ control over our workplaces and increase risks to our safety and well-being. Abolitionist feminism is therefore less about ending work and more about creating a new career class of helping professionals to redirect sex workers into more ‘reputable’ forms of labour. It is about patriarchal control, a ‘rescue industry’, economic disempowerment and strengthening the carceral state.
Sex work exceptionalism
In the absence of a more general critique of work, the disproportionate enthusiasm for ending sex work serves to position it beyond work. It relies on the premise that sex workers are selling more than our labour-power – namely, our bodies or some sacred essence tied up with sex. Sex workers are obliged to repeatedly assert that we are selling our services, not our bodies, and selling our labour power as a commodity similar to other workers under capitalism. Sex workers are expected to repeatedly prove that our work is work before being afforded dignity.
Whereas the struggle for sex workers’ rights understands work as the problem with sex work, the rescue industries assume that the problem is the sex. Anti-sex work discourse tends to scoop up the problems with work in general and project them onto sex work in particular, without addressing the complex and systemic web of labour relations under capitalism.
The future of sex work
It is unclear what the future of sex work will look like (or ought to look like) as we move towards virtual forms of sex, care, love, intimacy and new relationships with AI and machines. It is likely that people will still trade sexual skills, expertise and pleasures in a postcapitalist world. While media coverage about automation and sex work predominantly focuses on the development of virtual companions and the potential for sex robots to replace sex industry jobs, sex workers are speaking out about the risks of data extraction, financial discrimination and surveillance capitalism.
In order to build a world in which work is reduced and redistributed without increasing inequalities, we first need to understand the kinds of labour involved in sex work and the existing problems in regulation, policing and rescue. As technology companies increasingly control and monopolise platforms, infrastructure and payment systems through which intimacy is provided, sex workers are engaged in multiple forms of labour – not only physical, emotional, affective and relational but also security labour to protect one’s privacy and reduce risks of identification, profiling, arrest and deportation. Instead of reading ‘sex work is work’ as a reification of the work ethic, we can understand this as a necessary starting point for a longer-term project of refusal.
This article is an edited extract from Helen Hester and Zahra Stardust’s longer book chapter ‘Sex Work in a Postwork Imaginary: On Abolitionism, Careerism, and Respectability’ in Jennifer Cooke’s edited book, The New Feminist Literary Studies, published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press.
Dr Zahra Stardust is a sex worker, lawyer and scholar working at the intersections of sexuality, technology and law. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society at the Queensland University of Technology. Her current projects include the political economy of sex tech, the implications of algorithmic sexual profiling, and the impact of automated content moderation upon sex education. Over the last 15 years Zahra has worked internationally in policy, advocacy, legal and research capacities with community organisations, NGOs and UN bodies on sexual and reproductive health, LGBTQA+ health and sex worker rights. Her work has been published in books such as Queer Sex Work, New Feminist Studies, Orienting Feminism, Coming Out Like a Porn Star and the DIY Porn Handbook. She has written for the Journal of Sexual Health, World Journal of AIDS, Social Science and Medicine and Crime, Justice and Social Democracy and is on the Editorial Board of Porn Studies.
Helen Hester leads our Feminist Futures Programme. She is Professor of Gender, Technology and Cultural Politics at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2021, with Nick Srnicek).