April 16, 2020 | 15 minutes read | Tags: Oppression and Liberation, Class struggle in Britain

Red Lights: Sex Work and Labour Struggle in the Time of Pandemic

In support of SWARM, and their Covid-19 hardship fund, we wish to offer an analysis of the conditions which have created the sex work industry in the West, the impact of Covid-19 and outline what is to be done next.

Red Lights: Sex Work and Labour Struggle in the Time of Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the gangrenous heart of capitalism. Across society, we are beginning to see the disproportionate impact this disease is having upon marginalised people across the world. In the USA, researchers studying how race and health intersect warn that black Americans will be the hardest hit by the pandemic, due to white supremacist discrimination that has culminated in black people having higher rates of chronic diseases and lower access to health care. In the UK, more than a million undocumented migrants face starvation, and an increased risk of contracting the disease, because of the crisis. It’s only asylum seekers with an active claim that receive subsistence money of £37.55 a week, whilst migrants without recourse to public funds must scrape along to survive. This comes amidst growing outrage at the meagre rate of Statutory Sick Pay, which stands at £94 a week for British citizens. Within this country’s prisons, incarcerated people are at high risk of contracting the disease due to the filthy, over-crowded and unsanitary conditions they are forced to endure. The Ministry of Justice's response is to implement a "lockdown", which means 24 hours a day of solitary confinement. This approach will surely have severely deleterious effects upon the mental health of incarcerated people.

The pandemic is revealing the systemic failures inherent in capitalism; communities that have been historically discriminated against are at greater risk of dying from the disease. These lives have been designated as disposable by the financial elite, but as communists we must combat these conditions by supporting and defending marginalised people.

Covid-19 has wider ramifications for those who are living in the most precarious of financial situations – sex workers. Recently, SWARM – Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement – an organisation founded in 2009, have brought attention to the crisis the pandemic is causing within sex worker communities through the creation of a hardship fund for workers. Due to the government’s imposition of social distancing rules, workers have seen a dramatic decrease in clients and work. Workers must often navigate various marginalised identities, contributing further to their oppression, whilst also subsisting without a secure financial safety net.

In support of SWARM, and their Covid-19 hardship fund, we wish to offer an analysis of the conditions which have created the sex work industry in the West, the impact of Covid-19 and outline what is to be done next.

Labour Exploitation

This article focuses on sex work in the West and thus, the perspectives discussed here are not all-encompassing and cannot be applied to countries outside of this sphere. It’s worth pointing out that globally hyper-exploitative sex work has intensified under the impact of capitalist globalisation. This is something we intend to explore in depth in another article.

While we draw upon revolutionary Marxist theory for our analysis, we cannot ignore the real-world voices of sex workers who have first-hand experience dealing with the inequities inherent in their labour conditions and the realities of being a sex worker under capitalism. Our goal is to not only support all people who participate in sex work, while also acknowledging how gender, race, class, sexuality and ability play into people's relationships with this industry, but also to contribute to critical discussions around labour conditions within the sex work industry. As with all types of work, there are positive and negative aspects, and to hold up sex work as either completely harmful or liberatory is reductive.

Under capitalism, the proletariat, which includes all workers who do not own the means of production, such as factory workers (which were those who populated most of the proletariat during the period in which Marx wrote), gig economy workers, sex workers, and others, have only one thing they can sell in order to afford food, shelter, and medicine: their labour. We as the working classes are compelled to sell our time and energy to further the interest of the capitalist class. In other words, capitalism has produced a society in which those who do not serve to line the pockets of the bourgeoisie will starve.

But how does this manifest in the sex work industry in the West?

Economic Disparities and Labour Conditions within the Sex Work Industry

When discussing sex work, focus is often placed on service sex work, and the commodification of sex. It is useful to focus on this when analysing the exploitative relationship between a service sex worker and their client, but this can eclipse the experiences of workers who do not necessarily engage in physical sex with clients—in jobs such as camming, stripping, and roles within the porn industry. As Antonia Crane, a stripper of 23 years details, clubs often force strippers to work as 'independent contractors', in order to avoid having to pay dancers as employees and provide health insurance, workers' compensation or other benefits. She states, "After we’ve played therapist and plaything for pushy, often drunk customers, and the club sees us doing well in spite of these challenges, the ‘stage fee’ that dancers pay can be raised capriciously. When we speak up, we may be intimidated behind closed doors, told to keep quiet or go elsewhere." Within the porn industry, many actresses battle twin evils of financial insecurity, and exploitation in the form of their content being recorded and put onto free porn websites, which costs them money.

Moreover, porn companies profit from owning the rights to the content of workers, whilst the latter see no return. Mia Khalifa, a former actress, has spoken about the discrimination she faced when applying for jobs due to her previous work in porn, and the "active website under her name" which she doesn't own or profit from. Camming models face similar obstacles, in the way that camming websites take a cut of their earnings in exchange for hosting them on the website, and the high risk of being recorded and having these videos uploaded onto free porn websites, or the dark web. It is evident that all sex workers encounter varying degrees of oppressive labour conditions that increase their proximity to poverty. For this reason, we have deliberately chosen to refer to the commodification of sexual pleasure, as we feel this is a more universal definition that applies to all forms of sex work.

The exchange of labour for wages on the market creates an illusion to a worker, particularly those within the working and poor classes, that there is an element of free will in their choice to work. However, due to the coercive nature of capitalism, the ideas of free will and choice do not truly exist. When asked "Do I want to work by selling my labour to someone else, or do I want to starve and be homeless?" the so called "choice" is evaporated into basic necessity. Choice is never on the table. In a similar vein, this is also why self-employed individuals, freelancers, and other workers who attempt to work in an avenue that gives them independence from the traditional arrangement of selling labour to someone else often struggle to accumulate wealth, and often do not have the same (albeit limited) labour protections as those who are "permanent" (but still of course subject to firing and having their entire livelihood put in the hands of their boss) workers in a company.

The political economic system of capitalism is designed to not only push people into this exploitative arrangement of selling labour to someone else (often someone who does not perform nearly as much labour as those they employ, but who will reap the rewards simply due to being the one who has capital and owns the means of production). It also means that those individuals who partake in work outside of this standard model face the difficulties of competition and are often forced to sell their labour at much lower than market rate, simply to be able to find work and earn money; even if it is a pittance, it is still better than nothing.

These conditions have been exacerbated for certain sections of society since the 2008 global recession. The UK government’s implementation of austerity policies shortly after the recession have had a gendered impact over the last decade. Since 2010, the burden of 86% of social security and welfare cuts have fallen on women, causing many to see sharp falls in their income.

According to the latest research by the charity Shelter, as a result of austerity policies there are now at least 320,000 people in Britain who are homeless, that number being a low estimate. Most of us here in Britain who are employed and pay rent regularly are a pay-check or two away from being part of this horrific statistic. This is especially hard for marginalised groups, who are often overrepresented among the homeless, poor, and discriminated against. It is in this environment that people are placed in the coercive situation of working or starving - particularly women, LGBT+ people, and people of marginalised racial/ethnic groups. The urgency of finding money for food and shelter is even more acute for people currently unhoused. In these circumstances, the best or only option to earn money is sex work​​​​​​​.

The UK Home Office Researchers have reported that "Economic necessity is the main imperative for women becoming involved in prostitution", and that "involvement in it by either adults or young people can be understood within the context of gendered economic inequalities (O’Connell-Davidson 1998, Phoenix 2001) and male violence and male power (O’Neill 1994, 1997)." Other marginalised groups, such as LGBT+ people, are disproportionately overrepresented in sex work, due to systemic discrimination—often manifesting in their familial and interpersonal relationships as an isolating bigotry that increases their vulnerability in a homophobic and transphobic society. The Albert Kennedy Trust discovered that LGBT people make up 24 per cent of the homeless youth population in the country, and that 69 per cent of homeless LGBT youth were forced out of their homes by their families. Moreover, a "larger proportion of the transgender community is involved in sex work compared to the proportion of the population of cisgender women who are sex workers." These statistics reveal that systemic discrimination brings certain groups in closer proximity with sex work as a means of survival. This does not occur by chance. These groups all face hypersexualisation as a component of their oppression, which excludes them from jobs involving children such as teaching or childcare -- for example, the recent attempts to ban “Drag Queen Story Time”. That these people respond to their hypersexualisation by drawing a wage from it – rather than simply disappearing from society entirely – is one reason that sex workers are subject to such extreme prejudice.​​​​​​​

While often sex workers are compelled to this work as their only means of survival, there are many sex workers who have other options, but choose sex work for any number of reasons, such as more flexible working hours that are particularly important for people with caring responsibilities.​​​​​​​

Unfortunately, the labour conditions of sex work are often very dangerous and tend to lead to workers seeking pimps or madames who run (often illegal) establishments as a means of protection from the hazards of working on the street. This is of course a logical conclusion to come to as a means of staying alive and safe on the job. However, this reproduces the predatory capitalist-proletarian divide, as the owner of the establishment (the capitalist) will usually ask for a cut of a sex worker's wages in exchange for this protection and sometimes for rent and other expenses, depending on whether a sex worker lives in the establishment or somewhere else. As the sex work industry is predominantly populated by women and people of marginalised genders, this creates a dual issue – the misogyny inherent in capitalism is reproduced in a hyper-exploitative way, which creates an industry that provides a space for the purchasers of sex to harm and exploit women and people of marginalised genders.

The largest misconception surrounding sex work is the idea that sex workers sell their bodies, rather than sexual pleasure, as a commodity. This misconception is engendered through the imperialist patriarchy. Entrenched within our society is the dichotomous model of white womanhood that defines the good woman "by her whiteness, her class and her appropriate sexual modesty, whether maidenly or maternal"[1]. On the other hand, sex workers are degraded by their supposed sexual excess and moral degradation. Feminists have long since theorised the conception of sexual penetration as one that highlights the subjugated status of the receiver. In society, there is the notion that sex is sacred, and thus too special to be sold – this idea paves the way for sex workers to be ‘othered’, as they are seen as continuously losing something with each sexual act.

Central to arguments claiming that sex work isn’t work is the pervasive belief that sex workers sell their bodies, and accordingly surrender their bodily boundaries, during the act. This is based off a false premise, as within the sex industry there exists terminology to describe sexual acts certain workers won't do, and which they are willing to do – such as OWO, “oral without”, i.e. oral sex without a condom – which demonstrates that while sex work is inherently exploitative and coercive, some sex workers attempt to define their boundaries and filter clients who won't respect that. Secondly, this idea contributes to the mistreatment of sex workers by attempting to naturalise them as receptacles or orifices that simply receive penetration. It hampers our ability to discern between sexual touch performed during work, and actual sexual assault perpetuated against sex workers[2]. Moreover, patriarchy socialises us into devaluing the emotional labour that women and people of marginalised genders perform across many jobs, especially within sex work. The consequences of this is seen when sex workers don't receive payment in exchange for the provision of their services, or when they are assaulted and are consequently precluded from seeking legal recourse due to the criminalisation of their jobs.

The criminalisation of sex work-related activities in the UK further undermines any protections from harm for workers, as they cannot report crimes committed against them—such as sexual assault or theft of wages—to the police without risking arrest and potential incarceration. This criminalisation also undermines the strength of sexual assault laws. The feminist waves in Britain and campaigns by LGBT+ pressure groups won advances in the law for sexual assault to be recognised as criminal. The current definition, however, fails to consider the social and economic conditions of coercion, including in specific relation to sex work. The present focus on sanctioning the behaviour of individual actors within society precludes investigation into the state’s role in maintaining oppressive structures that cause ripe conditions for the prevalence of survival sex work.

The consequence of the commodification of sexual pleasure, through being bought and sold on a market characterised by the inequality between the economic power of buyers (predominantly men) over the marginalised sellers, is that sex workers cannot gain the full value of this exchange. The tremendous harm this inflicts, socially, physically and psychologically, is most clearly seen in the dehumanisation of the worker, who is reduced to their usefulness as a sex object for the pleasure of men. The alienation of labour in this industry is the alienation of the worker from their own body and sexuality. In this situation, a sex worker is seen as akin to a machine into which you put coins and receive pleasure from, not a fully realised human being with needs and desires separate from this work​​​​​​​.

The Nordic Model

Sweden and Canada are but two of a string of countries that have adopted the 'Nordic model' with regards to the criminalisation of sex work. The Nordic model criminalises buyers and decriminalises sex workers, as this is thought to be a less punitive alternative to full criminalisation. The main objective of the model is to decrease the demand for sex work by punishing those who purchase it, thereby decreasing the volume of the industry. Since its establishment in Sweden, it has received world-wide recognition; in 2014, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging member states to adopt the Nordic model.

The issue with this model, however, is that it still uses criminalisation to achieve the result of abolishing sex work, which actually increases sex workers' exposure to sexual violence. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that criminalisation and consequent repressive policing – including arrest, imprisonment and extortion by officers – made sex workers three times more likely to experience sexual or physical violence from a client and twice as likely to have HIV or another sexually transmitted infection as those who lived in countries where sex work was tolerated. The review also stated that in Nordic model countries such as Canada, sex workers were still put at risk by the criminalisation of buyers; these laws put workers into a position in which they have to negotiate the price for the sexual act after it has taken place, thereby increasing the risk of fatality to sex workers. The effect of these policies also do not grasp at the root of the problem: it is the economic disparity created by capitalism, and felt most intensely by marginalised sections of the working class, that pushes certain groups of people into sex work – predominantly, survival sex work. Thus, policies aimed towards reducing business for sex workers only increases the precarity of their position, and forces them "to absorb the deficit, whether in their wallets or in their working conditions".

A sex worker in the Industrial Workers of the World, when asked what makes their job safer, responded with:

“I find that how easy, safe, and enjoyable I can make my work is directly related to whether I can survive on what I'm currently making ... If I haven't been paid in weeks, I need to accept clients who sound more dangerous than I'd usually be willing to risk” [3].

Sex Positivity and Sex Work

Since the early 2000s, the sex positivity movement has edged closer and closer towards the mainstream. The advent of social media also provided a catalyst to the dissemination of information about the movement, with many feminist bloggers and sex workers producing information around sex and sexual health, masturbation, and sex within the LGBT+ community. This engendered a blogging culture that was pro-sex and pleasure, but also susceptible to perspectives that downplayed the economic coercion that pushes people into sex work and overemphasised the narrative of sex work as primarily empowering and pleasurable.

In Revolting Prostitutes, Juno Mac and Molly Smith discuss a prominent figure in the sex worker movement – 'The Erotic Professional’, who posits herself as a vocational sex worker. They explain that popular ideas about figures such as these (that they perform sex work because they enjoy it rather than because of economic necessity) attempt to make sex work resemble recreational sex, thereby feeding the fantasies of those who buy sex that the sexual acts performed by workers are those driven by genuine desire. This feeds into the belief that the worker and client are united in a common interest – sexual pleasure – which allows for the dismissal of sex work as ‘not true work’ and precludes analysis into the unequal exploitative relationship between the purchaser and the worker.

The sex work industry, like all industries, is stratified by class. Sex workers who can afford to work in a closed environment, as opposed to off the street, and those that are able to make a steady income from it are a privileged minority. Street sex work is one of the most prevalent forms of sex work as it is accessible to those who are living in extreme financial precarity, as there are no set up costs. This makes it accessible and flexible for those with mental health, drug use or accessibility issues, who may be barred from other types of work. The predominance of marginalised people within the industry is simply a reflection of the systemic failures within society, and thus the spotlight that has been focused on the privileged minority of workers who have no problems with the labour conditions of the industry is telling. There are workers who themselves want to be distanced from the stigmatising and dehumanising impoverishment other workers face, which further obscures arguments advanced by sex workers critiquing their labour conditions.

Liberal feminism tends to adhere to a reductionist sex positivity or can alternatively fluctuate to the outright demonisation of sex workers for supposedly ‘perpetuating patriarchy’. Even within the left, some socialists can tend towards a holier-than-thou attitude by labelling sex workers as ‘lumpen proletarians’ and refusing to organise around their needs or provide material support. Communists must decisively work to support and fight for better rights for sex workers; this is why we believe Marxist feminism and revolutionary intersectional theory to be iterations of feminism that are truly inclusive.

Unions and Organising in the Time of Covid-19

Across the world we are seeing movements of workers striking in protest of the terrible conditions they are forced to work in, made acutely worse by the pandemic. It is especially problematic and life-threatening to disabled and immunocompromised sex workers, who are put at further risk by simply going outside to participate in their work. In an industry where one cannot socially distance, these sex workers have to weigh their options between not getting any sort of income, and potentially contracting a disease that has an incredibly high likelihood of killing them. The sex industry, as a place where marginalised people are often pushed into, seemingly provides employment for everyone; but in reality, it is an amalgamation of the hyper-exploitation faced under capitalism, which is only worsened in this time of crisis.

As a result of the pandemic, however, those working in the sex industry who are willing to fight to improve work conditions are no longer able to go out and organise in the same way as they used to be able to. While actions such as strikes are a potent tactic for the working classes, unionisation is even more powerful; sex worker-led unions have cropped up globally and have made significant strides in fighting for better rights. Strippers employed by the chain Spearmint Rhino won a $13 million settlement in Federal court in 2012, after they filed a class action lawsuit to claim back their wages and challenge the club’s decision to classify them as 'independent contractors'. This is one of many victories possible through the power of collective action.

Unions such as United Voices of the World (UVW) and SWARM are not only campaigning in favour of sex work decriminalisation, which would increase safety for all sex workers under capitalism, but they are also working to build a hardship fund for those affected by joblessness as a result of Covid-19. This collective action is a positive step in the right direction, and Red Fightback supports sex work decriminalisation, as well as sex workers’ rights to self-determination and unionisation. The task of socialism is an end to exploitation( the appropriation of surplus from the worker to the capitalist) and an end to alienation (work that does not authentically reflect the will of the worker). A revolutionary approach to the sex work industry would result, in the last analysis, in a world in which people’s sexual relations exist only for their mutual satisfaction - an abolition of the conditions that compel workers of any industry to labour for the creation of exchange value rather than for the fulfilment of social needs​​​​​​​.

In the time of pandemic, organising has come off the streets and has come online. This does not mean the fight is over; rather, it is just beginning. In this age of uncertainty, the only thing that is certain is that capitalism is unsustainable. A better world is possible, and that will only come from us working together and uniting to struggle against the oppressive, seemingly endlessly turning gears of capitalism. Though the enforced lockdown, spanning across the globe, seems to drag on hopelessly and the sound of the gears weighs upon us like lead, we must always remember that we have the world to win.


[1] Smith, M. and Mac, J., 2018. Revolting Prostitutes. 1st ed. London: Verso, pp.26-45.
[2] Ibid, p.26.
[3] Ibid, p.54.