Monday, June 4, 2007

Should prostitutes form a union?

We all know that prostitutes can face difficult circumstances—client abuse, pimp violence, police harassment, disease, robbery, pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc. And no matter what we think about the morality of commodified sex, we understand that these women should not have to face such risks.

In the Weekend Argus article, "Forget the sex, a worker is just a worker" (2 June 2007), Michael Schmidt dicusses the possibility of unionizing sex workers. He cites the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) in Britain as a case-in-point. In Cape Town, he mentions the Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) which spearheads the union initiative amongst streetwalkers and brothel workers.

Schmidt and SWEAT take inspiration from the powerful union and workerist movement in South Africa: they talk about sex workers being "workers" like in any other "industry." This language emanates from a factory floor model in which "workers" organize collectively, as a union, to press for greater rights, protections & benefits.

While this image—of collectively organized sex workers standing up for the rights, voicing their concerns, mobilizing, etc.—is powerful, and historically resonant, is it appropriate for prostitution in South Africa?

On first blush, it is quite attractive. But there are some practical difficulties:

FIRST, the sheer diversity of sex trade makes union-like cohesion problematic. The women who work in the various sectors—streets, brothels, dockside clubs, truck-stops, mineworker taverns, agencies, freelance—face quite different experiences. And their sources of trouble differ.

Unions typically have clear opponents, like "management." But who do prostitutes organize against?: clients? pimps? brothel owners? police officers? the government? society-at-large? All of these groups bear a certain responsibility for prostitutes' difficulties. Not just one of them.

The value of a union is that it can put pressure on a group that has the power to do something about their conditions. But who would the prostitutes represent their grievances to? In South Africa, activists would say "the government," as it is the source of onerous legislation criminalizing the sale of sex. They want this law repealed because it allows for unchecked abuses by clients, pimps, and police against the women. But even if repealed, society still sanctions the abuse of women (in general) and prostitutes in particular. Rights-bearing South African women still suffer under one of the highest rape rates in the world, so it is hard to see how prostitutes will achieve protection, health and welfare through a purely legal correction.

And if their demands were not met, what would they do? Strike? This in unlikely. Which makes it hard to see what value the union strategy has if cannot take advantage of its most strategic weapons: mass action, boycotts, strikes.

SECOND, most prostitutes do not look at sex work as a life-long career. Few embrace the "sex worker" moniker and even less want to be publicly known as such. The problem is that, even if women work as prostitutes for years, most refuse to claim it as an identity. Unlike working-class industrial laborers, who construct their lives around a plant or a job, prostitutes usually avoid such committed identifications due to shame, stigma & fear.

Because of this, sex worker unions assure their members of anonymity. But how powerful can a union be if its members refuse to identify themselves? The greatest power unions leverage is not numbers, but the ability to present an actual physical mass of members to the public when rights are threatened. Such displays—especially with media coverage—demand social acknowledgment and offer a road to change. But anonymous membership—though necessary in this case—radically weakens the utility of a "union." (In South Africa, how many sex workers would actually march with a banner for their rights?)

THIRD, does the transplanted union model adequately address prostitutes' particular circumstances by framing them as "workers"? On the one hand, yes, of course, they are workers. They work. But many of the problems they face result from their work being moralized, stigmatized, criminalized, dangerous & gendered. To take women from multiple sex sectors—who face unique challenges in each—and reduce them to an undifferentiated mass of "workers" may not do justice to their needs. And it is doubtful that their problems can be overcome by romantic rhetoric like: "Sex Workers of the World Unite!"

Essentially, I wonder about the feasibility of the union strategy. I understand its appeal, and I agree with union activists' concerns, especially the de/criminalization issue. But the diversity of concerns & experiences facing prostitutes in the numerous sex sectors militates against a one-size-fits-all response.

A better beginning might be to ask: how do sex workers in some sectors (courtesans, call girls, dockside women) achieve higher levels of safety & well-being than women in others? Might the strategies these women employ—or the structural conditions they enjoy—be exported to the more exposed sectors (streets, truck-stops)?

Rather than going outside prostitution to find models for strategic action, we could start by looking at successful strategies within different sectors. If we take the agency of prostitutes seriously—which most activists do—then we should start by understanding indigenous strategies, those developed by sex workers.

Beyond that, we need to initiate a real social dialogue about gender, prostitution, and sex that will get at the foundations of violence against women, social stigmatization, and institutional neglect (by government, health care providers & social services). This should not be left to a union vanguard, but should be engaged with by all citizens.

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