8 February 2012
Sex Work and Consent at @transmediale
Date: Tue, 07 Feb 2012 15:45:39 +0100
From: Dmytri Kleiner <dk[at]telekommunisten.net>
Subject: <nettime> Sex Work and Consent at @transmediale
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
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 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
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
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:
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