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Will there be sex work in utopia?

Posted at 15:00 on 15 Dec 2020 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: labour rights, privilege, reviews, sex work, sex worker's rights, sexuality, social justice, social transformation, utopia, work



Do you ever play the utopia game? Sometimes I like to imagine what the world will be When The Revolution Comes. Not just any old revolution, of course - my revolution, the one where everything happens in accordance with my ideals. It helps me to clarify my core beliefs and principles, and figure out what I should be fighting for here in our increasingly dystopian reality. Plus, it's kind of feel-good - we all need to do a little visioning now and then. 

One question I’ve been mulling over from a few different angles lately is: would there be sex work in my utopia?

Well, would there be work in my utopia? 

There wouldn’t be money - or at least not in the sense we know it now. I envision a post-scarcity society in which basic needs are provided to all: accommodation, food, healthcare and education would be freely available without strings or conditions. I can imagine having some form of transactional system for luxuries outside of basic survival, but that's not the best model I can imagine. Ultimately, I think we'd be better off without capitalism or markets in their entirety. So in that sense, no: no-one would need to trade sex, or anything else, in exchange to get their material needs met.

There would still be work of another kind in my utopia, though. There will always be work to do, not in the sense of trading our labour to survive, but in the sense of meaningful endeavours to contribute towards the richness and harmony of our society- artistic, ecological, technical, social. Humans need to be creative and make stuff and explore places, and any society, communal living or effort takes work to coordinate. Could that work include providing for the sexual and intimate needs of people who, for whatever reason, choose to have those needs met in that way, by people who have chosen to provide such a service?

One of the nice things about the utopia game is that other people have already played it - many of them novelists. There are a few books that have fuelled my thinking on this: in particular the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois MacMaster Bujold, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

Vocational sex work?

Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is set primarily on the patriarchal military planet of Barrayar. Cordelia, the protagonist of the first two books, hails from Beta Colony, progressive feminist society whose culture makes a stark contrast. Part of that is in its sex positivity. On Beta Colony polyamory and pansexuality are more or less the norm. Everyone gets a contraceptive implant and a coming out party when they reach the age of majority. It’s common to book a sex worker before you start having sex on your own, to figure out with them your likes, boundaries and particular proclivities are. The sex workers themselves are polygender transhumans who have chosen their vocation because that’s what they most want to do with their lives.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes place on the Exodus fleet, a group of colony ships that are no longer travelling anywhere: they’ve eschewed their destination in favour of maintaining the society they’ve built on board. It's not quite a utopia, but it's a visionary society which contains a similar picture of "vocational" sex work.

The Exodans aren't living in total abundance; they have enough resources to go round, but only if everyone is careful and works together. Unpleasant jobs, like cleaning the toilets, are still be done by humans and are organised by rota. The society is non-hierarchical: there's no caste system, because everyone scrubs the toilets when it’s their turn. The society only functions when everyone works, and the society provides for everyone's basic needs. Work is carried out therefore not for personal gain, but for the collective good. No one job is 'worth' more than any other.

Outside of the rota, people pick and choose what they’d like to do. You need to work to have a place in the society, but you have full choice over what work you do. This includes leadership and science and art and all kind of other things society needs, and one of the things you can choose is sex work. Exodan sex workers have picked their job because it’s what they like most out of the options on offer. It’s seen as having a social function; there are people who are lonely or stressed or otherwise in need of nurture their current personal relationships cannot provide, and sex workers choose to make themselves available to meet those physical and emotional needs. Our lonely female protagonist spends an evening with a male sex worker who provides her with intimacy, conversation, companionship and sex, and talks about his job as a civic role.

In some ways, the sex work in these two books is utopian. There’s no coercion: sex work isn’t part of a black market, something people are forced into by adverse circumstances, or a job in which you can find yourself being controlled by others against your will. There’s no societal stigma against it, and no particular benefits or drawbacks for picking it over any other profession, apart from how it happens to suit your personality. But these models still aren’t perfect.

The problem with vocational sex work

Sex workers on Twitter often talk about the fact that many of us are already obliged to pretend that this is how it is. Clients are eager to avoid the implication of coercion, and so there's market pressure on workers to perform the fantasy of "this is my vocation, I’m not doing it because of financial need". But of course we are. In our society, unless we've inherited wealth, we all need money and we all work because of financial need. Under capitalism, all labour is to some degree coerced.

When sex workers talk about how we'd rather do sex work than any other job, for some privileged workers it may well be true; but when we discuss it in public on our client-facing Twitter accounts, it’s also advertising. Our clients want to feel reassured that they’re not contributing to anything harmful, and that the people they visit are 'fully consenting'. But this attitude is itself rooted in stigma. Would you demand it of a shop assistant? "Oh, I'm sorry, you're clearly doing this job just because you need money, I'd rather be served by someone who's doing it for shits and giggles". Hyping up the desirability of sex work as a vocation is a fiction that elides our complex reality, in which we can fully consent to something but still be acting under significant constraints.

This fiction is not harmless. Perhaps the most acute way in which it causes harm is by enabling a certain kind of entitlement from pushy clients who feel that women owe them sex. "If you love it so much, you should do it for free! Oh, you're having fun at work? Maybe you should be paying me! If sex work is so amazing for society, aren’t I entitled to it either way?"

The idea of sex work as a vocation unfortunately plays into the toxic notion of “client rights”, a so-called movement that takes the rhetoric of sex workers’ rights and twists it to serve the interests of clients, playing right into SWERF claims that decriminalisation is only campaigned for by "pimps and johns". Ugh. Sex worker's rights is a labour movement: it's for the workers, not the customers.

In our society, talking about sex work as a vocation is likely to do more harm than good. It's more helpful to talk about the realities of our present world, where all paid work is to some degree for survival, and where the needs of the lowest paid - and most constrained - people are most urgent.

A new way of meeting people's needs

These criticisms take me to Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. If you read one book mentioned in this post, read this one. It will change your world. It changed mind. It was written (and is partially set) in the 1970s, but remains depressingly relevant.

The protagonist, Connie, is a middle-aged Latina in NYC, and her life is pretty shit: mental illness, domestic violence, grinding poverty and very few options. She slips through the cracks of time into what is perhaps the most aspirational utopia in the whole of science fiction - a post-apocalyptic America in which society has been rebuilt from the ground up.

I’m actually at risk here of turning this post into a book review; this is an astounding novel filled with enduring ideas, and I urge you to add it to your list. Suffice it to say that this utopia is a truly egalitarian society, where inequalities of race, gender and class and all the rest have been at last resolved. 

There’s still a lot of work to do in this future world - from fixing the environment their forebears destroyed, to growing crops, raising children, making art and developing technology. Contributing to the community you love is a strong cultural norm. Nobody is asked for more than they are able, and everyone's lifestyle comprises a balance of work, creativity, socialising and relaxation. Their motto (using Piercy's gender neutral neopronoun "person" or "per") is “person must not do what person cannot do”, and everyone’s emotional needs are taken into account by everyone else.

Our cynical protagonist struggles with this. “Ha!”, she says, in one conversation about the idea that all work is done by choice. “I bet lots of people decide never to go.”

“Ever hear of being lazy? Suppose I just don’t want to get up in the morning?”

“Then I must do your work on top of my own [...] I’ll come to mind that. Who wants to be resented? [...] We sadden at it. Sometimes a healer like my old friend Diana can help. [...] A healer can go back with you and help you grow again. It’s going down and then climbing a hard path. But many heal well.”

There is no sex work in this future society. It's clear that Piercy has no love for the sex industry: Connie’s niece is beholden to an abusive pimp, a set of concepts that her visitors from the future struggle to comprehend. What the utopians do have, though, is a strong community spirit based on love for all around you. If someone in their community isn’t getting their needs met - including the human need for intimacy, sex, and human connection - community members gather around to help them. Why are they missing out on things they need? What would help them grow towards the place where they can attract and generate these things for themselves?

As well as this utopia, Piercy also gives us a warning. On one occasion Connie slips through time into a future New York City, a binary-gendered hellscape where to be female is to be surgically altered to the point that you cannot walk, a sex-doll pastiche of beauty norms, worth only what a man will pay to own you and keep you in complete isolation for anything from a few nights to ten years.

This future patriarchy is at war with the communitarian society; it's the shadow the others are fighting to resist. I imagine from this juxtaposition, where sex work and marriage are aligned into a single coercive, dehumanising institution, that she wouldn’t place transactional sexual relationships of any kind in her utopia.

The utopians rarely form paired life-bonds, and have a more relationship anarchist approach to love and romance, understanding that each bond in our lives is significant and unique, and that we might look to different people to fulfil different needs. Parenting is done in triads, and is normally distinct from erotic and romantic relationships. People might have attractions to specific genders or sexes, but there's no social pressure normalising one form of attraction over another.

What is "labour" in the absence of material scarcity? "Emotional labour" was coined to describe the interpersonal and emotional work done by those, particularly women, in service roles, where part of the job is making customers feel good. Its broadened recent use to describe any emotional or interpersonal effort to support one another within our relationships has been criticised as diluting the term to the point of meaninglessness. We can do emotional effort within relationships, but without financial pressure and the fear of losing a job we need to survive, it's not exactly labour.

In the same way, we can imagine erotic effort in a utopian world: going out of our way, perhaps, to give someone sexual healing or connection as an act of loving service. We can imagine erotic effort in the visual and performing arts, creating porn and erotic art for the joy of it. We can even imagine someone becoming an erotic specialist, and making themselves available for personal service as an offering to their community. 

But Piercy’s vision is more radical still. She envisions a future where this kind of care work is not outsourced to a "professional" - someone who has set up shop for that purpose - but is instead done organically within communities. When someone is depressed, they don't visit a therapist; their friends gather round and coordinate the groups and healing circles and art retreats and yoga sessions that will help themselves. Rather than care work being a professional skill, it is the basic cost of entry into the society. Everyone learns the social and emotional skills necessary to participate in high-functioning relationships, and to help ensure that nobody is left out in the cold. 

So in the most radical utopia we can envision, no, there won't be sex work - because our communities will be strong enough to make sure everyone's social, intimate and erotic needs are met without any transactions being made.

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