Misogyny is Revisionism Part 2: The Masque of the “Red” Pimp

Soviet anti-prostitution poster: “After the destruction of capitalism — the proletariat will abolish prostitution — the great scourge of humanity!”

In the first part of this series, we deconstructed the notion that “transwomen are women” from a Marxist perspective. In that piece I said that notion is perhaps the most destructive facing the left today, but I’m going to have to reconsider that assertion as we tackle the next anti-feminist/anti-Marxist “big lie” facing the left today, the notion that “sex work is work”. Marxism has always recognized prostitution as one of the vilest forms of exploitation; every major Marxist revolutionary has condemned it in unequivocal terms. The Communist Manifesto openly proclaims that the socialist revolution will do away with “prostitution both public and private.”[1] In her first major work, Nadezhda Krupskaya, described how revolutionary workers, during one night of major labor strikes, also directed their rage at the brothels, destroying eleven of them in a single night.[2] And, yet, despite this damning and overwhelming Marxist condemnation of prostitution, the left has started to drink the “sex-work” Kool-Aid. This ranges from assertions that prostitution (and pornography, which is just filmed prostitution) is just a job like any other to outright proclaiming it liberating for women, a strike against bourgeois moralism! Pimps have become re-cast as “managers”, and johns as “clients”. Some so-called “Marxists” have even come out in support of collectivized brothels under socialism! Unsurprisingly, most of these declamations are being made by men who, distraught that the revolution wants to take away “their porn” and “their women”, are now trying to have their cake and eat it too by twisting the Marxist notion of free love and the Marxist attacks on bourgeois morality to suit their own exploitative ends. In this they are assisted by the “PhD Prostitutes”, well-off bourgeois women, often holding advanced degrees, who engage in prostitution as a lifestyle “choice”. Joseph Goebbels would be proud.

But for now, we will leave these reactionary elements to stew where they are. First, it is incumbent to debunk the central assertion behind all of this, that “sex work is work”. To tear this apart, we need to first answer the question, what is labor? In his first major published work, The German Ideology, Marx defines labor as such:

“The first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, [is that humans] must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.”[3]

To put it in more succinct terms, labor is the process by which human beings create, and facilitate the use, of products of social value. Does the act of sexual intercourse in of itself have social value? Does pornographic material have social value? The answer is no. Sexual intercourse is not a fundamental human need in the way food, water, clothing, and shelter are. Nor does intercourse in of itself help us interpret and understand the world in the way that science and art do. Intercourse does take on social value when its purpose is reproduction, in that case it becomes reproductive labor. It also holds social value when it becomes a means of interpersonal communication, such as intercourse between lovers, but that is not necessarily labor as it does not produce anything of wider use for a community. In Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It, Alexandra Kollontai said, “prostitutes are all those who avoid the necessity of working by giving themselves to a man, either on a temporary basis or for life.”[4] She is clearly separating it from labor, rather defining it as the last act of the most desperate and rejected members of society. What does prostitution create, then? It creates, and increases, alienation and exploitation of the worst kind. Kollontai also railed against prostitution because it “threatens the feeling of solidarity and comradeship between working men and women, the members of the workers’ republic. And this feeling is the foundation and the basis of the communist society we are building and making a reality.”[5]

But if prostitution is not labor, what is it? The answer is simple. Sexual slavery; contractual rape. Continuing on her points already made, Kollontai reasoned that “Prostitution arose with the first states as the inevitable shadow of the official institution of marriage, which was designed to preserve the rights of private property and to guarantee property inheritance through a line of lawful heirs.”[6] This is a summation of what Engels described in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State; that prostitution allowed for men to engage in carnal relations outside of their marriage. In the society that gave birth to prostitution, women were either the de facto property of men, or their de jure property, as in the case of wives. The prostitute was essentially a slave, with no rights or autonomy of her own; her entire existence was devoted to serving men. This continued in the age of feudalism, where prostitution was highly organized and ubiquitous, in order to maintain the chastity and faithfulness of men’s daughters and wives, who remained their property. But it is capitalism that has brought forth the full horrific nature of prostitution, where now the whole lot of woman is threatened with prostitution if they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families, or pay their bills, afford an education, or any of the other necessities working people struggle to obtain and secure. Again we see the separation of prostitution from labor; the prostitute in capitalist society is the woman who cannot make an existence by labor alone. The prostitute is not even considered a human being, but rather a commodity. They are below even the lumpenproletariat, that great mass that contains both those almost totally squeezed dry by capitalism, as well as the criminal element of society, which are still recognized as human. This is the class to which the pimp belongs to.[7] The pimp is a parody of the parasitical capitalist who profits off the labor of the working class; in the case of the pimp, he profits off the dehumanized woman turned commodity.

The industrial and technological revolutions that have occurred under capitalism have only made the prostitute’s life worse. With the advent of mass pornography, especially in the modern age of mass and instant communication, the prostitute is no longer the commodity of just one john, but of millions of johns, who fuck her by proxy; in turn the pimp’s profits are doubled, tripled, quadrupled beyond anything they ever were. And not just women now, but also homosexual and gender non-conforming men, who as “exiles” from the community of men are increasingly finding themselves subjected to the lot previously reserved almost exclusively for women. Almost every pornography website has a section for “transsexual” porn. In prostitution we see the development of patriarchy and capitalism in microcosm; the mass dehumanization of human beings aimed at smashing our solidarity with one another, leaving us increasingly alienated and isolated, viewing one another not as comrades in a common struggle, but vessels to derive selfish pleasure.

The pro-“sex work” advocates would have one believe that entering prostitution is a “choice” freely made on the part of the prostitute, and to deny this is to deny the prostitute’s “agency”. To illustrate their point, they trot out the “PhD Prostitutes” mentioned above. But Marxists should know better than to take such evidence at face value. The Marxist method looks not at the conditions of individuals isolated from society as a whole, but at the individual within the larger social context they exist in. A study conducted by the Soroptimist International, “an international volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world” found that most prostitutes “were sexually and physically abused as children, deprived and pushed into selling sex at age 14, on average.” It also goes on to say:

“In one study of prostituted women, 90 percent of the women had been physically battered in childhood; 74 percent were sexually abused in their families, with 50 percent also having been sexually abused by someone outside the family. Of 123 survivors at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, Oregon (an agency offering support, education, shelter and access to health services to clients of all sex industries), 85 percent reported a history of incest, 90 percent reported a history of physical abuse, and 98 percent cited a history of emotional abuse.”

The study also notes that women of color, women from the third world, and indigenous women are even more likely to be forced into prostitution.[8] Additionally “71 percent reported being physically abused and 63 percent reported being raped by a customer. In a rigorous study of pimps in seven cities in the United States, 58 percent of prostitutes reported violence, while 36 reported having abusive clients.” It also challenges the notion that “high-class” “call-girl” prostitution is safer than street prostitution, finding that escorts will be abused by johns at least twice a year. But perhaps the most damning evidence presented in the study to the “choice” argument, is the evidence that “more than 90 percent of prostituted women in various surveys want to leave prostitution, but lack viable options.”[9]

Despite this, the pro-“sex work” crowd insist that prostitution is not contractual rape, because prostitutes are giving their consent. But how can “consent” obtained under economic coercion truly be consent? This sounds like arguments put forward in defense of capitalism as a whole; for example, that workers who do not like the conditions of their work or their wages can always “choose” to get a different job. Marxists rightly recognize this argument as a diversion, because of the external circumstances that prevent individuals from just easily choosing the job they want to do. It is the same with the prostitute; her “consent” is only a passive consent, not the active consent that recognized as being necessary for a truly consensual sexual relationship. The “PhD Prostitutes” who are able to freely choose and screen their “clients” represent an incredibly small minority, and perhaps cannot even be considered prostitutes, but bourgeois dilettantes “playfully” aping the suffering of the classes beneath them.

Similarly, abolitionists have come under attack from the “sex work” crowd, being accused of moralism and puritanism. They argue that criminalization only worsens the plight of prostitutes, whereas bringing them into the recognized workforce through legalization and unionization will ease their suffering. In this first part, they are correct. The criminalization of the prostitute is an expression of not just bourgeois, but patriarchal hypocrisy, because the prostitute is essentially punished for trying to survive, punished for fulfilling the desires of the ruling class. The second part, however, is dead wrong. The countries that have legalized prostitution have seen a dramatic increase in human trafficking, because contrary to the free choice arguments of the “sex work” hypocrites, there exists nowhere near enough women who want to commodify themselves to meet the demand.[10] In Australia and New Zealand, legalization has decreased the agency of prostitutes, and increased the power of pimps, by introducing the “all-inclusive”, a single fee paid to the pimp instead of directly to the prostitute, essentially depriving prostituted women of what little power of negotiation they had.[11] In Germany, a pregnant prostitute was coerced into having group sex with a bunch of men who “wanted” a pregnant woman; under German law, this was perfectly legal. The prostitute in question said she felt like she had no power to say no, as her agency had been usurped by the brothel.[12] Similarly, the “sex worker unions” advocated for by the “sex work” activists are another vehicle for pimps and their supporters to exercise their dominance; the Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s largest “sex worker union” even harassed survivors of the sex industry.[13] Rosa Luxemburg did advocate for the formation of revolutionary unions of prostitutes, but not to “regulate” prostitution, but to smash it. In fact, the advocates of full legalization (with or without regulation) belong in the company of fascists, not revolutionary socialists. The Nazis established an extensive and centralized system of brothels in cities and military camps, as well as in the concentration camps themselves. When Franco seized power in Spain, he overturned the abolitionist reforms of the Republic, and re-legalized prostitution so that men were guaranteed their brides were virgins and not “spoiled goods”.[14]

The most effective method of combatting prostitution has been the Nordic Model, which is made up of two components: 1) The decriminalization of selling sex, and the criminalization of pimps and johns; and 2) The creation and strengthening of state resources, such as education, professional training, counseling, and community support, to help prostitutes make a safe exit from the industry. Countries that have adopted the Nordic Model, such as Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have seen dramatic reductions in prostitution. The Swedish Ministry of Justice found that since the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law in 1999, prostitution has fully halved, and continues to decline.[15] Additionally, no evidence has been found that prostitutes are being forced underground as a result of this policy.[16] And most importantly, not a single prostitute has been murdered by a john since the law came into effect. What the pimps, johns, and their apologists cannot stand about the Nordic Model is that it ends their monopoly on power, and actually punishes their exploitation of women, all while empowering their former slaves. This is why they always try to erect obfuscations against the Nordic Model, even outright crying about how it victimizes the “poor johns”. Some of the more cunning faux leftists argue against the Nordic Model on the basis that it increases the power of the bourgeois state and police; or they claim that there is no use in combatting prostitution since no reform under capitalism will eliminate it. On the contrary, the Nordic Model represents a perfect example of a transitional demand. Trotsky defined the transitional demand as being a bridge between the minimum demands of social democracy and the maximum demands of revolutionary socialism; demands that would allow the oppressed to win not just key reforms, but also to increase their strength and confidence against the capitalist state. Transitional demands are not just calls for reform, but calls for openly revolutionary action that will spark reforms and strengthen existing ones. The Nordic Model is a perfect example precisely because it is a reform that strikes at the heart of the patriarchal and capitalist system; it allows the masses to see just who supports and benefits from prostitution. Eugene Debs, when he was city clerk of Terre Haute, advocated for a kind of proto-Nordic Model, refusing to assess fines on prostitutes, because the police took no action against the pimps or the usually wealthy johns. As for the false concerns about increasing the power of the bourgeois state and police, the Nordic Model, like any good transitional reform, forces the state and the police to actually work for, not against, the people they claim to represent. Would these same “socialists” so worried about the cops being unleashed on pimps and johns have cried the same tears when Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to enforce the desegregation of schools in the Jim Crow south? It would, at the very least, be amusing to see a socialist cite this as an example of giving the bourgeois state “too much power”.

To reiterate, every socialist revolution has struck with the full force of its power against prostitution and the sex industry. Every major socialist revolutionary has recognized the emancipation of women from sexual slavery as one of the basic tasks of the revolution. These “sex work socialists” are more than just hypocrites and revisionists, they are outright misogynistic reactionaries. The degeneration of the revolutionary left in the western world, especially in the Anglophone world is what has allowed these trends to sprout and grow. The pernicious influence of neoliberalism and postmodernism have infected the body of the revolutionary left; slowly eating away at it like gradual poisoning. The Marxist concept of free love aims to eliminate the current patriarchal system of sexual coercion and exploitation, and replace it with a humane and open system of actively consensual intimacy. Those who believe otherwise would best be served by dropping the act, and joining the Libertarian Party, because that is where their politics truly lie. The left needs to remember its mission; the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world, and take an active stand against the pimps and johns playing dress-up as communists.

[1] Engels, Karl Marx and Frederick. “Communist Manifesto (Chapter 2).” Marxist Internet Archive. Marxist Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 02 July 2017.

[2] Krupskaya, Nadezhda. “On the Workers’ Strikes and Attacks on Brothels.” Facebook. Dmytriy Kovalevich, 05 Dec. 2016. Web. 02 July 2017. This portion is the only English translation of Krupskaya’s first article available online.

[3] Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook A. Idealism and Materialism.” Marxist Internet Archive. Marxist Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 02 July 2017.

[4] Kollontai, Alexandra. “Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It.” Marxist Internet Archive. Marxist Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 02 July 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marx summarizes the membership of the lumpenproletariat in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as follows: “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.” (Emphasis added.)

[8] The wide prevalence of racist porn can attest to this. Most porn sites have their material broken down by race. The “Asian fetish” is probably the most egregious example of racist fetishization.

[9] “Prostitution Is Not a Choice.” Soroptimist International of the Americas (2014): 2–6. Print.

[10] Cho, Seo-Young; Dreher, Axel; Neumayer, Eric; “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development, 2013, 41:67–82.

[11] Valisce, Sabrinna. “Advocating for the Nordic Model in Australia.” Facebook. Deep Green Resistance Australia, 03 May 2017. Web. 02 July 2017.

[12] Bindel, Julie. “Pregnant Women Are Being Legally Pimped out for Sex — This Is the Lowest Form of Capitalism.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 July 2017.

[13] Davoren, Heidi. “Former Sex Workers Claim Harassment by Pro-prostitution Groups after Speaking out.” ABC News. N.p., 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 July 2017.

[14] Morcillo, Aurora G. “Introduction: Gendered Metaphors.” The Seduction of Modern Spain: The Female Body and the Francoist Body Politic. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2010. 19. Print.

[15] Aleem, Zeeshan. “16 Years After Decriminalizing Prostitution, Here’s What Sweden Has Become.” Mic. Mic Network Inc., 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 02 July 2017.

[16] English summary of the Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services (1999–2008), Swedish Ministry of Justice, 2010. See also: Max Waltman, “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law,” 33 Michigan Journal of International Law 133, 133–57 (2011), pp. 146–148.