Precarious, flexible labour and the sex work connexion

Watch the good video from the Guardian below about precarious work and the precariat. In my talks about migrants who sell sex I always refer to Manuel Castells’s idea of flexible labour: changes in how business are run that mean bosses move businesses looking for cheaper ways to produce and workers travel to find jobs and switch fields, learning new skills, rather than try to maintain a single career path. Precarious labour refers to a wide gamut of working situations that lack security: freelance workers who live on earnings from more than one job, temporary workers, day labourers, subcontractors and so on. Precarity means you can be let go from your job with no notice, you receive no benefits, employers take no responsibility for keeping you safe or healthy, you move on when a job doesn’t work out. It means you don’t have a union or maybe even the right to organise.

Selling sex is often a variation of this, a way to make money that can be performed just about anywhere if the worker manages to figure out what the local customs are. Selling sex is a form of precarious labour when workers are not doing it legally and possibly not residing legally somewhere. All people who sell sex in unregulated situations, and many who sell in regulated situations, migrants and not, share precarious conditions and belong to what Guy Standing is calling the precariat (a word based on the old idea of the proletariat).

This is the way sex work is like other jobs. Whilst moral entrepreneurs rant and rail about the degradation of selling sex and how it can never be a proper job, the possibility of ever getting a proper job diminishes and recedes for vast numbers of people. In such a context, whether crusaders like it or not, many people are willing to give sex work a try and willing to adapt to its peculiar conditions. That doesn’t mean they all love it or feel like professionals; it doesn’t mean they don’t wish they could find something else to do. But it means their choices, completely logical in today’s labour markets, should be respected.

The following video isn’t about sex work; the workers interviewed are doing low-paying jobs. They might wish they could get better jobs, but they don’t want to lose the ones they have. For those who think people shouldn’t go into sex work, listen up and focus on all the other employment situations that are terrible, that barely allow people to get to the end of the month. If none of them get better, more people will go into sex work, that’s definite.

More on precarity here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

10 thoughts on “Precarious, flexible labour and the sex work connexion

  1. Marc of Frankfurt

    Sex work per se is neutral. It can be precarious work or clever capitalist endeavour as described by Helen Ward 2007: “Marxismus versus Moralismus”.

    Reason for precariousness is Pauperism: “Wages will oscillate around margin of subsistance within polypolistic labour markets with maximum competition under the rules of unlimited capitalism. // Der Lohn schwankt bei vollkommener Konkurrenz unter den Bedingungen eines schrankenlosen Kapitalismus stets um das Existenzminimum.”
    -Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864)

    Reason for this manifest inequality is the global monetary and power system as explained e.g. in the film Zeitgeist addendum (2008).

  2. Kris

    Perhaps people have been wrong all the time to say work enriches your life. Perhaps all work is slavery indeed. Then prostitutin combines the twin evil of work and sex. In a way prostitution is just like working as a nurse. Just as dirty. And just as dangerous. Many nurses are attacked by patients. Only the prostitutes are also continuously sexually harassed at their work.

    I imagine a world where all work is done by robots. Then nobody has to work. Everybody has the right to one robot. All sex is performed by robots in my vision. Then nobody has to suffer. I envision all men having a female robot as their lover with whom they have sex, and the robot also does all the work. And all women have a male robot, with whom they have a romantic monogamous and with whom they can kiss and cuddle, and the male robot does all the work. The men can switch robots with each other if they wish to every now and then.

    Only I think the downside is that the ecological footprint of humanity will rise significantly then, because these robots use a lot of energy. Not good for Mother Earth.

  3. William Thirteen

    Hi Laura,

    here in Germany they’ve codified this form of worker into a new class, the ‘Prekariat’ (in contrast to the Proletariat – organized labor).

    also, have you seen this new Europol soundbite on Trafficking?

    my favorite is when he refers to Southeastern Europe as a popular site for the ‘production’ of trafficking victims. He seems just a business oriented as the organized criminals he decries…

  4. Maggie McNeill

    Kris said, “In a way prostitution is just like working as a nurse. Just as dirty. And just as dangerous. Many nurses are attacked by patients. Only the prostitutes are also continuously sexually harassed at their work.”

    Kris, you may be interested in knowing that of the escorts I’ve known who are only “moonlighting” from another job, the most common primary job is nurse. And many other escorts I’ve known are putting themselves through nursing (or even medical) school. So your comparison of nursing with prostitution is very perceptive; both are “helping professions” who often care about their customers and give them social comfort in addition to the mundane, enumerated tasks of the job. Both can be both stressful and rewarding, and both can be said to be “not for everyone.”

    But I have to disagree with you on the “sexual harassment” thing; since whores are paid to be sexually handled by our clients, it can’t be called “harassment” any more than a patient is “harassing” a nurse by needing his IV bottle or dressings changed.

  5. asehpe

    It is a good question whether work is “bad” (because you HAVE to do it to go on existing), or “good” (because you are taking charge of your life and doing what is necessary to get what you want), soul-deadening or fulfilling, passive or active, a chore or the taste of freedom.

    As any other activity, I’m sure it means different things to different people, and that most workers wished their situation were better than in it is. Which is the main point: sex workers are in that no different from any other workers. They will of course be unhappy with their choices. Everybody is. And things don’t get better — for sex workers or for anyone else — unless there are more choices available.

  6. LH

    Nevertheless, from a client’s point of view there’s a serious difference.

    If at a grocery store I’m being helped by a person, who’s only in it for the money, the retail is not affected by it. I’ve never noticed vegetables to taste any better or be any more nutritious, when the woman at the counter loved the job.

    That tends to be quite different in prostitution. It can be emotionally disturbuing, booking a sex worker who does not like what she is doing, but for some reason or other has no other option. Now of course, anybody should have the right to go down this track, if it brings home the bacon. Yet, as a client, I do not see how anyone could get sexually aroused by a woman, who’s ultimately bored. As a client one may even start feeling dirty and miserable about being with such person. I’m talking from experience here.

    In the end it’s actually a waste of money, and affects the product. So as a client I think, it’s imperative, that sex workers at least partly enjoy having sex with strangers, while it doesn’t really make a difference if a person at a grocery shop shows no special fondness for potatoes.

    Prostitution can be a very enhancing experience, but it does require some commitment beyond the financial interest on the side of the prostitute, to really make it worthwhile for me as a client.

    That’s a difference, which should not be overlooked, even while fighting abolitionists.

  7. asehpe

    LH, one might disagree whether or not the vegetables will taste better because of psychological effects — if I remember how unfriendly or even offensive a certain grocery store person was, this may affect my capacity to enjoy the taste of the vegetables I bought there.

    I think sex workers are better compared in that respect with any other workers in the (performance) entertainment area, which is in my opinion where prostitution as a service belongs. Performers of all kinds attempt to give their clients pleasure with their specific talents, appealing to various senses: singing (hearing, our sense of music), dancing (vision, and our sense of harmony in motion), acting (vision, and our sense of emotion recognition and narrative interest), telling jokes (vision/hearing, and our sense of humor)… and prositution (vision/hearing/touching, and our sense to derive pleasure from touching, aka as the ‘sensuality-sexuality continuum’).

    In all these cases, a performer who really loves what s/he does, for whom that particular kind of entertainment is a calling, a source of pride and self-realization, is of course in the average more capable of providing their audience with a more rewarding experience. All the performance arts have something to do with feelings, and prostitution is no exception. A performer who feels, and can give expression to this feeling, may very well strike a chord in the audience that may ultimately lead to a much higher level of appreciation, to something approaching (religious) ecstasy.

    Now, what happens if the performer is not of such high degree of excellence? What if the performer is “bored”, as you say, LH? I’ll immediately agree that the chances of getting a really good performance plummet; the connoisseur, the enlightened client, will certain avoid them. Yet there is a home in the world economy for performers who are less than thrilled by their work: there is a market for not-so-great singers, dancers, and actors. They certainly cannot have big Hollywood dreams, their relationship to their work will not be as to a calling, but more likely as to a daily chore, drudgery, something they’d rather not be doing. (Though not in all cases; Ed Wood does jump to mind.) Their clients will get less quality. And yet… there still are people who pay for that. Just like there are people who pay for 2nd-class meals served with low-quality music played by a less-than-fully-skilled and less-than-fully-interested musician.

    Why does that happen? Why can low-quality artists still survive? Why do some (many?) people still pay to see low-quality musicians play low-quality music? Why do they buy low-quality books with low-quality stories? What’s the deal with low-quality art and low-quality entertainment? How come it works? How come clients don’t just say “what’s the point?” and leave to do something else instead?

    Because… clients are also not perfect. Often they want very little: some counterpoint, a little drumbeat, a not horrible voice saying words that make some sense, and s/he can in his mind still feel better, comforted a little from the hardships of his/her life, distracted from whatever problems are hurting them now, looking at the lousy actors in that lousy soap-opera while drinking that 2nd-class alcoholic beverage… Same thing with the lousy prostitute who can’t even pretend to be interested in him.

    Also, other clients are simple people. They need very little to feel entertained. A guy slipping on a banana skin and falling, that’s enough for them to laugh. A repetitive cardiac drumbeat plus a voice shrieking “I love y-o-ooo–oo-u, only y-ooo-ooo-u,” is enough to make him/her think about love and go misty-eyed. A stupid Mexican soap opera with grossly ridiculous situations and terribly exaggerated actors is enough to give him a sense of narrative, an entertaining story (‘oh, Juana really was Miguel’s daughter! what’s he going to do now?!?’).

    And other reasons as well, too many for me to mention here. (The people studying popular culture and popular entertainment often end up feeling these are more high-quality than is usually thought. They may very well be right.)

    Same thing with this other entertainment art, prostitution. Some clients are satisfied with very little: a warm body with female parts, and that’s enough for the machinery of desire. Others want to forget their other problems, and will allow anything, no matter how poor (‘yeah honey, ‘course I like you…’, said by the gum-chewing streetwalker with heavy make up as all the dialogue), to be enough for a good illusion/distraction. Yes, there will always be a market for streetwalkers, for low-class prostitution, just like there always will be a market for low-brow art.

    Or, in other words, not all clients would be as discerning as you, LH, nor would they need such a fine product as you would. People come with all kinds of tastes and needs, is all.

  8. laura agustin Post author

    the dmsc in india made a very interesting proposal for an entertainers’ union that would include sex workers and a lot of other characters together. it’s a good idea. i also think comparing sex work to service workers of many types works – particularly those who provide personal services. i have written about this at length so won’t repeat here, you can find it in ‘a migrant world of services’ as well as a chapter of sex at the margins.


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