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The Sex Industry: Socialism or Censorship?

By Lev Lafayette and Anthony Leong

An article in response to 'Labor Left in Bed with the Sex Industry', published in Green Left Weekly, Issue 456, p15

The crucial political question facing any inquiry into the erotica industry under capitalism is whether one places economic class or biological sex as the principle unit of analysis.

The article in last weeks Green Left Weekly by Joyce Wu (Labor Left in Bed with the Sex Industry) is an excellent example of the theoretical and practical impoverishment of the latter school of thought. Wu is a recently converted disciple of the sexual sectarianism of Associate Professor Sheila Jeffreys whose misandry and heterophobia has been past noted by Green Left Weekly. Jeffreys claims that "Male supremacy is centred around the act of sexual intercourse ... justified by heterosexual practice" and "the sexual revolution was a counterrevolution and constituted a timely adjustment to the fine tuning of the heterosexual institution" (1).

This article seeks to elucidate the reactionary politics advocated by Wu and Jeffreys who, under the guise of 'feminism', would further the denigration of women, suppress sexually explicit media and establish a permanent state of division on the basis of biological difference. In contrast it proposes a socialist feminist analysis and alternative that places the rights of workers as primary, rather than aesthetic interpretations.

Labor Left Conference

In the first instance however, it is necessary to expose the distortions and misinterpretations of the first session of the July 1st Labor Left conference as reported by Wu. Statements like "Lafayette claimed that feminism is merely a 'sectional interest', rather than of 'universal concern'" are for example a complete fabrication. Further, Wu's claim that an 'independent' feminist speaker was excluded from the first session beckons some further investigation.

Wu had, prior to the conference, several weeks of in-depth conversations with Lafayette as conference organiser. At no stage in those proceedings was any complaint made about either Peter Torney's or Maureen Matthews speaking roles. Indeed, the latter was accepted with noted enthusiasm and Torney was described as "great to listen [to]". (2)

However, ten days before the conference, Lafayette received a phone call from Wu's university tutor demanding that she be placed on the speaking list otherwise a protest would be organised. This attempt at political blackmail was rejected outright. Not only are Wu's politics concerning erotica thoroughly reactionary, but at a conference where all speakers were experts in their field, it would be ridiculous to include someone whose industry knowledge seems to consist of little more than a few months of Internet vouyerism.

The demand placed by Wu's tutor was that an 'independent' speaker, that is, someone with no connection to the industry, had to be included. In opposition to their claim that it is not possible to criticise an industry whilst being a member of it, it was suggested that perhaps it was appropriate to have a feminist speaker who was, or had been a sex industry worker. This suggestion was, to say the least, treated with complete comtempt, in line with Jeffreys' argument that sex workers are deluded victims and Wu's proposals that the legal rights of sex workers should be abolished. (3)

Sexuality: Natural or Constructed?

The position supported by Wu and Jeffreys is that sexuality is a construction and that resistant sexualities are not an expression of preference or desire, but rather are political statements (4). Wu claims, in criticism of Dr. Jim Cairns, that "biology itself is a human discourse which is not free from the influences of the socio-political context it arises in" (5).

This absolute social constructionist argument is as dangerous and as extreme right-wing as their complement, the absolute biological determinist position. Fortunately, both positions when exposed to empirical tests and the reality of human agency are exposed in their irrationality.

As if it isn't already trivially self-evident in the first instance, sexual desire is a biological function as natural as breathing, eating, sleeping and excreting. Whilst the social constructionist line may try to place sexual desire in a different category to these other natural needs, the empirical evidence proves otherwise, not just through the science of pheromones but the evident sexual desires of those unfortunate individuals who have been raised outside of society (i.e., without discourse).

On the other hand, within the social context, sexual behaviour is a largely learnt trait, although given a few months of fumbling and experimentation the higher social primates do eventually seem to find out what works and what doesn't (as if adolescents don't already know this). Nonetheless, natural desires can either be liberated or repressed through the political and legal system or through cultural mores and prejudices. Either repressive process leads to social and individual pathologies, such as the suppression of consensual minority sexualities (e.g., gay and lesbian practise) or sexual violence.

Wu's position is regrettably typical of post-structuralist flights of fancy that tries to turn everything into the world into a matter of discourse. By conflating the signifier with the signified Wu's position logically leads to the ridiculous (but currently popular) idealist position that there is no independent reality outside language - something that even Derrida, the famous author of the misquoted phrase "il n'ya pas de hors-texte" (there is no outside text), used for mental states only.

The political danger of such a position is that it also commonly leads to cultural and political relativism (another popular, if stupid, notion), where differences in practise have moral equivalence. It is possible to describe the cultural norms of the Trukese and the Lepcha as equivalent? The Trukese of the Carolines, who advocate sexual experimentation by children and build tiny huts outside their main compounds for such purpose, are given the moral equivalent of the Lepcha of south-western Tibet and the Himalayas, whose men rape prepubescent girls with the pathology that they will not sexually mature without such an experience.

To reiterate, human sexual desire is a biological and natural fact. It is not a construction or a political statement or a discourse. Whilst it can be distorted or repressed by social laws and cultural mores, which leads to individual and social pathologies, the political task is to overcome these distortions in a manner which establishes relations built on individual freedom and mutual consensus. Anything else, despite whatever aesthetic spin academics wish to put on it, is repressive.

Erotica Under Capitalism

In many traditional societies it is possible to distinguish 'pornography' (as commercial sexual media) from 'eroticism' (as sacred offerings of sexual media). Of course, metaphysics has notorious slippage with objective reality and in many cases the two were conflated, such as the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite in Cornith.

With the establishment of the modern secular state, this differentiation is longer viable. All sexual media, indeed all art, is commodified and is therefore simultaneously erotica and pornography, hence the insightful comment that "erotica is pornography for the rich".

Left to its own dysfunctional principle of social organisation, capitalism can lead to a situation where women and men, due to - and only due to - their proletarian status (i.e., they own nothing but their own labour) are forced as a matter of sheer survival to sell their bodies in sexual servitude in whatever legal and illegal markets exist.

It is through this process of class analysis that the social sexual pathology of capitalism can be elucidated. In nations where capitalism is almost entirely left to its own, unregulated devices, sexual exploitation reaches levels of almost unbelievable inhumanity. Almost invariably in such states, most of whom operate with political systems closer to traditional rather than modern societies (where men are the only legal owners of property), women are the overwhelming victims - and once again due to their class status rather than their sex.

To give credit where credit is due however, Jeffreys has done some admirable work and research from her Coalition Against Trafficking in Women group. However the irrational anti-erotica zeal by which this work is carried out has been condemned by a unified statement of the Prostitutes Rights Organisation for Sex Workers; the Sex Workers Outreach Project; Workers in Sex Employment in the ACT; Self-Help for Queensland Workers in the Sex Industry; The Support, Information, Education, Referral Association of Western Australia; The South Australian Sex Industry Network; The Prostitutes Association of South Australia; The Prostitute Association Northern Territory for Health, Education, Referrals; Cybelle; Sex worker Organisation Tasmania; Sydney Sexual Health Centre; Sydney Hospital; the Queer and Esoteric Workers Union and representatives of Asian sex working communities in NSW. (6)

The problem is that Jeffreys, Wu and their ilk lack the social theoretical rigour to differentiate between systematic procedures and structural effects. Reference to structural effects of the class system is, of course, intrinsic to any feminist analysis of erotica: the overwhelming majority of the means of production are almost universally owned by men, the workers are almost universally female and the media is almost universally produced with an orientation for male consumption.

These gross distortions of economy and representation have led to Jeffreys and Wu to place sex above class in their analysis. Erotica, in the misguided world of Wu is, "as the practice of patriarchy, which seeks to justify its status quo and domination through the construction of women as expendable object-commodities for the consumption of the male consumers" (7), an absolutist definition without consideration of alternate arguments that denies the existence of same-sex erotica, which denies any agency or input of the working actors and denies that women and men are consumers. Jeffreys in comparison, simply admits "I am not sure what erotica is" (8).

Against Censorship and for Liberated, Socialist and Feminist Erotica

Whilst modern capitalism, with its birthright from traditional and feudal systems of political economy includes male-dominated relations of production, this is a structural feature, not a systematic one. To analyse erotica in the manner of Wu and Jeffreys proposes that the primary adverserial conflict in erotica is between women and men, rather than worker and capitalist.

Under such circumstances the only practical political solution is the total censorship of actual or implied sexual expression. This position is strongly advocated by Jeffreys who claims a political objective of : "In a genuine social democracy in which women's interests were considered, pornography would not be available" (9)

Such a policy however, is already in place among fundamentalist religious states across the world. Indeed, Jeffreys is enthusiastically referenced by 'Islam: The Choice of Thinking Women'(!) (10) which along with Jeffreys great desire for the abolition of sexual media, also advocates the abolition of abortion rights, opposition to cohabitation, opposition to divorce, and blames rape on the "free mixing between men and women". The entire orientation is supported by the premodern claims: "The more human beings rely on their own intellectual reasoning and abandon the guidance of their Creator, the greater their suffering" and "when a man and a woman are alone together, the third one present will be the Shayran (Satan), working to implant mischief between the two".

Against this, and other disenfranchisments of the rights of women, the nations with the highest levels of freedom in sexual expression backed with adequate levels of social security, such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and increasingly Cuba, have the lowest levels of sexual violence. If this only occurred in one or two nations it could be written off as a freakish occurance. But this a fact that it is historically universal across all cultures and times (e.g., classical Hellenes, enlightenment France, 1920s China (11)).

With all these due considerations from natural and historical evidence and by using class analysis it is indeed possible to propose political objectives from a libertarian and socialist feminist perspective as endorsed by the Labor Left organisers:

"Individual adults, female and male, should be free to determine what erotica, if any, they choose to view. Individual adults, female and male - under conditions of adequate social security - can determine for themselves whatever employment they choose to undertake, including non-violent, consensual erotica. Proprietors in the sex industry should only employ individuals who are free and informed to choose such employment. Finally, the current gross structural distortions of female representation are due to an imbalance in proprietorship, workers rights and a lack of economic democracy, not to any innate characteristic of erotica itself." (12)

In concluding this article we take this opportunity to take up one more issue, again from a class analysis - the attempted eroticisation of non-sexual industries. In the mindless, amoral pursuit of profit, capitalist proprietors engage in the exploitative practise where employment serving beer or food becomes dependent on whether the worker has breasts on display. We condemn this practise, not on any basis of the supposed immorality of breasts on display, or a rejection of people being paid for having their breasts on display (otherwise we would oppose even more sexually explicit employment), or for that matter even on the basis of sex of the workers. We reject it because it is irrelevant to their productivity, it threatens the employment of other workers in the industry and it weakens wage claims of actual sex workers. We can now state, for the record, that we have initiated a campaign to introduce legislation in the Victorian parliament that abolishes such employment. [see below]

Ultimately, in a free society, where the institutional form of family has been abolished, where the state has withered away and private property ceases to exist, there will be no sex industry. Indeed, there will be no monied commodification of any human activity. There will be no division of labour. There will be no institutional, political or even structural difference in the social status between men and women. Human beings will be genuinely free to hunt in the morning, debate in the evening, form consensual sexual liaisons at night, without ever having to be a hunter, a critic or a sex worker. Whilst achieving such a society is indeed a practical question rather than an matter of ideals, its achievement will not occur by reactionary ideology and practise, but rather by workers taking control of the means of production - across all industries.


(1) Green Left Weekly, Issue 34, p19.
(2) Correspondence, June 7, 2001
(3) Jeffreys, S., Ms Magazine, 1996, "How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women's
Movement" and Wu, J. Correspondence, June 4, 2001
(4) Wu, J., Correspondence, May 29, 2001 and Jeffreys, S., Anticlimax (1990), p278
(5) Wu, J., Green Left Weekly, Issue 456, p15
(7) Wu, J., Sexual Politics Essay, June, 2001
(8) Transcript of Sheila Jeffreys testimony to Federal Senate Committee considering new film legislation (23 March 2000)
(9) ibid.
(11) See in particular 'Women in the Chinese Enlightenment' (1990)

Two comments must be made on the above article.

Firstly, in the interests of analytical precision in social studies, it must be pointed out that "socialism" is perhaps not the most correct term here. Whilst the position that we are advocating here - workers control of productive process - is normally associated with the socialist tradition is is neither exclusively or necessarily true. There are examples of workers management industries that are funded by private capital and certainly there are plenty of examples of social capital being profoundly anti-worker. Indeed, the term 'socialist' is more appropriately a synomyn for "public ownership" - which is certainly not what we are advocating here.

Secondly, despite being quite explicit in our terms above, we have received correspondence that suggests there is still notable confusion of what we supposedly have against scantily clad bar staff. The answer is simple - nothing at all. Our concerns that when it a condition of employment without appropriate financial compensation. When a person is paid to be a hospitality staff person and effectively a model, their wages should be commensurate. That is certainly the desire that has been expressed to us by people who actually do this sort of work.

But of course, that is the difference between ourselves and our political opponents on this issue. Whilst we may have developed a carefully considered theoretical perspective we will always prepared to modify that according to what the workers themselves actually say is the case.

Commenting on this Blog entry will be automatically closed on September 30, 2001.