To this day the controversy continues and has in fact reached a stalemate, partly because both sides mostly base their arguments on the motivations and responsibilities of individual prostitutes, debating whether prostitution is a result of coercion or spontaneous choices. The global sex industry, however, is not the result of millions of individual choices; it is a highly structured intervention by corpora- tions (both legal and illegal) and international financial organizations. Thus, we cannot look at prostitution as presently organized as a set of individual transactions between prostitutes and their bosses or between prostitutes and their clients. It is this broader context in which pros- titution operates that decides the possibilities which sex workers have to gain more social power and the possibility for self-determination. From this viewpoint, sex-workers organizations are correct when they argue that prosti- tution is work; prohibition and criminalization can only worsens work conditions, making sex workers more vulner- able to police harassment and exposing them and indeed all migrants to the risk of deportation; commercial sexual work is not more violent or enslaving than many other jobs available in today’s global labour market. Indeed, the increased incidence of slavery and indentured servitude is not unique to prostitution and cannot be eliminated by criminalizing sex work any more than chattel slavery in the 19th could have been abolished by prohibiting cotton picking.
It is also true, however, that the decriminalization of the sex industry will not be sufficient to improve the status of sex-workers, as in a world of increasing competition for survival the market itself becomes an instrument of violence. Nevertheless the argument that prostitutes are workers is more relevant now than ever; since increasingly the exploitation and abuse they suffer is on a continuum with that of other workers – migrant or not – internation- ally. Coercion, in fact, has become a key aspect of work in the present phase of globalization, that is reminiscent in many ways of the period of “primitive accumulation” when an ex-lege proletariat was formed (Federici 2004). This implies that the situation of sex workers cannot be trans- formed by an exclusive focus on sexual domination and sexual slavery, and by differentiating sex workers from other workers, in the same way as we cannot address the question of reproductive work by focussing exclusively on care work. Precisely to the extent that sex work is often non-free labour, the sex worker is becoming the paradigm worker in the global economy, in the same way as under- paid, precarious, “informal” female labour is becoming the paradigm for all forms of exploitation. As in the ’70s, to- day as well, the question is whether this realization will become the ground for a recomposition among different sectors of the female work force. Indeed, sex work, like domestic and care work, poses one of the most significant challenge to the currently existing feminisms.

Camille BARBAGALLO et Silvia FEDERICI, “introduction”, The Commoner n.15, Winter 2012, Care Work and the Commons


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