Friday 8 March 2024

A Class Issue And A Human Rights Issue

Prostitution is one of the worst forms of human exploitation and, although some men and boys are exploited in this way, it remains the case that the vast majority of those trapped in the sex trade are women and girls.

The existence of prostitution is not a form of work, it is a social ill and research has consistently shown that prostitution increases in societies that have high levels of inequality and where economies are unstable.

Existing TUC policy affirms that prostitution is inherently exploitative. This would echo the views of most workers who instinctively hate and fear the idea of themselves or their families being forced into prostitution via economic necessity.

However, individuals and organisations with a commercial interest in the sexual exploitation of women and girls are running campaigns both inside and outside the labour and trade union movement to get prostitution badged as “work.”

Those with a commercial interest in prostitution and the men who purchase sex overlook the fact that trafficking is rife in prostitution. A report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation by AGPP (2024) highlights the fact that signs of a woman being trafficked is no deterrent to the men who purchase sex. Those who push the “sex work is work” line are not only condemning working-class women and girls to a life where they will suffer significant harm, they are advocating for an industry where sex trafficking is overlooked and deliberately unseen for commercial gain.

Unfortunately, the dangerous and ill-informed view that “sex work is work” is gaining traction in the labour and trade union movement. And it inadvertently gives a message to young women and girls that if they want to have access to income they can live on, they don’t fight for it at work, they can seek it via prostituting themselves.

Trade union campaigners who involve themselves in “organising sex workers” come up against multiple obstacles. In the strip clubs, the legalised part of the sex industry, the women are treated as independent contractors by the clubs, and they see themselves as “businesspeople,” even “entrepreneurs.” Most do not want to consider themselves as workers and they don’t want to join trade unions. The “campaigning,” where it has occurred, has been limited to keeping sexual entertainment venues open — which is exactly what the profiteers and exploiters want.

Those of us who oppose prostitution are often falsely accused of not talking to prostitutes or of having a lack of empathy with the women trapped in commercial sexual exploitation. However, those who formed the trade unions, the labour movement and especially those women comrades who sacrificed so much, did so because of their empathy and solidarity with working-class women and girls who were forced to sell their bodies so that their families could eat.

It is clear communists correctly saw prostitution as a social ill to be eradicated, not to be encouraged or excused.

“…for the rest it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from the system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private” — Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto.

When I was a nurse in the NHS I worked with prostitutes. I listened to their harrowing stories and observed the brutal conditions of their lives. You would never see any of the women I met on social media platforms or in the media telling you that prostitution is a career choice for women. Those women were forced into prostitution through poverty and lack of choice.

I learnt that the existence of prostitution has far-reaching consequences not just for prostituted women themselves, but for the children born out of this activity and for society. For example, one woman I met was on her seventh pregnancy by her early thirties — all of her other children had been removed and taken into care and were scattered across London and the south-east. Prostitution is rife with examples of this nature.

The voices of the women I met have informed my view that prostitution is not a form of work. I believe that trade unionists should be arguing for well-paid, safe and secure jobs for women too. Any trade unionist worth their salt should reject any idea that extreme violence, rape and murder, which are integral parts of prostitution, can be seriously described as work.

Research shows that prostituted women face a particularly high level of violence — in a Sheffield study 76 per cent of prostituted women reported that they suffered violence at least once a week. Prostitution is the oppression of women and girls in one of its most violent and damaging forms.

There are of course jobs in which workers are exposed to danger and it is the job of trade unions to work for and campaign for adequate health and safety. Women and girls in the sex trade are beaten up, raped, tortured and murdered with alarming regularity and these crimes are notoriously hard to either investigate or prosecute. The idea that adequate health and safety measures could ever be applicable in prostitution which is entirely in itself based on the exploitation and subjugation of women is delusional.

Along with high levels of substance abuse among prostituted women, they also suffer severe and enduring mental health impacts too, the severity of which should never be tolerated in the world of work.

The research on prostitution requires far more rigorous scrutiny. For example, the widely accepted hypothesis that prostituted women are less likely to be victimised in countries where the sex industry is legal should be questioned as it forms the basis of much misguided campaigning.

Witness testimony from the women engaged with Nordic Model Now! strongly disputes claims that legalised brothels are “safer” as they speak of violent hardcore pornography being played on a loop, thereby encouraging sex buyers to act out these scenes on the women. Only this year three women were murdered in a brothel in Austria, a country where prostitution is legalised.

This idea that the legalisation of prostitution makes it “safer” is based upon tiny samples of qualitative research conducted in countries where prostitution is “illegal” and “not legal.” It is therefore incorrect to reach a conclusion that prostitution is “safer” or better for the women in countries where it is legalised.

A lie has taken hold that feminists who are opposed to prostitution are uptight puritanical moralists when nothing could be further from the truth. Our opposition to prostitution is not a moral question — it’s a class issue and a human rights issue [not all of us would accept that dichotomy].

Trade union and socialist feminists stand in opposition to all neoliberal objectification and consumerisation of women’s bodies. We absolutely reject the false framing that this objectification and consumerisation of women is some kind of civil liberty issue. And we know that where prostitution exists there can never be true equality between men and women.

Union organisers should be leaving no stone unturned to assist women to get organised in workplaces to fight for decent pay and health and safety protections at work. We should roundly reject the “sex work is work” line and demand safe, fully funded exit routes out of the sex industry as advocated by Nordic Model Now!

It is in the interest of the exploiting class, every bit as much as it was in the times of Karl Marx, to give an ideological justification for the exploitation of women and for prostitution itself. In our age the worst type of reaction has been expressed in terms of liberal identity politics which seeks to reframe prostitution, into which working-class women enter, as a free and liberating choice.

For socialists this is not some niche issue and part of “women’s debate,” nor is it an issue for feminists alone — it is an issue that affects every single worker, male or female, as the presence of such exploitation degrades, weakens and divides the entire working class.

The struggle to fundamentally change society for the common good should never include an acceptance that the commercial sexual exploitation of women’s bodies is suitable alternative work for the daughters of the working class.

The battle for the liberation of women from all forms of exploitation, including prostitution, is intrinsically linked to the struggle to liberate working-class people as a whole.


  1. As you've often said there's either a free market or there isn't and this kind of thing is why there mustn't be. Middle-class "sex work" types never want it as a careers option in advice at their daughters' schools.