What Kind of Work is Prostitution?
What Kind of Work is Prostitution?

Ray Filar

Image credit: Juno Mac/SWARM


We say, rightly, that sex work is work, but don’t talk much about what that means.1 Theories of sex work have struggled to find their place, often starting from an analysis of “women’s work”. Since the domestic labour debates of the 1970s, which focused on the sex worker as the paid complement to the (house)wife, prostitution tends to be an appendage to marxist-feminist analyses2 of caring labour generally, if it appears at all. More recent work fails to attend to how the reorganisation of capitalism has since enacted changes within the reorganisation of prostitution. Focusing on the UK, I argue that the work of prostitution today remains under-theorised within contemporary marxist-feminism. I aim to address this here.

I begin with the claim that prostitution is service work, and that a full understanding of what this means necessitates a re-reading of social reproduction (SR) theoretical approaches. The failure to locate prostitution, now, among other precarious service industry work gives rise to outdated assumptions about the relation of sex work to capital. Prostitutes today are self-employed, actually or in-effect, where in-effect self-employment may mean a cut of the fee is taken by a manager or third-party figure without the supposed benefits or stability of actual employment.3 Like other work defined by terms like “freelance”, “self-employed”, or “flexible”, sex work is sometimes positioned within liberal capitalism as primarily an entrepreneurial field where big money can be made: prostitutes become “erotic professionals” in the vein of the celebrity hooker memoir.4 Actually, a more realistic and helpful understanding starts from the impact of criminalisation on sex work. Currently, selling sex in the UK is decriminalised, but brothel-keeping, collective working, soliciting, loitering, incitement, kerb-crawling and third-party management all remain illegal. This partial criminalisation bars on-paper access to workers’ rights.5 If you work in a brothel, the manager can decide you’re not getting paid the full amount today, and because your workplace is illegal, there’s not much you can do about it. To point to self-employment is to point to the complex position of sex work within and outside of recognisable labour markets.

In a legal grey area or underground economy, it’s hard to come by meaningful statistics on prevalence or demographic spread.6 A 2019 report commissioned by the Home Office compared academic estimates of UK sex worker prevalence, with the lowest being (in a study of female workers, probably those working as presumed-cis women) 58,000, and the highest at 105,000. Each of the figures compared are accompanied by caveats:7 in the best case, extrapolating from small sample sizes is fraught with methodological pitfalls, while obvious errors abound,8 such as taking the number of profiles advertised on a website as a reflection of currently active workers. More relevant statistics would try to look at what proportion of sex workers work indoors or outdoors, independently, for agencies, in brothels or parlours, or for other managers. It would be useful to know with clarity the ways the makeup, form and location of work has shifted over time, and what degree of movement there is between styles of work. Most research agrees, however, that the majority of prostitution in the UK now takes place indoors, with most transactions arranged online.9 Somewhere between 3 and 15% of workers are thought to work outdoors, though some workers will also meet potential clients outdoors before moving indoors. The demographic shift from outdoor to indoor is one consequence of increasing ease of accessing the internet (which makes advertising and a level of immediate anonymity easier)10 and the subsequent gentrification of sex work. The feminisation of labour within neoliberal capitalism also makes stable wage work harder to come by, while precarious service labour like prostitution is easier to access, and more often, one of the few options available.

For the purposes of this essay, I use marxist-feminism to describe my approach, but I intend an intersectional understanding of the specific, interlocking, raced, gendered, and classed strategies of capitalism.11 For marxist-feminists, the realm of labour power is under-theorised within more traditional marxisms that focus on wage workers and the realm of production. Maya Gonzalez and Jeanne Neton suggest that marxist-feminism, in its simplest form, looks at gender oppression in terms of social reproduction.12 Social Reproduction theory, says Tithi Bhattacharya, focuses on the processes that create and sustain life.13 Gender and race are ways of sorting the value of human lives within capital: analysing the how and why of worth within labour markets, who is expected to do socially reproductive work, who is expendable, and who bears what structural relation to violence. Though marxist-feminism is most immediately an attempted corrective to traditional marxist theory which omits gender, white marxist-feminisms similarly often omit race, or treat it as a throw-in addendum, failing to recognise the centrality of racialised populations to capital accumulation, dispossession, exploitation and extraction. Writing on racial capitalism, Gargi Bhattacharya explains that while not all capitalism is racial, and while racism pre-existed capitalism, the phrase describes “how the world made through racism shapes patterns of capitalist development.”14 It is well known, she writes, that capitalist development as it stands today is built on both the enslavement of Africans and the colonial “expropriation of resources and labour”, giving the apparently “‘free’ injection of economic value” upon which Europe and America now rest.15

Following this, an intersectional marxist-feminism must ask: why does capitalism today persist in violent modes of domination along feminised and racialised lines? This question is vital: feminised and racialised people are disproportionately concentrated within sex work, while Black workers and other workers of colour generally earn less from selling sex than white workers. Here, I aim to briefly describe the structure and organisation of prostitution, in order to begin to look towards its role, as a structurally misogynist and racist industry, within capitalism. In order to do this, I read prostitution against SR-focused feminisms and conceptions of reproductive/productive labour. Prostitution is still overwhelmingly, importantly, women’s work, purchased by male clients.16 I therefore analyse prostitution as a distinctive set of different types of labour that strike at the productive/reproductive binary, questioning the renewed popularity of reproductivity as an over-arching explanatory category, looking in addition to other forms of precarious, contractor service work as comparison points.

Part One: Prostitute/Housewife

Marxist-feminists have generally argued that prostitution is reproductive labour, the socially indispensable type of work overlooked within traditional marxist frameworks that fixate on productive labour: the work of producing commodities, to create surplus value for capitalists. Marx located productive labour as the driving engine of capital accumulation, while other forms of wage labour generally done by men – such as being a lawyer, finance worker or supervisor– were unproductive but necessary, so subsidised by capital. For Marx, only labour that “is exchanged directly with revenue, that is wages or profits”, is productive.17 The purpose behind theorising women’s work as reproductive labour, then, was to look directly at women’s role within capital, to show that unwaged labour might be equally necessary to the mode of production. So, the gist goes, the usually female prostitute sexually services the usually male worker, attending to his desires so that he can get back to wage work.18

There are two main understandings of reproductive labour: the traditional and narrower definition, and the more recent, broader definition. These approaches differ in their view on whether the housewife should be seen as the model for women’s work as a whole. The narrow definition focuses on the surplus value produced – whether directly or indirectly – by women’s unpaid remaking of the individual home, arguing that even women’s paid labour outside of the home reflects the woman as housewife first and foremost.19 By contrast, the broad definition states that any paid or unpaid work that does not directly produce surplus value but reproduces workers is indicative of the role of the feminised and racialised in sustaining capital. In this section, I now consider the narrow and broad definitions of reproductive labour as ways of locating the work of prostitution. I then go on to consider the role of the production/reproduction binary.

The domestic labour theorists of the 1970s, using the narrower definition, focused on the “remaking of the household”20 through care work: domestic labour like cooking, cleaning and tidying, sex, child-birth, and looking after children, (male) partners, and ageing parents. In line with this view, prostitutes are much like housewives. As Eli Long and Jack Frost write, “erotic work exists in both waged and unwaged forms.”21 The narrow definition of reproductive labour is generally traced back to 1970s Italy, emerging out of the analysis of the International Wages for Housework Movement (W4H), associated with theorists and activists such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and Silvia Federici.22 The general argument of these SR feminists is that women’s unpaid work in the home – naturalised as supposedly “not-work” under the auspices of “love” and/or “care” – is indispensable to capitalism’s functioning. The waged worker is not reproduced without the labour of his unwaged or indirectly waged partner. Women’s reproductive labour should be made visible as work, therefore, as a transitional step on the way to its eventual dismantling. Federici classically argues that wages for housework is a perspective on a revolutionary demand, not an end-goal, writing that housework is drudgery, more, that it is violence. The demand, she says, is “the first step in refusing to do it”.23 These theorists question the supposed distinction between the value-productive sphere of waged labour, and the apparently non-value producing sphere of reproductive labour, synthesising the two as essential for capital accumulation: the male worker only turns up for work because of the ministrations of the housewife (and/or the prostitute), on whom he depends. Production and reproduction are both vital for capital as a totality.

Among these domestic labour theorists, Leopoldina Fortunati most thoroughly theorises the “prostitute” side of housewife/prostitute paradigm. Writing in 1981, she focuses on the prostitute as the complementary but (according to capital) inferior partner to the housewife.24 She states: capitalism “has never hesitated to exploit women as prostitute, houseworker and production worker as and when it required, and often as all three simultaneously.”25 Women performing reproductive labour in the home, she writes, are in fact creating surplus value by raising “the use value of his labour power.”26 There is a particular relationship between women and capital which happens on two levels: “formal appearance” and the “real functioning”.27 In formal appearance, women performing reproductive labour in the home do not have a direct relationship with capital: they do not receive a wage, instead their role within the home is naturalised as one of love. Crucially, says Fortunati, at the real level, women exist in an indirect relationship with capital, which is necessarily mediated by the male worker, husband and/or client, as “capital can only exchange itself indirectly with the labor power of reproduction.”28 The male worker is better off than the female housewife, as he sells his labour only for a set period of time, while she, with her work mystified as not-work, cannot set hours on the labour she provides: rather it is “for better or worse”.29 his distinction is at the basis of Fortunati’s argument that reproductive labour is the exact opposite of productive labour. We might extrapolate that for Fortunati, since the housewife is not selling a measure of time but rather an indeterminate amount of labour, she herself becomes the commodity.

There are intuitive reasons to theorise prostitution as reproductive in this narrow sense, not least because it roots UK sex work within its surrounding activism. Contemporary sex worker activism in the UK emerged most definitively with the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) in 1975. Organising with and alongside the London branch of W4H, with Selma James acting as the ECP’s first spokeswoman, their work then and since has drawn on, and indeed developed, a gendered analysis of women’s work. Additionally, it is intuitive to imagine the housewife/husband exchange and prostitute/client exchange as similarly individualised and privately located: one-on-one in the home or the bedroom. Both the housewife and the prostitute’s work involve attending to men’s sexual desires. In either case, this may be seen as the work of reproducing labour power. The difference is that only the prostitute officially charges a fee. If there is a compelling similarity between the paid sexual labour women do as sex workers, and the unpaid but transactional sexual labour women do as wives and girlfriends, what’s wrong with this framework? I will go on to argue that the broad definition of reproduction more compellingly encompasses how prostitution (and feminised labour more generally) operate today, but that simultaneously, the structure of prostitution now makes precarious service industry work a relevant but under-explored point of comparison.

The major, compelling criticism of the domestic labour theorists is that their (presumptively white, heterosexual, potentially middle class) housewife is not a structural representative of all women’s work. This argument obscures the differentiations within racial capitalism that mean the majority of women provide care work in and out of the places where they might live.30 Reproductive work, it is argued, is far broader than the work of remaking the individual home. Angela Davis lambasts as ridiculous the suggestion that “women in general, regardless of their class and race, can be fundamentally defined by their domestic functions”,31 pointing out that the group of people who best know what it is to struggle for wages for housework are, in fact, domestic labourers who work for poor wages and in poor conditions outside of where they live: “cleaning women, domestic workers, maids... know better than anyone else what it is to receive wages for housework”.32 She highlights the fact that Black women and white immigrant women in the US have generally been wage earners first and housewives only secondarily. Or in apartheid South Africa, she writes, government policy had resulted in the all-but-dissolution of Black domestic life: with family life prohibited, rates of marriage on the decline, and a majority of Black women living in sex-segregated hostels.33 The latter in particular complicates the claim that capital accumulation fundamentally operates through productive labour’s dependence on reproductive labour. Though racial capitalism manifests differently depending on geographic location, the comparative stigmatisation or criminalisation of Black families suggests that reproductive labour may not be necessary for the maintenance of the worker at all. Instead, the valorisation of the white, particularly middle class, family in reproducing the worker may relate more to who is considered useful, and who disposable.

Like Davis, Gargi Bhattacharya argues that “framing the domestic labour debate as the business of households” is heteronormative, androcentric, and fails to account for the precarious, insecure, generally waged, self-employed work performed in much of the world by those “in the shadows of capitalist relations”.34 This is the key point for my argument: in the UK as in much of the world, prostitution is part of a shadow economy that operates through a hierarchically structured combination of criminalisation and decriminalisation, punishing more devalued populations, particularly migrants, women of colour, and trans women – who are also more likely to be outdoor or brothel workers – while politicians and police continue in their dual roles as clients and law enforcers.

Part Two: Reproductive Service Work

Would it then make more sense to understand prostitution as reproductive labour in the broad sense? This would make the prostitute less like a paid housewife, and more like a paid care worker akin to a childcare worker, nursery teacher, or nurse. The post-Fordist, neoliberal restructuring of capitalism since 1979 resulted in the privatising, individualising and deregulating of markets, transferring wealth from poor to rich, with an attendant move of manufacturing work to the Global South. This means that the marxian example of the wage worker in the factory and the wife at home (the whitewashed picture Bhattacharyya scorns as “working daddies and caring mummies”)35 is no longer widely applicable in the UK, if it ever was. Increasingly, reproductive work is paid. Work on “global care chains” describes the outsourcing of care work from unpaid, or indirectly paid, white middle class women in the home, to underpaid migrant, working class and women of colour often working in other peoples’ homes, or in care institutions. This outsourcing supports affluent men in continuing to avoid their share of social reproduction, while, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild suggest, the traditional division of labour where self-sacrificing women pick up after entitled men becomes globalised, shaping to the relationship between richer and poorer countries.36

Shifts between an unwaged, private sphere of reproductive work and a waged, public sphere of productive work are complex, too, as one of neoliberalism’s many galling successes has been the re-individualising of elements of welfare or social security from state provision to a perk attainable to those who “deserve it”, by virtue of being able to afford it privately.

Angela Mitropoulos explains it like this:

“...the privatisation of health, welfare and education that has been the hallmark of neoliberalism has amounted not only to a shifting of particular forms of (still largely feminised) kinds of work from the public and/or waged spheres to that of private and/or unwaged, but also the re-modulation of the distinction in welfare provision between the punitive and the contractual that emphasises self-command.”37

Some elements of reproductive labour are now divested from the unpaid, individualised sphere of the housewife and incorporated into more institutional forms of care provided by underpaid, working class, often racialised, often migrant women. This can take the form of paid care for the elderly or children, paid-for cleaning services, or pre-prepared meals. Simultaneously, that which was for a time, at least in the UK, publicly-funded reproductive work within the NHS, youth centres, or women’s refuges, is now either privatised or shunted back to underpaid and unpaid women, picking up, out of necessity, after the shortfalls of state provision.

The broader definition of reproductive labour reads it as any work that reproduces labour-power, which is also itself a commodity.

Johanna Brenner and Barbara Laslett include:

“The activities and attitudes, behaviors and emotions, and responsibilities and relationships directly involved in maintaining life, on a daily basis and intergenerationally... how food, clothing, and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, how the maintenance and socialisation of children is accomplished, how care of the elderly and infirm is provided, and how sexuality is socially constructed.”38

So, is prostitution reproductive labour in the broad sense? The broader definition of reproductive labour aims to destabilise the binary association of productive/wage/ public labour against reproductive/unpaid/private labour. Is the work of prostitution the reproduction of labour power, which does not necessarily produce surplus value in itself, but supports the productive worker in creating value for the capitalist? The prostitute as reproducer of the wage worker, in the trajectory of teachers, nurses, or nannies, makes a great deal of sense. Unlike the housewife, the sex worker’s services have an exchange value as well as a use value. These workers are paid, may work publicly or privately, but their work is in reproducing social relations rather than straightforwardly producing goods.

Last year, the ECP conducted a small qualitative study comparing the jobs of a brothel worker and an outdoor worker with those of: a bartender, childcare worker, cleaner, hairdresser, home care worker, housing support worker, midwife, nurse, personal assistant, retail worker, school playground worker, single mother, two teachers and a waitress.39 Though there was a spectrum of weekly hours and hourly rates, eleven of the seventeen earned less than a living wage. The sex workers interviewed were found to earn the highest hourly rate, but work the fewest hours, meaning that overall the outdoor worker was one of the lowest paid. Common to most of these roles were the embodied, relational, and affective aspects of the work. Three workers other than the sex workers “said their job demanded physical intimacy”.40 The taxonomy of intimacies in prostitution may range from a “girlfriend or boyfriend experience” to a “pornstar experience”, filming, photography, dates, and more. In most, though not all, forms of prostitution, the provision of services is accompanied by the provision of a negotiated amount of time, whether negotiated directly or by a brothel or manager. The time may include in-advance communication and sometimes follow-up conversation, which may be via email, text or telephone, or mediated by another party. Like these other roles, prostitution is overwhelmingly performed by feminised populations, and is often among a set of similar, limited options available to working class, migrant, disabled and racialised women. Though focusing on the role of caring labour within prostitution runs the risk of decentring sex and privileging the often more affluent workers (such as escorts or sugar babies) who sell affected intimacy alongside sex, whether or not part of the role is to pretend to care, intimate care work is involved in any affective performance of sexual enjoyment, however transient.

This is the extent of some recent SR feminism: having updated our understanding of what reproductive labour means in line with capitalist development, we could vaguely assign prostitution to the same category as other forms of paid, low-waged care. While I find the comparison between the qualities of labour persuasive, there are two reasons why I think it is a mistake to end the analysis here. Firstly, the broader definition of reproductive labour leads to a destabilisation of the productive/reproductive binary, which forces the question as to why we would hold onto it. Secondly, while prostitution does share much in common with other forms of paid care work, all of this paid reproductive labour could be better analysed under the auspices of the rise of the service industry, and the organisation and relation to capital of all jobs, whether specifically care-related or not, within it.

First, once the binary of waged/public/productive vs. unpaid/private/reproductive is challenged, it becomes clearer that labour isn’t just of one or the other camp. If reproductive labour is simply any work –even if paid and public – that reproduces labour power with a more or less direct relationship to the creation of surplus value, how can it be distinguished from labour which produces other kinds of commodities? Marx’s own account allowed that a headteacher’s job, for example, would not necessarily be productive in terms of the work of teaching, but would become so when making the school owner richer, describing this delightfully and pertinently as laying out capital in “a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory”.41

Marina Vishmidt and Zoe Sutherland suggest that the concept of the reproduction of labour power, or the work that gets the worker to work, creates a “tautological relation” between feminised and generally racialised labour that is devalued, and that which is termed reproductive.42 So, “reproductive labour” might turn out to be just academic jargon for women’s work. Vishmidt and Sutherland argue that instead, reproduction and production should be situated on a “continuum”, with an attendant analysis of how it is that the “infrastructure” of the continuum is made up of “gendered, racialised and sexualised forms of exploitation and domination”.43 This means that if there are multiple forms of labour that lie somewhere between wage work that produces surplus value, and unwaged work that reproduces the labourer so as to produce surplus value later, it remains to be explained how (and why) is it that exploitation is arranged along this continuum, with valued populations at the productive top, and devalued populations at the reproductive bottom.44 The postulation of a productive/reproductive binary ends up failing to do much of the explanatory work it aimed to do in the first place.

Second, our thinking is rooted in a particular academic and activist thought tradition that centres women’s work, without also looking at how wider precaritisation underlies a service industry which in the UK is now more dominant than the production of material objects. I’ve belaboured different social reproduction theories in their apparent, often handwaving relation to prostitution very deliberately because I want to understand why marxist-feminists have taken “sex work=reproductive work” as a given and sometimes as the entirety of an analysis. In part, the 1970s context of most of the influential research means the manifold changes to the industry in the fifty years since are underrepresented in research.

At the same time, SR theories have become fashionable again, and while there are plenty of good reasons for this, it isn’t automatically the best or only terrain on which to understand sex work. Another reason for the under-examined consensus on sex work as broadly reproductive is a failure to attend to the detail within the umbrella term “prostitution”, perhaps a vague discomfort with the idea of sexual services as work, or simply a fair fear of getting it wrong. As Gonzalez and Neton suggest, what defines a kind of work is not just its “concrete characteristics” (the work of taking care of children, the work of driving to school, the work of giving blowjobs) but rather “the relationship of these reproductive tasks to exchange, the market, and the accumulation of capital”.45

The question seems to become one of priority. In looking at prostitution, is it best to prioritise an analysis of how the remaking of the worker–whether by paid or unpaid reproductive labour–is a key strategy of capital accumulation? Or, is it best to start from the myriad ways that women fall into and out of a waged proletariat globally, whether as housewives or as agricultural workers? This would entail a specific focus on the function of UK-based prostitution not merely as reproductive, but more pertinently, as a paid, part-criminalised form of service work. Though paid care workers in non-criminalised fields are by no means beneficiaries of fantastic working rights and employment patterns (quite the opposite) prostitutes are not part of the (however diminished) third sector. They are not, and due to criminalisation, cannot be employees or staff members. Rather, they are workers on the edges of labour markets, whose work may be more or less “officially” work. Therefore, following Gonzalez and Neton’s approach if not their conclusion,46 the third section of this essay suggests instead that work-organisation terms such as, precarious, criminalised, low-waged, agency, platform, are better routes into an analysis of what kind of work prostitution is via its relationship to the market, exchange and accumulation, than is the over-stretched production/reproduction binary, which boils down to an argument about whether surplus value is accumulated directly or indirectly, now or later.

Part Three: Prostitution as Precarious Service Work

Prostitution is not one type of work. The presumption that there is or should be one total theory of sex work may be one (of many) reason(s) why there is so much bad research in the area. This is not to say “everyone has a different experience so let’s not generalise!” Structural analysis rests on the existence of structural conditions. But theory also has to respond to particularity. It is possible to think both comparatively and specifically. In the UK today, the service sector contributes about 80% of GDP. These are jobs that produce services or “intangible goods”. This includes higher paid, more secure jobs which may not be useful comparison points for sex work, such as accounting, IT, or banking.47 The interesting area of comparison is precarious, technically self-employed or contractor service work: caring services, but also hospitality, cleaning, retail, admin, transportation, warehouse, call centre work, and other forms of platform work such as for Uber, Taskrabbit or Deliveroo. Ursula Huws describes this as a post-2008 crash shift, facilitated by the internet, from “servant labour”, which is paid for out of wages and doesn’t increase profit, to “capitalist service labour”, in which companies make profit from the sale of services. She writes:

“Workers who provide these services are brought directly within the disciplinary scope of transnational corporations: closely monitored, expected to be available at short notice, subjected to continuous review through the use of customer ratings and with tasks tightly defined–but lacking the job security or collective voice that would come from working in a regular unionised workplace.”48

The point here is not that we should expand our comparative reading of sex work as the production of sexual services to better encompass service jobs that have higher proportions of men. Rather, recognising the broader impact of globalisation and feminisation in proliferating contractor service labour gives us new routes into understanding sex work’s relationship to the market.

Prostitution is the sale of in-person–usually penetrative–sexual services, but beyond this there is no one way in which prostitution is organised, no one exact type of work involved. As an unregulated shadow industry, commercial sex is brutally capitalistic, microcosmic of broader patterns of gendered and racialised social domination.49 Like other precarious service work, earning potential reflects these patterns of oppression, rather than necessarily the quality or skill of the service. Within the industry there are a minority of more privileged, majority white, “English” (or “English-passing”) workers who are fully independent, working entirely from personal websites and online advertising. These workers benefit financially from being, or being able to pass as, middle class, cisgender, straight or bisexual, non- disabled, slim, and normatively attractive, though it is notable that some financially successful independent workers carve out a niche from marketising an aspect of “difference”. Being fat, for example, can be advertised as the fetish “BBW”.50 These workers may also benefit from earning 100% of the profit from a client/provider transaction,51 whereas some independent workers advertise through online platform monopoly websites, paying a fee for advertising, while the site takes a considerable cut from any financial transactions (such as purchasing access to picture galleries) carried out on it. Those who might be understood as less independent but still, in- effect, self-employed, would in another industry be called freelancers or contractors, receiving a wage from a brothel or parlour boss or manager, but with little-to- nothing in the way of holiday or sick pay, pensions, grievance procedures, or access to unionisation. 52 Some workers gain business through agencies, which take a substantial cut of the fee in return for advertising and finding clients. Some workers work outdoors, and may be self-employed or work for a manager, who also takes a cut. Theoretical accounts too often suffer from confusing advertising with reality, and from failing to realise that there is movement between roles and types of work, though access to higher pay and better working conditions is differentiated by race, class, disability, cis/trans status and nationality. A worker may work in a brothel part of the time while working independently at other times, and so on. Prostitutes work from hotels, client cars, outside, their own bedrooms, managed premises, and other peoples’ premises, and whether the work is public or private, outdoor or indoor, makes little difference to whether the work is prostitution, though a great deal of difference to relative safety at work or proximity to state and police brutality.

Providing sexual services is the by-definition part of working as a prostitute, but this is also a shallow analysis of how a working day is spent, equivalent to analysing the work of a singer as simply the time spent going on stage and singing, or the work of an adjunct lecturer as simply the time spent giving lectures (an analysis which in both cases can result in less-than-minimum wage pay). Different forms of prostitution variably involve admin, finding and maintaining a client base, building intimate labour skillsets, advertising, marketing, and invariably, waiting around. Different forms of prostitution involve different amounts of contact time, but even brothel workers, who have possibly the greatest ratio of work-time to client-seeing time, will have additional hours to spend on prostitution work while there are no clients, buying and arranging outfits and makeup, having photos taken, and so on. At the other end of the contact hours spectrum, independent workers will spend a significant proportion of their time advertising, marketing, writing and updating copy or blogs, keeping on top of an email inbox, communicating with clients, purchasing clothes and makeup, arranging photoshoots, and so on. This is, to be clear, not a respectability-politics attempt to abstract prostitution out from the act of fucking. Rather it is to make the point that to draw conclusions about a form of work you must have a realistic conception of its ratio of working time to service commodity production. Failure to do this leads to either the regrettable “research” that supposes that “high class escorts” all make hundreds of thousands of pounds a year (because every hour is lasciviously imagined an hour with a client), or the even worse “research” that supposes brothel or outdoor workers all engage with hundreds of penises a day, every day (an equally lascivious, pity-porn imagining).

As Fortunati points out, unpaid reproductive work is temporally unbounded: the wage worker gets to go home but the housewife doesn’t get to clock out at 6pm. In contrast, a key and saving feature of prostitution is that the time is boundaried, often with great specificity. Working in a brothel or parlour is most similar to the classic working day. It is shiftwork, sometimes long and poorly paid, sometimes unsociable, sometimes with a later end-time than agreed, but it is shiftwork nonetheless, where you arrive at a time and you go home at a time. Like other forms of precarious service work, brothel-work can also be zero-hours: you may get shifts one week but not another.

Contrastingly, independent escorting is charged by the hour. Rates are often priced to a specific time: one hour, two hours, overnight. Indeed, a regular advertising- inflected claim is that the client purchases an escort’s time, rather than any particular sexual acts. This isn’t entirely true, but it isn’t entirely false either. It is rarer within prostitution, though more common within pro-domination or submission, that workers will charge by the act: a certain amount per stroke of the cane, more for acts that require clean up. An exception to this is the common practice of charging for “extras”, the price for an hour plus £ extra for anal, for example.

This brief overview53 of the different types of prostitution common in the UK today give rise to a surprising conclusion: some sex work might be seen as productive labour, and some not. Prostitution may be reproductive, unproductive labour when the client/provider interaction is considered in isolation, but this central relation doesn’t fully explain the relation of prostitution to exchange, the market, and capital. Just as Marx’s headmaster in the teaching factory labours productively when he enriches the school owner, so too the prostitute labours productively when her sexual services, as a commodity, create the surplus value that directly makes the agency or third-party manager richer, or that makes the brothel owner richer. Or, when online platforms extract profit from workers paying for higher billing that day, or from the sale of pictures. (Similarly, the healthcare worker whose services are made commodities that produce profit for the private healthcare company also labours both productively and reproductively). Workers who do not work with third- parties, including some independent indoor or outdoor workers, do not directly produce surplus value: the relation with capital is more indirect. The productive/ reproductive distinction here may track levels of capital accumulation but it doesn’t track working conditions, exploitation or oppression. The relation of precarious service work to accumulation is complex and varied. As Callum Cant points out in his book on working as a Deliveroo courier, despite massive investor capital and vast expansion the platform’s profit margin (in 2016) was only about 1%.54 Though sex work is one of many areas where vulturish online platforms have swept in, aiming to profit by institutionalising precarity, their profits are mitigated by their greed for growth. This may point the way towards worker-owned cooperatives as an alternate model for sex worker self-management.

The purpose of this descriptive mapping work is to reach an analysis that helps explain the relations of exploitation and oppression, and the function of prostitution within capitalism. Whether surplus value is created directly or indirectly, prostitution as a feminised and racialised industry helps perpetuate the violent modes of domination that Bhattacharyya identifies as being at the heart of racial capitalism (this is how it works). The comparison to other forms of service industry work aims to provide a comparative route into shared or similar modes of exploitation, while revealing specific modes of exploitation, ultimately giving us the insight to build tools to target them. So, if the role of precarious service labour in capital accumulation is varied, what is the point of it? What relationship does it have to gendered and racialised hierarchies? Theoretically all the tasks, including sex, that fall under the reproductive, service work umbrella, could be either provided for free within communities or foregone as unnecessary luxuries. While this is true, it is woefully insufficient as an answer where it fails to take into account the need of the worker to survive. Arguably, the ultimate point of prostitution is not to reproduce the male client but to keep the sex worker alive. The lens needs to be turned back on itself: prostitution is not, after all, for clients but for prostitutes. Precarious service work exists to keep workers precarious. Its relation to capital is defined first and foremost by its maintenance of an underclass of criminalised, feminised, racialised, dispossessed workers who will suffer the consequences–through violence and stigma–of their decision to survive. Step one is to win improvements in the relationship of worker to boss within racial and patriarchal capitalism. Step two is to abolish the lot.

  1. Sex work is an umbrella term for myriad types of sexual services, including prostitution, stripping, BDSM services, webcamming, and so on. Yet within the sex work umbrella, prostitution itself is also an umbrella term. Within this essay, I’m talking about full service sex work or prostitution, but will use both “sex work” and “prostitution” for ease of terminology.
  2. Prahba Kotiswaran, “Theorizing the Lumpen Proletariat: A Genealogy of Materialist Feminism on Sex Work” in Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 52.
  3. In practice, of course, employment in feminised or low-wage fields rarely confers these supposed benefits.
  4. In Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Juno Mac and Molly Smith describe the “erotic professional” like this: “Easily identifiable as one of the more vocal, visible figures of the sex worker movement, the Erotic Professional positions herself as answering a vocational “calling” that seems to have barely anything to do with being paid. In downplaying economic coercion and instead emphasising her pleasure and desire, the Erotic Professional attempts to make commercial sex more closely resemble the sex life that society is more ready to endorse–that for which women receive no payment.” (New York & London: Verso, 2018) 31.
  5. For more on the forms that partial criminalisation takes, and the varying underhand legal mechanisms police use to brutalise sex workers, particularly street-based or migrant workers, see Revolting Prostitutes, 87-114.
  6. Underground, hidden, or shadow economies are often defined (by conservative economists) as work practices that evade tax and state regulation, however more relevant here is the provision, distribution and consumption of criminalised services. As with prostitution, some forms of work may combine formal and underground economies.
  7. University of Bristol, Nature of Prostitution and Sex Work in England and Wales (Home Office and University of Bristol, 2019) accessed 12 February 2020. The report itself examined sex work in England and Wales - but its prevalence comparison predominantly included studies based on the UK as a whole.
  8. Mary Laing et al, Supplementary Written Evidence Submitted by National Ugly Mugs: Research and Statistics Briefing (Home Office, 2016).
  9. E.g. Teela Sanders, Laura Connelly, and Laura Jarvis King, “On Our Own Terms: The Working Conditions of Internet-Based Sex Workers in the UK”, Sociological Research Online, 21.4 (2016): 133–46.
  10. Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, (New York & London: Verso, 2014).
  11. In an essay looking at the social relations and labour organisation of sex work, a materialist perspective would seem intuitive. Complicatedly, though, “materialist” has been used vaguely, sometimes interchangeably with marxist, sometimes as a kind of marxism plus, or sometimes expressly against marxism.
  12. Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection,” Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes, (2013): 56–91.
  13. Tithi Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory”, in Social Reproduction Theory, Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto Press, 2017), 1–20.
  14. Gargi Bhattacharya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival, (London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) 103.
  15. Ibid., 107.
  16. The vast majority of sex workers are cis and trans women. Some workers are cis men, and some are non-binary people, with comparatively few trans men. The gender of the worker does not always correspond to the gender performed at work. While female and non-binary clients do exist in very small numbers, it is disingenuous to claim, as some liberals do, that this has any significance for an analysis of the gendering of sex work.
  17. Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts: Theories of Surplus-Value (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969) 157.
  18. These analyses don’t depend on the sex worker being a woman - what’s relevant is that in comparison to the male client the sex worker is feminised, if only by the working relationship.
  19. E.g. Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972)”, in Sex, Race and Class (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 43–60.
  20. Bhattacharya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism, 66.
  21. Eli Long and Jack Frost, “Notes on the Erotic in the Capitalist Mode of Production”, LIES II: A Journal of Materialist Feminism,_ (2015), 99.
  22. Though Angela Davis points out that the argument that housewives are a distinctive class of labourer was not first made, as often cited, by Maria Dalla Costa, but rather originates with Mary Inman in In Woman’s Defense, in 1940, and Margaret Benston’s “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation”, in 1969. Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983).
  23. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 19.
  24. Kotiswaran suggests that the term reproductive labour originated with Fortunati. Dangerous Sex, 57.
  25. Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, eds. Jim Fleming, trans. Hilary Creek (New York: Autonomedia, 1995), 41.
  26. Kotiswaran, Dangerous Sex, 58.
  27. Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction, 33.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 40.
  30. The criticism that paid and unpaid reproductive labour is far broader than the figuration of the housewife suggests is persuasive. However, in her later work, Federici contests the claim that 1970s organisation around domestic work was a “crisis” reserved for white, middle class women. She writes: “It was the Welfare Mothers Movement that, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, led the first campaign for state funded “wages for housework” (under the guise of Aid to Dependent Children)”. Similarly, in the UK, the many groups operating out of the Crossroads women’s Centre, including W4H, but also the ECP, All-African Women’s Group, Wages Due Lesbians, Black Women Against Rape, and so on, makes it seem too quick to write W4H off as the concern of only white, hetero, bourgeois women. Federici, Revolution ,98.
  31. Davis, Women Race and Class, 133.
  32. Ibid., 136.
  33. Ibid., 134.
  34. Bhattacharya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism, 58.
  35. Ibid., 51.
  36. “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy: Introduction”, in Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, eds. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 12.
  37. Angela Mitropoulos, Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (New York: Autonomedia, 2012), 29.
  38. As cited in Tithi Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory”, 6.
  39. English Collective of Prostitutes, Report: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This? Comparing Sex Work with Other Jobs Traditionally Done by Women (2019) [accessed 19 February 2020].
  40. Ibid., 24.
  41. See Part V, Chapter 16 of Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976).
  42. Marina Vishmidt and Zoe Sutherland, “Social Reproduction: New Questions for the Gender, Affect, and Substance of Value,” in New Feminist Studies: Twenty-First-Century Critical Interventions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [2020 forthcoming]), 193. 43. Ibid., 199.
  43. I would add that while the idea of a continuum seems intuitive, it also needs much more explanation. I’d like to know how gradients of a continuum between productive and reproductive might be laid out. A non-binary third space, perhaps? Neither productive nor reproductive? Or might it be more like differently weighted mixtures? Does the continuum make a nonsense of the binary altogether?
  44. Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender,” 62.
  45. Gonzalez and Neton’s own schema attempts to undercut the productive/reproductive binary by framing labour markets instead (with some awareness of the clunkiness of the phrasing), in terms of: “Directly Mediated Market” (DMM) and “Indirectly Mediated Market” (IMM). DMM work, they explain, is guided by return on capital, the going rate of exploitation, the need for productivity, uniformity, and efficiency. It is also temporal: DMM work must be done ever more quickly and efficiently so as to create more surplus value, IMM work may be done more quickly and efficiently but at the end of the day, as Gonzalez and Neton mention twice, however well you look after your kids, they still need looking after 24/7. The overall point is well-taken and deserves further exploration, but within the proposed alternative schema, prostitution does not appear to fit totally in any of the three categories, being seemingly directly market mediated but without being waged labour, and without a need for ever greater speed and efficiency, being outside of a state or publicly- funded sector (in the UK), and clearly, not being an unpaid activity.
  46. Though as mentioned elsewhere, sex work often includes elements of advertising, marketing and PR work.
  47. Ursula Huws, “The Hassle of Housework: Digitalisation and the Commodification of Domestic Labour”, Feminist Review 123.1 (2019), 19-20.
  48. E.g. Pluma Sumaq, “A Disgrace Reserved for Prostitutes”, LIES II.
  49. Two points can immediately be taken from this: first, that the construction and intense regulation of acceptable desires around these beauty norms inescapably creates a realm of supposedly anti-normative desire, understood within the terms of racial capitalism as taboo or shameful, and second, that the capitalist concept “fetish” makes marketable that which would – in a less oppressive society – simply be part of the general variance of desires, bodies and sexualities.
  50. Though this money is not free from overheads like renting or hiring an incall space, purchasing advertising and SEO, etc.
  51. For more on UK sex worker unionisation, see United Voices of the World/United Strippers of the World.
  52. This is not intended as an exhaustive list! There are also workers who may not consider themselves prostitutes but exchange sex for money with a level of explicitness: through sugar babying, or through viewing the work as money rather than a job, for example.
  53. Callum Cant, Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020).
Sophie Monk