There is no such thing as a free choice.
Everything is informed by our environments. Everything is manipulated and shaped and squeezed by what is happening around us. It is easy to think that we made a completely free choice. Economics completely depends on this notion. Yet, even with perfect information, we are moulded like clay by the society that made us.
To work is not a free choice. No work is. Work is a product of capitalist patriarchy. You may like your job. You may hate your job. You may feel that your job changes the world. You may feel as though your job is pointless. You may work at home as a parent, or you may work in an investment bank. Maybe you think you chose your work, or maybe you feel as though you’re just trying to make ends meet and wish you could be a doctor rather than an accountant.
For most of us, work is a necessity to survive. It is doing something we would not normally do–no matter how much you like your job, would you do it for eight hours a day without any pay?–in exchange for the means to live. Ultimately, we are all being coerced into work: sometimes gently, and sometimes forcibly, as is seen in workfare programmes. To work is not a free choice, and it is a travesty that after centuries of capitalism, many simply cannot imagine a future without work so invent fairy stories about the glory and honour in work.
Sexual consent is not a free choice. Not completely, not 100%. We have all absorbed some of capitalist patriarchy, and may feel obliged, or feel pity, or feel horny or drunk or any of the other emotions that may lead to sex which under other circumstances we would not have had sex. There are power differentials under patriarchy: in heterosexual sex, the man will have more power. Sex which rejects this power differential–for example, political lesbianism–is still shaped by patriarchy. It is not a free choice, it is a rejection of another norm. Even celibacy falls prey to this. We are mired in social relations and power relations when it comes to sex, yet we are able to make choices which are adequately consensual.
Sex and work are full of problems which require addressing, which require criticism and discussion with an eye to radical, revolutionary solutions. Yet at present, we must know that these things are full of compromise, and we are not making completely free choices, but merely the freest choice possible. Many are not thinking this broadly, which is precisely why there is so much nonsense levelled at sex workers.
The fact is, the work we do and the sex we have (or do not have) is a compromise under capitalist patriarchy. Every single one of us makes a compromise. It is not a truly free choice, but it is as free as possible. Some people choose sex work.
Likewise, there are many of us who definitely do not choose the work we do or the sex we have. Human trafficking extends far beyond forcing people into sex work: there are people forced to work for long hours in sweatshops or to fight in wars. Rape affects a frighteningly large number of people, and the majority of people affected are not sex workers.
To attack sex work without any broader critique of capitalist patriarchy is both nonsensical and harmful. Yet this is precisely what is being done. We are seeing a shift from criminalising the sex workers themselves towards criminalising clients of sex workers (the “Nordic” model), a move which solves precisely nothing as it is failing to address any of the root problems with work and fucking under patriarchy.
From a revolutionary perspective, merely turning our focus on sex work and treating it as having exceptional inherent problems which makes it somehow distinct from the rest of capitalist patriarchy means that we can never make any progress. Perhaps it feels easier to attack a kind of work we do not do or a kind of sex we are not having: it is easier. It’s a Herculean task clearing up the mess of capitalist patriarchy, and it sucks to have to be critical of everything. Yet if there is a genuine interest in liberating humans from exploitation, we must think big.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the blinkered analysis of sex work is harmful to sex workers themselves. It is not pleasant to be told repeatedly that the work you do should be illegal, or that you are a victim of false consciousness, or that the work you do is devastatingly immoral and is harming everyone else.Yet this is something sex workers put up with from people who are claiming to be saving them. Even the precious Nordic model, held up to be something which is definitely not attacking sex workers has actually been found to increase violence against sex workers, to the point that Norway are considering doing away with it.
Sex workers survive and negotiate life under capitalist patriarchy, yet get an extra heap of bullshit from both the side which chooses to maintain capitalist patriarchy and those who think they are doing something to overthrow it.
If we want to get anything done, we must show solidarity with sex workers: just as we should with any other workers. We must accept that it is entirely possible to choose to work in sex work as much as it is possible to choose to work in a sandwich shop or have a heterosexual marriage. We should ally ourselves with any battles to ensure that workers–all workers–have good working conditions as capitalist patriarchy continues to exist. We must not single out sex workers, but resolve to dismantle the entire repulsive system. We must stop harming sex workers with deeds and words born from paternalism, which ultimately serve to maintain capitalist patriarchy rather than destroy it.
It is a big task, unimaginably vast. With solidarity, perhaps it is possible.