This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the reasons why I enjoy talking to Jem about sex work is because the thinking she does about how to manage her work highlights so many issues from the world of work in general.
That’s, of course, not what many people who are anti-sex work would like you to think,but the reality is that Jem’s approach tomanaging her business plans is analogous to other forms of self employment that I have experienced, and also matches my experience of employments with variable incomes. Let me explain.
Take a business I’m used to, an old fashioned circuit pub. Circuit pubs are the ones in town or city centres,where there are a number of adjacent pubs which draw in punters on weekends spending for leisure, moving from venue to venue. Some of those pubs are the anchors of their circuit – the nearest ones to key locations, like transport or the dominant nightclub. Others have to fight for their business, using promos and offers. A key part to those businesses is knowing how much to invest in prices, how much to invest in performers, how much to spend on facilities. One or two pubs on or around a circuit might make the choice to set themselves apart, to have an offer that is different enough to make themselves a first choice for particular customers. In such a bar something as simple as a change of music might make or break the offer.
A sex worker going on tour has to make the same calculations around price, around market position, around defining their offer, as a pub landlord. Their advert defines who they will attract, what their customers will expect. It also helps define their price expectations. Talk to a sex worker about what their offer is and you quickly see, if you have an open mind, the parallels with lots of other entertainment and leisure businesses.
Incidentally, since those who are antisex work are obsessed with street sex work, I can think of a parallel between pubs and street sexwork. Some of the most dangerous places to be a pub landlord in the 80s were the pubs that lurked near railway stations and bus termini, which had a high volume of passing trade and few people who stopped or lingered, unless they were new in town or desperate to get drunk. Just as street sex work is characterized by ease of access and availability, which escalates risk for the sex workers, so bus station pubs could be disproportionately dangerous. They were magnets for people who didn’t fit in, who felt they wouldn’t belong elsewhere. I remember going into the old bar on Kings Cross Station, when it was still on the platform side, and being utterly unsurprised whenI found, in the cubicle in the toilets, a used condom, half a lemon and a burned teaspoon. It was like an artists installation of the reality of railway station bars.
Those 80s style bus and railway station pubs are rare now. CCTV has made them safer, easier to police and manage. The lessons for street sex work are obvious; it should be made safer,and brought into the light, not pushed off into ever darker corners, where it will persist in it unsafe ways.
This is a blog about the parallels between sex work and work. If you want to understand street sex work, you also have to understand cash in hand labour, the part of the jobs market where individuals get paid a pittance for working outside the usual regulatory regimes. You can’t understand why anyone will stand on a street corner selling sex in the most dangerous, least comfortable circumstances unless you can understand why someone will take a job clearing rubbish from abandoned buildings or demolishing old garages with no personal protection equipment for cash.
Ever wondered who delivers your takeaway meal from the local Chinese? It’ll be a guy with the wrong insurance for his car and no employment rights geting fifty pence per meal, cash in hand, the driving equivalent of a street sex worker, but glad for the cash he’ll go home with at midnight.
Just as some workers feel more comfortable working for someone else rather than being an entrepeneur, so there may be sex workers who prefer working in a commercial location, like a massage parlour, than being self managed. If you don’t understand the way in which some workers actively reject self employment as an option, you may not understand sexworkers.
Talking to Jem about how she sets herself financial targets when she is on tour reminded me of how I used to survive the years when I worked in jobs where commission was a significant part of my income. My taget income was always the amount of money it took to get me to come back to work again; the bonus, when it came, was bunce, free money that could be enjoyed. Marx, of course, talked about wages as being the amount capital had to pay labour to enable it to reproduce itself; as a salesman I instinctively adopted that theoretical position as my way of coping with the ups and downs of life on commission and bonus. I usedto joke with colleagues that the people who wouldn’t cope in that job weren’t the ones who weren’t very good at it, like me, but the ones who set their targets at the top end of expectations, and spent as if the bonus was bound to come in every month.Try to explain regression to the mean to this month’s high achiever, and you could find yourself in a one sided dialogue with someone who doesn’t want to hear the statistical realities.
If you don’t understand that lot of industries with variable incomes have high churn rates because individuals set themselves unachievable targets you don’t understand sexwork.
In short, if you want to be an expert on sex work, who actually helps sex workers, become an expert on work. That will be more use than theories of why demand for sex work exists.