Sex Work

The article originally appeared on Logos Journal.

The first aspect of this article is a definition of sex work as a kind of labor. Next, I define class and discuss class relationships.The last part of this article considers class analytics as a way to escape some of the ideological conditions of sex work in America including misogynistic, religious, moral condemnation of women’s sexuality, particularly sexuality outside of marriage to a man.


I define sex work as a kind of labor, sexual labor. It is the use of a person’s mind, body, and emotion to meet the sexual needs of another human being. Sex work produces a sexual service. Like all other work, it is, to use a Marxian definition, an expenditure of mind and body over time[i]. I add emotion to that definition because, like most labor in producing personal services, sex work often requires emotional labor as well as physical labor.


Labor caring for others can involve emotion, even if the emotion involved is the active repression of the service worker’s revulsion at the task, and its disguise with a performance of enthusiasm, engagement, desire, pleasure, etc.[ii]

Sex work can be commodified labor, when it is service work sold for money. Sex work can also be non commodified. Sex work can be performed as part of class and exploitative relationships as well as a non class and non exploitative relationships. I separate class and non-class relationships sharply only for the purpose of analysis. Human relationships of any kind are shaped by mutually determining class and non class aspects of life which comingle.

The concept of work is an ideological concept. Sex work itself is shaped by our ideas about that work. Concepts of sex work drastically effect our ideas and behavior towards sex workers. In the US, sex work is the most dangerous labor. US “prostitutes suffer a workplace homicide rate 51 times greater than the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.” On average, American prostitutes die at 34 years old. [iii] They are victims of men’s shame, rage, and contempt for both men’s own need for other people in general and men’s need for women in particular. My analysis removes sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, from the ideological/cultural realm of morality in which women’s sexuality itself becomes a moral issue and a sin.[iv] The moral judgment that emerges from my analysis is a moral opposition to class exploitation.


What do I mean by class?

I use the precise new Marxist definition of class.[v] Class is a process, a relationship to the work being performed. The key questions one asks to understand that relationship are:

1. Who labors to produce a surplus, i.e., more than s/he consumes?

2. Who appropriates the fruits of that surplus labor and reaps the benefits of the labor performed?

3.Who gets to distribute the fruits of that labor?

These very precise, versatile questions allow us to look at class relationships whether those relationships occur in a factory or a household, a brothel, or anywhere else. In a classic Marxian example, in answer to the question of who labors, a factory worker in a capitalist factory produces chairs. Her/his labor adds $100 to each chair. The worker gets paid $10. of the value s/he adds per chair.

Who gets the surplus over the $10. paid to the chair worker, who benefits? In this case, the boss or Board of Directors reaps the benefit of the $90. that the chair producer added to the chair.

To the question, who gets to distribute the fruits of the chair producer’s labor? The answer is, whoever or whatever the boss or the board of directors decide. They may decide to allocate one share of the $90. the worker produced, to the stockholders, another share to their own salaries, perhaps a third share to modernize or mechanize the chair factory. They may even allocate some of the wealth the worker produced to higher salaries for chair producers. The chair worker’s labor I describe is performed within a capitalist class process. The amount of $90. that is produced by the worker for the capitalist boss or Board is the result of exploitation. Exploitation refers to a basic capitalist tenet, one never gives the worker the value of what s/he produced or it would not pay to hire her or him. Exploitation is the process of appropriating the extra that others produced.

In an example, outside of the marketplace a woman who is part of a cohabiting or married couple may produce cleanliness, order, cooked meals and emotional care as her sole responsibility. Her domestic labor is not commodified. No money is exchanged. One portion of the services she performs may be for herself and her children, another portion may be appropriated by her man who benefits from order, cleanliness cooked meals and emotional labor without performing anything like an equal share of that labor. He appropriates a share of her labor that he then may distribute by inviting his aging parents, or children from a previous marriage to come to the house or live there. He may invite some buddies over and watch football, eat snacks and drink beers that she cleans up. Those are just a few ways he may appropriate the fruits of her domestic labor. Here, she labors in what Marx called a feudal class process. In the feudal class process work is assigned by birth and justified ideologically. In this case, birth as a woman may be considered birth into the necessity of performing domestic and emotional labor. Just as the Catholic Church in feudal Europe provided the ideological justification for serfs’ laboring destiny, gender ideology or fundamentalist protestant, Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim religious ideology may justify women’s gender destiny to provide domestic, sexual, and emotional labor in the household[vi]. The assignment of domestic labor by gender may continue whether or not a woman works for money outside the home.[vii]

The factory worker may labor in a cooperative chair factory within a communal class process. S/he may produce the chairs, benefit from the sale of the chairs, and jointly decide how to distribute the income earned from selling the chairs. In this case there would be no exploitation, because workers are together producing, appropriating and distributing the benefits of their collective labor.

The chair producer could also be an independent craftswoman who makes chairs and sells them herself. She performs the labor of chair making, reaps the benefits of it, and distributes the benefit income as she sees fit within an independent class process. In both the feudal and the capitalist class process the worker is exploited. In the communal and independent class process s/he is not exploited.

Our precise definition of class allows us to track the different class and non-class processes in people’s complex lives. For example, a person performing labor in the household also may have different class arrangements in which s/he works. S/he might labor in a communal household in which all capable household members share the work of cleaning, cooking, child- care emotional care, etc. All may equally benefit and together decide how to distribute the surplus they produce. S/he may also work in a capitalist factory. When s/he returns home, s/he may knit home-made sweaters and sell them on the net within an independent class process. S/he may also come home and enjoy knitting sweaters for fun and giving them to friends. In that case, her knitting labor is outside of any class process. There is no surplus or extra value that is produced in her production for fun.

The kind of class process involved, may radically alter the personal meaning of a persons’ labor. The meaning of household labor to a 1950s woman laboring in a home owned by her husband on whom she is financially dependent, may be vastly different from the experience and the meaning of household labor to an adult in a cooperative or communal household. The class processes involved and the relationships involved mean different things at different times and to different people. However, by looking at the class relationships and their meanings separately, we can better define what is happening.In this article, I apply the 3 class questions to sex work. Like all other labor we discussed, sex work changes radically depending on the class processes within which it is performed. A sex slave creating value within a slave class process has a different set of labor relationships from those of an independent sex worker or a member of a sex work coop. This is crucial because we reject slavery, feudalism, and capitalism as exploitative, dehumanizing, and disempowering class processes. At the same time, we celebrate empowering independent choices and communal labor relationships. That is the context of our discussion of sex work.

Sex work is performed within a range of class relationships. A person can be tricked or sold as a slave within the slave class process in which his/her body is literally owned. S/he is a dehumanized, exploited, commodity that performs sexual services for a person or an organization employing the class process of slavery. Her sexual labor is commodified if her sexual services are sold for money Sexual slavery is alive and increasing in both the US and the UK, even though slavery was abolished by the UK in 1833, and the US in 1863.[viii] Sexual slavery can be non-commodified when sex slaves are used sexually outside of the market place as they are in various places including the United States where girls have been enslaved and used for the sexual pleasure of their owners alone .[ix]

Sex work can be performed in a way that is similar to feudal labor in which the sex worker voluntarily devotes him/herself to a pimp as an act of love. Like the 1950s housewife, and the feudal serf, the sex-worker in the feudal arrangement cannot easily change employers. Like the housewife of old, her pimp, like her husband, is supposed to protect her, however, he has the power to protect or to victimize. The sex worker within the feudal class process works within a dehumanizing, exploitative, feudal class process in which she is a feudal serf tied to her pimp who exploits her sexual labor. The comparison with what I call a “feudal housewife” is not outrageous. In the US, all 50 states only criminalized spousal rape in 2005. Before that a wife’s sexual labor was legally the sexual property of her husband [x].

A sex worker can also work in a capitalist enterprise like those in Las Vegas in which s/he is hired to perform sexual services for a capitalist brothel. S/he is paid a salary which is a portion of the money the brothel receives from its customers. The capitalist owners or their board of directors appropriate most of the customers’ fees. The board or owners allocate the money and distribute it as they alone decide. It does not pay a capitalist to hire a worker unless the capitalist gains more from the work than s/he pays to the worker. The process of giving someone less than their work is worth and appropriating the profit is inherent to capitalism, just as taking a use value benefit is inherent to feudalism or slavery.

In ancient feudalism or household feudalism the serf provides use values like farm produce or cleanliness and cooked food. The serf/wife is exploited when s/he provides more than s/he consumes and delivers the use value goods to the lord of the manor. If there is exploitation, economic democracy is denied, the worker’s labor enriches another who is empowered by the goods and services delivered. All three exploitative class processes slavery, feudalism and capitalism are forms of theft and disempowerment.

There is sex work without exploitation where sex workers decide what services to produce, as well as how to produce them. Sex workers, themselves allocate and distribute the fruits of their labor. A sex worker can work for him or herself in an independent class process where s/he produces, appropriates and distributes the fruits of her/his her own labor, or, as we mentioned before, a sex worker can be part of a cooperative producing appropriating and distributing the fruits of their labor communally. These class processes, the independent and the communal class process are not exploitative or immoral.

Class processes are enabled by cultural and ideological processes which are not class processes but interact to create the ideological and cultural conditions that enable class processes. Non-class processes like the ideology of religion have powerful effects on the perception of women’s sex as innately sinful. Genesis begins the Bible with the condemnation of Eve for her curiousity. Eve’s condemnation is a sexual punishment relegating her and all other women to subjugation by their husbands. In Genesis, Chapter 3 of the Bible, God addresses Eve, “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The Bible, abounds with references to women as property in general and sexual property in particular. In just 3 examples David buys Michal, daughter of King Saul, with the foreskins of 22 philistines (Samuel18:27). “So I bought her for me for 15 pieces of silver and for a homer of barley”(Hosea 3.2). After a battle God instructs the victors to steal property in this order” 675,000 sheep, 72,000 beeves, 61,000 asses, 32,000 virgins, (Numbers 31:17-35). The good book states that prostitutes should be tortured. “If a priests daughter profane herself by playing the whore, she must be burned” (Leviticus 21:9.). Religious influence in the United Sates has a powerful ideological role in men’s hatred of female sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality outside of marriage to a man.

American gender ideology which envisions masculinity as invulnerability and trains males to reject their personal needs from early childhood also plays a powerful role. The one need allowed is a need for sex divorced from a emotional and interactive relational context.[xi] That is a huge topic I cannot cover here. However, shame at need and denigration of sexuality are cultural, ideological, non-class processes that interact with class processes to shape our ideas of female sexuality. Within such ideology, sex work is seen by many as automatically dehumanizing and degrading.

Others have far more sophisticated views. Condemnations of sex in general and female sexuality in particular have a lot to do with what were and are misogynist religions celebrating women’s subordinate status in marriage. That subordination is enforced through a politics that works to remove women’s financial, political, and legal possibilities outside of marriage to a man. Those attitudes are changing as young Americans are rejecting fundamentalist religion and rigid gender divisions. [xii]

New Marxian class precision allows us to use class to differentiate dehumanizing and exploitative sex work from independent and cooperatively operated sex work which can be a respected and respectful form of labor. It is not female sexuality but rather, class exploitation which is immoral. Exploitation robs people of the fruits of their sexual labor and their voices in deciding what to produce, how to produce it, allocate it and distribute it. That is where morality rests for this author.


[i] This definition was adopted from the basic text, Knowledge and Class by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff. Knowledge and Class gave birth to what is called, “new” or “overdeterminist “ Marxism.

[ii] This was first described by Arlie Hochschild in her description of flight attendents, The Managed Heart, 1983. U. of California Press, 137-163. The concept was developed by Harriet Fraadin “Toiling in the Field of Emotion,” in Class Struggle on the Home Front, 2009, Ed. Graham Cassano, New York: Palgrave.

[iii] These figures are from the most extensive study of prostitutes in the literature, Potterat, J., Brewer, D., Muth, S., Rothenberg, R., Woodhouse, D., Muth, J., Stites, H., and Brody,S. 2004. V.159, N 8, 778-785. This thorough study provided the basis for many studies and articles that followed including, Bennetts, L. Sept. 11, 2009. “The Growing Demand for Prostitution.” Newsweek.

[iv] . A woman’s “virtue” was commonly used as a synonym for her sexual practice or abstinence.

[v] This definition of class was first developed by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff in Knowledge and Class, 1987, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. It has since been developed in countless publications and the Journal, Rethinking Marxism. The same new Marxian definition of class was applied to both domestic and personal lifeby Harriet Fraad, Stephen Resnick, and Richard Wolff in several essays in Class Struggle On The Home Front Ed. Graham Cassano, 2009, New York, Palgrave.

[vi] This analysis is developed by H., Fraad, R., Resnick and R., Wolff in “For Every Knight in Shining Armour, There’s a Castle Waiting to be Cleaned” in Class Struggle on the Home Front, 2009.

[vii] The Southern Baptist Convention on Men & Women, as well as Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, , and Muslim religions proscribe female household labor as well as subordination to the leadership of the male household head regardless of women’s labor outside of the home.



[x] Jennifer McMahon-Howard. Nov.20, 2009. “Criminalizing Spousal Rape.” in Sociological Perspectives, 52, 4., 2009

[xi]Harriet Fraad, Tess Fraad-Wolff. 1.2014. “Capitalist Profit and Intimate Life “ in The Journal of Psychohistory . 41 (4) 258-67. Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp.. “Tough Guise”.

[xii] Pew Research Center. Religion and Public Life. Oct. 9, 2012. ”’Nones’ on the Rise.”

Frederic Neuman. Jan. 4, 2013. “Fighting Fear: Changing Gender Roles in Marriage.” Psychology Today.Pew Research Center. Social Trends. May 29, 2013. “Breadwinner Moms.

Pew Research Center. Social Trends. May 29, 2013. “Breadwinner Moms.

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