Fuck Work: Internalizing Neoliberal Feminism

AF3IRM Hawaiʻi is a grassroots, completely unfunded transnational feminist activist organization led by Native Hawaiian, Black, immigrant, queer and gender diverse women of color. Our membership includes women with lived experiences within the commercialized sex industry. We run the only emergency relief fund for sex workers in Hawaiʻi, and passed the first state law that allows people to vacate a prostitution conviction. Our organization is opposed to the carceral state and mass incarceration. All cops are bastards.

Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were monsters who got high on their own supply. But ultimately they were merely dealers supplying the demand for nubile women and girls in a global commercial sex industry where it can be difficult to obtain willing participants. Others argue; however, that Epstein was just a “bad apple” unrepresentative of the sex industry, which they call “sex work” and seek to reform.

The story of “sex work” begins in Chile soon after the CIA ousted the first democratically-elected Marxist president in the world. Global socialism was feasible and underway but a new death cult was rising. Sure enough, the coup against President Salvador Allende delivered University of Chicago economist and neoliberal extremist Milton Friedman his first retainer sacrifice. One month after Friedman’s initial visit to “consult” in Chile, the CIA-backed government announced a national economic plan based on the neoliberal principles of privatization, deregulation, market freedom, and individualism. And in 1978, while Chile was being subjected to the first round of Friedman’s neoliberal “shock therapy” policies, a white woman in San Francisco launched an ideological coup of the U.S. feminist movement based on the same core principles.

College educated and white, Carol Leigh was fed up that her perspective was not being centered by the feminist movement. Feminists at that time wanted to support people in prostitution but did not want to support the sexist industry so Carol began to conflate the industry and the people in it, to render the entire system immune to criticism. This system did not trigger the pain of imperialist war, colonization, or intergenerational trauma for Carol. This system worked for her, it just needed reforming. It needed a sexy name.

With a stroke of genius, Carol decided to call capitalism “liberation.” She coined the term “sex work” based on her vision as a white American cisgender woman at the racial apex of the sex industry, which she found empowering. She used the term to decouple the issue of prostitution from struggles against patriarchy, imperialism, racism, and class domination. Carol believed that she was representing the best interests of underrepresented voices.

We draw this conclusion because Carol dedicated her life advocating for individual choices within oppressive systems and advocating against efforts to dismantle oppressive systems. While all feminists agreed that women should never be punished for prostituting, Carol set herself apart by advocating for an unregulated sex market rather than a transition from the harmful system. She was not alone: “neoliberal economic ideologies influenced academic queer theory and sex positivity, thus moving feminism away from collectivism and toward individualism.”

Sex work is work. Work will set you free. Individual pleasure over a permanent state of freedom for all. Today’s feminist movement is firmly rooted in this neoliberal gospel, even as the American Left explicitly organizes against the so-called Reagan Alignment.

Here is our stance on “sex work” as AF3IRM Hawaiʻi.

The term “sex work” mattered then and now, because it has the power to become accepted values. We know that the “ruthless and cynical mutilation and degradation of human beings both in spirit and body…is justified by rhetorical gambits, sterile terminology and concepts of power which stink.” We at AF3IRM refuse to use this colonial language because it erases our cultural values. The idea that someone should be able to use their power to access someone’s body or land is wrong, not work.

Even if “sex work is work,” AF3IRM is asking for liberation from work, not making everything work. All work is forced under capitalism. Sex work is forced sex. Forced sex is also known as rape. So, no it is not “just like all other work.” We can tell you that as people who have directly prostituted, which is why we cannot wait for a distant future when all waged work is abolished to end rape. We must end rape, rape culture and sexism now. AF3IRM believes there can be no compromise with racism, sexism, and classism — the three intertwined DNAs of Capital which continue to make profit off misery, suffering and death.

Sex should not be coerced by force or by circumstance. The use of money, the primary medium of power in capitalism, to obtain access to someone’s body is coercive. The government should not sanction coerced sex. Acts of survival should be decriminalized, coerced sex should not.

Women are groomed to submit ourselves to patriarchy in order to survive. Sometimes performing patriarchal gender roles can be a source of pleasure. We recognize that prostitution is empowering for some people. We also recognize that some people are madly in love with their abusers and with abusive systems, and feel ‘personally attacked’ by criticism of their abuser. This is a survival technique and coping mechanism, unrepresentative of the vast majority of women who long for freedom and safety. Personal empowerment does not undermine collective discrimination or dismantle the male supremacy. Empowerment is not power.

From a Native perspective, it is clear that many settlers, including settlers of color, cannot accept that the desecration of land is connected to the desecration of women. We must revalue land and women as sacred. Land and women are simply not for sale.

We believe in ending harmful industries without harming workers, especially the sex industry. It’s time for end-dependence. Communities of color and transgender people deserve an ambitious transition plan away from a sexism-driven economy and the commercial sex industry without delay. This plan should be led with Native values.

Sex should be fun, mutually pleasurable, mutually desired, terror-free and freely given, as was our culture before Western colonization and before the introduction of patriarchy.

Just as with land, commodification of the body leads to alienation from the body. We must decommodify our bodies. We must reclaim our bodies from capitalism. We must heal our relationship to our bodies from white sexualized imperialism. We must lock arms with each other, not our buyers.

We know that the commercial sex industry has played a significant role in attempts to destroy the self-determination of indigenous people over their own bodies. Stripped of land, unable to produce food and secure shelter without cash, Native women are forced to put their bodies on the market. This undermines our bodily autonomy. We believe that women should be able to govern their own bodies. Native women should not be financially compelled to have sex with White and settler men in order to survive the settler colonial system.

Demand greatly exceeds the supply. On Oʻahu, demand for paid sex online is seven times greater than supply. The most marginalized on Oʻahu, primarily Native Hawaiian women and children, are being forced to do the most demeaning, unwanted, unsafe acts of prostitution that white voluntary sex workers refuse to do. Demand reduction and intervention must happen without relying on incarceration or police interaction with sex workers, which both target Native Hawaiians.

We believe that global decarceration is necessary for the safety of all communities, but “rather than argue all prisons should be dismantled tomorrow, our task is to crowd out prisons with other forms of justice that will eventually demonstrate both the ineffectiveness and brutality of prisons.” We caution against a romanticized response to male violence. We oppose coerced peacemaking and pressure on victims to forgive, coexist and welcome abusers into their communities. There can be no transformative justice without a culture of accountability.

We believe women should be able to define what justice looks like when their bodies are harmed. This was the norm in pre-colonial legal systems because “women’s sovereignty is central to Native sovereignty.”

We understand that the sex industry normalizes dominant classes using power to obtain sexual access from subordinate classes of people — that is, normalizes dominant/subordinate relationships. This normalizes that relationship politically, socially, and economically. Throughout history, the commercial sex trade has been used to legitimize sexual violence against us by White men. It is essential to end prostitution in order to reduce dating and domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of male violence against women and LGBTQIAs.

We understand that the commercial sex industry is founded on the foundational ideology of racism: that Black and Brown bodies are interchangeable, disposable, and worth less than inanimate objects. The sex industry desensitizes us to horrible and inhumane acts against Black women and LGBTQs of color. The sex industry reinforces racist beliefs that Black and Brown women “want it,” are incapable of being truly violated, and “choose” and “enjoy” their inferior position. Black women and girls are not capable of being victims in America. Supposedly, they love to prostitute.

The majority of sex buyers are White and male in many U.S. states, even though rape culture knows no race or ancestry. Buying sex with poor brown women is an abuse of power that white men unfairly gain from systemic sexism, colonialism, and White supremacy. Maintaining sanctions against sex buyers, reducing policing, and disrupting mass incarceration are compatible. Other jurisdictions primarily rely on AI for intervention, progressive fines that go to social supports, programming, and community accountability to contain buyer demand.

We know that voluntary sex work and sex trafficking are not the same. However, the massive volume of demand to buy sex can never be met by the relatively few willing, adult-aged women. The sex industry exists within the context of neoliberal capitalism. When the purchase of sex is protected and the demand for paid sex rises, it is we, the poor, desperate, and vulnerable, who become targets for sexual exploitation because we are the easiest, cheapest “supply.”

Voluntary sex workers, a small minority of those selling sex, are disproportionately White. Involuntary sex workers, i.e., victims of exploitation, are disproportionately Native, Black, and other women of color. Sex trafficking is an extreme form of victimization. And Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous girls and women are grossly overrepresented in sex trafficking.

Decriminalize sex workers. Nine out of every ten prostitution-related arrests in the U.S. are of sex workers, not buyers. This practice must end immediately. Decriminalization of sex workers, while maintaining some form of penalty for buyers, is the only way to address the inherent power imbalance between buyer and seller, enabling sellers to come forward or seek help if and when they need it.

We believe harm reduction is an important short-term bandaid solution, but not a long-term goal. What is harm reduction when 48–81 percent of people in prostitution experience physical injury, sexual assault, and post-traumatic stress disorder even under full decriminalization?

Police feel entitled to kill people. Men feel entitled to rape women. Policemen feel entitled to kill and rape. Police are some of the most frequent sex buyers even under full decriminalization. We must decriminalize sex workers but it is naive to think that marginalized women in the sex trade will even call the police even if they cannot be arrested or charged for prostitution. We must end rape culture, which is largely produced by the sex industry.

Voluntary sex workers are not “in the best position” to intervene in sex trafficking. They are often more privileged and there are many other more important and better situated people in contact with sex trafficking victims, as proven by a large and growing body of national and Hawaiʻi-specific research. These include health care workers, educators, first responders, family, friends, classmates, social workers, and state workers. The majority of sex traffickers are either family members or romantic partners of the victim, many times also co-parents, and in complex abusive relationships laced with forcible substance addiction and financial dependency in a vacuum of support. These relationships are more often than not defined by extreme violence and psychological abuse. The refusal to acknowledge the grave danger carried out by traffickers is a form of gaslighting and misogyny by the prostitution lobby.

Finally, even if all other facts and principles are disputed it is indisputable that almost all sex buyers are men and that paid sex is centered around what men want as the customer. The customer will not stay, pay, or return if unsatisfied. The buyer is the boss. Contrary to popular belief, most sex buyers have ready access to sex and intimacy because have wives, girlfriends or partners. Unpaid sex does not allow men to maintain the same control as paid sex. Sex should not be male-defined and male-centered.

For information on law and policy reform that carries out our stances please contact hawaii@af3irm.org