In the US, July 4 is the day we celebrate the freedom and independence that stems from a revolution. We do this with fireworks, barbecues, parades and all manner of nationalistic displays. There are readings of the Declaration of Independence, discussions of self evident truths, and lots of American Flags.
I plan to celebrate this Independence Day thinking about sexual freedom and financial independence. Sexual freedom is a fundamental human right. The right to work and earn a living is also a fundamental human right. Human rights are not granted by governments, they are protected by governments. They are ours because of our humanity.
In the United States we’ve seen some progress in some realms of sexual freedom, but we’ve seen a lot of damage done in others. Specifically, we tend to see progress around conservative goals like marriage, and damage around goals that offend conservatives, like those connected to sexual commerce. Indeed, talking about the freedom to exchange sex for something of value offends even many liberals, many feminists among them.
This, quite frankly, sucks. Especially in the United States. Especially because in the United States economic inequality makes so many of us so much less free and independent than we should be. In the United States, there are many people who work for minimum wage and can’t afford to do more than provide basic shelter and food for their families (PDF). In fact, there are plenty who can’t even do that. In 2013, in no state, could a minimum wage worker afford a two bedroom apartment on a single 40-hour week (PDF). Let alone finding the financial wherewithal to save for something like education, home ownership, or retirement.
We all have bodies and we use our bodies in a variety of ways for labor and for pleasure. Our labor might involve taking orders behind a fast food counter, or driving commuter rail trains, or it might be cleaning houses, or might be teaching college students how to do research or evaluate arguments. It might be many things. We work. In a range of conditions and for a range of compensation, we work. Sometimes we work for pay, and sometimes we work for free. Work is productive activity that meets needs. That should include the need for sexual pleasure, and it does, except that in most cases* sexual labor falls into a category work of has to be done for free. Those who would keep sex in the realm of free labor say that that this is because sex work is inherently harmful or it is because sex should be a gift we give for love and nothing else. This is absurd.
Think about the mom who cares for her own kids for free. No doubt she loves her children and is consensually participating in the gift economy that characterizes household labor. Now think of the mom who takes in a few of her neighbors’ kids for pay, running a day care in her home. Now think of the mom who has to leave her kids in day care to go and take care of the children of others. Or, the mom who leaves her kids in another country to travel to the US to get paid to live with a family where the parents both work long hours at high paying jobs while she sends home whatever she can to the kids she doesn’t get to see.
When this discussion focuses on child care it’s easy to see how different the working conditions are, and how more or less alienating and exploitive they can be, and we can do all of this without rushing to argue that child care work should be criminalized.
Substitute sexual care work and it’s a whole different story.
I’d love to live in a United States where people were truly free to earn their livings in whatever ways made them feel most satisfied. I’d love to live in a United States where nobody felt like they had to take a job they hated because they had no better options. And I’d love to live in a United States where I could use my body to earn my living in any way that suited me, especially if it met meaningful needs for others.
In other words, I’d love to live in a United States that protected my human rights. One that truly respected humanity.
Instead, I live in a United States that depends on immigrant workers to feed the nation while deports hardworking parent who came to the US to better feed their families, that profits from adult entertainment while criminalizing sexual labor, and counts on people to continue to perform low-wage jobs without revolting.
It’s not that any of this is new or surprising. The level of irrationality and exploitation has been rising for decades. We know who benefits, and we know why. There is nothing left to do but act. It’s long past time to start talking about a revolution!
“Outlaw Poverty Not Prostitutes” image is a 2010 San Francisco International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers banner from the St. James Infirmary, a nonprofit health and safety clinic for sex workers and their families. I found it on OccupyWallSt.Org and is used under a creative commons license.