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For love or money?

April 17, 2014

Lets pause for a moment of Marxist musing. When I talk to my students about the difference between “work” and “jobs,” we discuss the way that all productive activity can be understood as work, but that a job is only that work which somebody else pays you to do. It seems obvious to them that most of us need jobs. What is less obvious to them is why we need work. People get satisfaction out of producing the things they want and need, and the ability work and make a living is a fundamental human right. Exploitation interferes with our exercise of that right and with our enjoyment of the satisfaction of work. Marx had a word for this experience of being separated from the human quality of our work: alienation.

In a society where cash or its digital equivalent is necessary to obtain most of the things we need in order to survive, a job is essential for most of us. Jobs provide cash. Cash purchases food, shelter, entertainment, transportation, education, health care, and all the other things we need. We who need cash sell our time, our skills, and our labor to those who earn profit on producing things. This is, at its heart, an alienating process. It makes sense that many students would be asking themselves how they can find a job that they love, one that has meaning for them, so that they don’t have to feel so alienated. So why is it that as soon as one loves one’s job, there is an assumption that one no longer needs the cash? Why is work done for free, because of a commitment to the people who need it done (think house work and child care in addition to volunteering) seen as something that is less-than-work?

We’ve got so many things backwards! Recently, three very different and very smart writers threw this backwardness into sharp relief, and you don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize the importance of their writings.

Melissa Gira Grant did it beautifully in Dissent Magazine with a piece on the free labor provided to by party guests who become extras in video productions. She raises many important questions, not the least of which is this one: How can we expect to be paid sufficiently to do what we love, or work that has meaning for us, when enough other people are out there doing the same kind of thing for free (albeit not always with the same regularity or quality)?

Belle Knox did it powerfully in a Huffington Post piece about why she rejects the “desperate exchange” framing of her choice to do porn do fund her education. She addresses many of the questions that have been thrown at her since her outing as a porn performer, but she raises important ones of her own, including: If we want to do what we love, and fund it by doing something else for a job, how do we manage that when some of the more lucrative, flexible, and viable options are so deeply stigmatized that choosing them puts us at risk for all kinds of social penalties, and the socially acceptable ones with high enough salaries are too time consuming to allow us much left over for “what we love”?

And of courser Heather Corinna kicked off this line of thinking for me back in March with her announcement that Scarleteen’s staff would need to strike if it could not raise enough funds to operate sustainably. The fundamental question there? How can we do what we love, and serve the communities we are committed to serving, and still earn a living if, when we do what we love, we are assumed to need less money because good feelings are the source of our motivation (even though those good feelings don’t pay the rent)?

These are questions that are raised in relation to sexuality, and that isn’t surprising. Add sex to just about any conversation about intentional exchange and suddenly questions arise about the meaning of the interaction. But they are questions that a lot of us need to be asking and answering. Writers, photographers and musicians. Educators, health care professionals and community organizers. Lots of us need to care about these questions.

So, given all of that, what does it mean that I’m just about to click “post,” send this bit of work out into the ether for free, and then indulge in some daydreaming about the kinds of communities in which people really do produce much of what they need and want directly, individually and collectively, in a way that leads to a simpler life with focus on doing things with meaning, things we love?

If these questions interest you, join Susan Miranda and me at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, August 14-17 in Alexandria, VA. We’ll be presenting “Radical Lessons from Sex Work: Meaning, Value and Human Rights,” where we will explore these themes and others. Are you coming? There are only a few more weeks of Early Bird Registration, so don’t miss out!

Sex Workers


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