Katha Pollitt’s Quality Control

The nature of a product is irrelevant to how we should theorize, legislate, or organize the labor involved in producing it.

Katha Pollitt’s “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal? is the latest in a spate of perturbed responses to Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.

Pollitt is concerned that the Left’s embrace of the “‘sex work is work’ cliché” normalizes male privilege and entitlement. With her trademark blend of sass and opprobrium at those damn kids, Pollitt insists to those that liken sex work to waiting tables, “Maybe there’s a difference between a blowjob and a slice of pie . . . a difference that today’s young left feminists don’t want to think about.” She goes on:

When feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area. They accept that sex is something women have and men get (do I hear ‘rape culture,’ anyone?), that men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her.

So, the difference between a blowjob and a slice of pie is that (paid) blowjobs are toxic to the social fabric while pie offers either a net gain or a neutral contribution to society as a whole. I’ll leave the question of whether pie and/or fellatio perpetuate cultures of entitlement to someone who thinks this is at all relevant to a serious discussion of any sort of work. My view is that workers don’t need to answer to the social impacts of the products their labor might produce.

Pollitt’s piece is, at the very least, a departure from the anti-sex work pap that uses sex work as an alibi for everything that makes the author uncomfortable about the violence of earning a living under capitalism. Anti-sex work writer Sheila Jeffreys’ lament that if porn performers refuse to do hardcore scenes “the money dries up and they are on the street once more” is far too easy to swallow (ahem).

By making sex work exceptional, analyses like Jeffreys’ ask us to forget that the wage system functions precisely by compelling us to work, a point Peter Frase has made in his post-work analysis of sexual labor. If only everyone who opposes forcing people to work under threat of poverty and homelessness would join the struggle for a guaranteed annual income.

But Pollitt’s argument isn’t that sex work is an exceptional site of economic coercion, so pointing out that exploitation and economic coercion are endemic to all labor under capital is not enough — “OK, OK, sex work is work, I get the point!” she writes. For her, sexual labor’s purported products, not the conditions workers encounter, are the issue. This is why we’re asked to contemplate the absurdity of a blowjob and a slice of pie as similar products, but not how the emotional and physical labor of giving a blowjob or serving pie might be similarly experienced by workers (carpal tunnel and the exhaustion of an hours-long forced smile), or how management in both contexts might extract profit by similar means.

Likewise, the version of “exploitation” we’re asked to confront is a matter of product quality, not labor. Pollitt writes, “To acknowledge that sex work is exploitative — that it involves a particularly intimate form of male privilege, which bleeds into other areas of life — would be too sentimental, and too disturbing.” Yes, using the Marxist language of “exploitation” for purposes untethered from naming the process by which capital expropriates the products of our labor is indeed disturbing. The same commentators who suggest that sex work activists have too much class privilege to “speak for the rank and file” as Pollitt puts it, advocate a version of exploitation totally devoid of class analysis.

Why, under the banner of concern for “the women at the heart of the debate” (represented by a list of predictable tropes of abject sex workers) is Pollitt asking us to consider whether prostitution encourages men to feel entitled to sex without having to charm an unpaid woman in a bar? Because the women at the heart of this debate aren’t sex workers, but secondary consumers who might have to deal with male partners who are rude, socially awkward, or bad in bed.

Unpaid intimacy is a space of work too, and a Marxist feminist dialogue about how paid and unpaid sexual partners might struggle in solidarity would be wonderful. That would, however, require a radical departure from the “you’re not a worker because I don’t like what you produce” line of argument.

It’s rhetoric we’re all too familiar with. Catherine MacKinnon made the question of which women count painfully clear: “One does not have to notice that pornography models are real women to whom something real is being done . . . The aesthetic of pornography itself, the way it provides what those who consume it want, is itself the evidence.” Pollitt suggests that Gira Grant spends too much time taking easy shots at the “dead gray mare of 1980s anti-porn feminism.” “Was any cause ever so decisively defeated?” she writes.

But one of the more chilling aspects of that cause — the insistence that workers don’t matter, products are the point — is alive and well at The Nation.

I suggest the reverse: the nature of a product is irrelevant to how we should theorize, legislate, or organize the labor involved in producing it. Workers are not socially accountable for whatever may come from their work. To accept otherwise encourages the over-identification with work that management finds so efficient in getting us to do more for less. It allows capital to extract not only time, but also ethical responsibility from workers. It sets the labor movement up for just the sort of hierarchy of workers Pollitt advocates.

She doesn’t know “how many waitresses would agree” that sex work is similar to theirs and doesn’t “think anyone at Jacobin is asking them.” Despite my best efforts, I can’t be moved to care if our labor organizing interferes with your respectability politics.