The first of a few excerpts from the Bitch interview with the editors of $pread. There's some interesting comments here on the difficulty of unionizing, because 1) the work itself is often illegal, 2) sex workers themselves aren't always interested in unionization – they often like the unregulated nature of the sex industry for reasons of their own, and 3) the existing organized labor movement doesn't exactly reach out to sex workers.
So, to lay it out: What are the primary labor issues affecting sex workers?
Rachel Lynn: The primary issue for prostitutes (including private call girls, streetwalkers, agency escorts, etc.) is the fact that prostitution is illegal in this country: The fear of being arrested makes everything more dangerous. If your job is illegal in the first place, you cant call the police if you get beaten up or raped by a client. For strippers, there's the issue of exploitation by managers, because it's now become the norm for strip clubs to charge strippers a house fee in order to work. Strippers often end up paying out over half their tips to the house, or even going home in debt, because in some places the house fees are so high.
Sex-industry workplaces tend to be more exploitative than most workplaces, mainly because even the legal industries are still usually run in a somewhat under-the-table manner, with workers getting paid in cash and many workers not having legal work permits. The managers can get away with more because they're not regulated. Most sex workers don't have contracts, so they can be fired anytime; they don't get sick pay, paid vacation time, health insurance, etc. But this is a very tricky issue, because many sex workers would prefer to take their chances in a semi-legal, unregulated, exploitative business environment where they can make money off the books, not have to pay taxes, have a flexible schedule, take vacation time whenever they want, etc., rather than be tied down in a 9-to-5 job, even if it means forfeiting the benefits. So when people talk about wanting to unionize and regulate the sex industry, that's not necessarily what the majority of sex workers want. There are even some prostitutes who don't want their work to be decriminalized because they're concerned about what the change would mean.
Is sex work considered a legitimate locus of organizing within the labor movement? Do existing labor unions want to be aligned with the sex industry?
Eliyanna Kaiser: The U.S. labor movement isn't working to unionize sex workers; that's just the reality. And it's not because union leaders or staff aren't progressive enough, although that might also be true in some cases. $pread editors are split on this, but it's my belief that there is no [organized] sex workers' rights movement in the United States. And until sex workers have achieved a minimum of self-organization, there is no reason why the mainstream labor movement should be expected to lift a finger to do that work for us.
When I interviewed [labor movement veteran] Bill Fletcher Jr. for $pread, the main issue that he raised was morality. And there's no point in underemphasizing the role that morality plays in how sex workers are able to work with other movements. Until sex workers can achieve a broad consensus for our rights – at least in the progressive left – it's silly to think we will be able to do anything significant to achieve real change. Movements are not comprised of their constituents. They are dynamic coalitions that require that the affected constituency is talking to others who have found common cause in struggle. Workers in the labor movement don't look at sex workers right now and see their mirror image. This is our challenge, and it starts with organizing ourselves to talk.