Guest post: “Sex work” and child labour

Originally a comment by Bernard Hurley on The myth that it is possible to commodify consent.

The great genius of the neo-liberalism is that it can commodify anything.

Once there is general acceptance of this philosophy, terms like “sex worker” tend to get a free pass. If you take it as axiomatic that a so-called “free” market enhances the agency of all involved then it might seem draconian to interfere with the “sex market” and take away the agency of all involved.

The arguments advanced for the full decriminalisation of the “sex market” bear a striking resemblance to those advanced in favour of child labour in nineteenth century Britain. We are told “sex work is work like any other work”; I don’t know if any of the defenders of child labour actually said “child labour is labour like any other labour,” but they said plenty of things that suggest they would concur with this idea. Just as it is argued that some women could not survive without prostitution and others became prostitutes out of choice, so it was argued that some children could not survive without factory work and others worked out of choice; just as you can find ex-prostitutes who will tell you how liberating their “sex work” had been, so you could find adults who looked back fondly at their time working a child in a factory; just as some prostitutes go on to become brothel keepers¹ so some child labourers went on to become factory owners.

It took a lot of struggle to ban child labour. The 1833 Factories Act is often seen as a landmark victory in this struggle but by modern standards it is woefully inadequate²; however it is worthy of note that it criminalised factory owners not child labourers, similarly we criminalise slave owners not slaves. There are clear precedents for legislation along the lines of the Nordic model not only working but working well.

But there are other worrying aspects of this. A card-carrying neo-liberal could respond to the claim that “sex work” cannot be carried out in line with normal health and safety regulations with “So much the worse for health and safety regulations.” Indeed I fail to see how it could become normal work without a substantial dilution of such regulations.

Beware what you inflict on the weakest in society for there are those who would inflict it on you.


[1] I have heard this fact used as an argument for the legalisation of the “sex market;” after all, if prostitution were so terrible would someone who had experienced it inflict it on others?

[2] It made it illegal to employ children aged under 9 in factories and restricted the hours of those under 13.

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