Toward a Class Analysis of the Sex Industry

Submitted by Martha Roberts, for the ILPS Symposium on the struggles of homeless, urban poor, and internally displaced people, May 19, 2018

As we advance the political positions and struggles of the urban poor, homeless, and internally displaced within the imperialist countries, including proletarian sex workers, we must situate our developing understanding of sex work within a dialectical material analysis of the sex industry. Our class unity is held back by moralism, idealism, and an over-emphasis on interpersonal rather than social relations. We must reject the liberal and petty-bourgeois individualism that focuses on the individual sex worker as the point of analysis, and rather seek to understand the class relations in the industry and the global imperialist context in which the capitalist class in this industry derives super-profits.

Global Context of the Sex Industry

An anti-imperialist analysis of the sex industry requires an examination of the four intertwining factors create the context for the grossly disproportionate representation of women, LGBTQ, and gender non-conforming people from exploited nations in the sex industry.


  1. Dispossession, landlessness, and global chains of labour:

Massive accumulation of land by monopoly corporations, the big bourgeoisie, and feudal landlords push rural farmer nationality and indigenous communities into wholesale displacement from their lands through land grabbing, mono-crop production, tourism, and environmental destruction from mining, fracking, imperialist-fuelled natural disasters, and war.

Samir Amin estimates that there are over three billion people engaged in peasant farming and that their continual movement into precarious (and super-exploited) labour is forced by the steady rise of agri-business in the Third World driven by global capital. This process of proletarianization mirrors the development of capital in the imperialist countries in Europe where the slow process of primitive land accumulation by the emerging bourgeoisie saw to the proletarianization of millions of peasants and on Turtle Island where genocide through war and disease gave way to genocide enacted through the continued appropriation of land and resources by capitalists with legal and political backing of the bourgeois state.


  1. Imperialist occupation, wars of aggression, and counter-insurgency.

Occupation, militarization, and imperialist wars of aggression drive displacement, migration, and super-exploitation. Accumulation is the basis of war. When economic self-sufficiency and national development in the exploited nations has been squashed by imperialism it sets the stage for labour export as the basis of the economy. Exploited nations are controlled through state interference by forces like the IMF/WB and philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates, and through the economy by over-reliance on the import of capital and the export of profits to the imperialist countries and their ruling elites, predominantly in Africa and South East Asia. Through these intertwining factors, entire communities become proletarianized in global chains of forced labour migration.

International organizations and national states cannot agree on terminology and figures, but the ILO estimates near 20 million people in forced labour across international borders, with 4.5 in the sex industry and 14.2 million in domestic work, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. Export of human labour is a major commodity exchange and source of profits for capitalists. Where researchers and analysts do seem to agree is that, whether willing or forced, economic migrants are struggling for survival in a grossly inequitable economic system where profits and capital are increasingly centralized in the hands of the global bourgeoisie.


  1. Patriarchal social and state reaction:

Patriarchal power structures and gender norms enforce the particular exploitation of women, LGBTQ, and gender non-conforming people through a spectrum of moral, legal, and quasi-legal state policies such as limiting women’s democratic and property rights, forced and unpaid reproductive labour, and state sanctioned femicide – for example: Canada’s 4000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Patriarchal control is a continuum book-ended by profiting from sexual commodification on one side and moralistic control over sexuality, sexual orientation, gender expression, reproduction and social participation on the other.

Bourgeois state laws criminalizing or regulating the sex industry are historically rooted in British common law regulating poor women in the growing urban centres and in the moral purity movement regulating the sexual activities of women. These regulations enforced upper class social expectations had the effect of confining women in the home providing the unpaid labour that is the foundation for the capitalist exploitation of the worker.

Let us be clear that patriarchal and religious moralism oppresses women for the benefit of the capitalist class and so proletarians regardless of their source of income have a shared stake in fighting that class. There is a downward spiral of abandonment by the state and criminalization that destroys the lives of women forced to the periphery of the proletariat.


  1. Exploitation and super-exploitation:

Work is gendered to the economic benefit of the capitalist class through increasing exploitation. Women earn 75% of their male counterparts and are segregated into low pay and high demand “caring professions”. While research is less vigorous, one can find similar figures for trans people, pushed into more exploitative and more emotionally demanding industries. Gendered migration patterns are reinforced by state immigration programs. Women may migrate as cashiers, food service workers, or care-givers, but this doesn’t mean that sexual services are not expected of them. Sexual exchange is a norm of capitalism and represents a spectrum of activity from rape within marriage to escort work in high-end agencies; moral discussions particularizing prostitution disguise the purpose of patriarchal norms: the accumulation of capital.



For example, within the literature on the sex industry and trafficking, exploitation is given to mean undue hardship, unfair treatment, or the use of forced child labour. If we use exploitation in this way, how can we understand where capital comes from? This definition of exploitation mystifies the economics of capital accumulation, hiding how profit is produced by the working class. Exploitation occurs upon unequal exchange of a workers’ labour for a return in wages far less than the value of the commodities those workers produced. It is the proletariat, and not the “market”, that pumps profits into the economy; profit is value produced by workers and expropriated by the bourgeoisie.  All industries exploit workers, the sex industry is no exception. Sex workers are exploited at many sites of production, such as strip clubs and in the production of pornography as just two examples.



To dig deeper we need to understand that super-exploitation abounds in the industry and among millions of migrant workers, including the internally displaced, under conditions of semi-slavery. Racism, colonization, and settler society drive super-exploitation on Turtle Island, and we know Indigenous women are concentrated in super-exploitative conditions. Super-exploited workers are bound to employers or work places through contractual obligations or debt bondage that deny certain freedoms available to the rest of the proletariat. This is a common facet of the sex industry, for example, someone might willingly enter into verbal contract and migrate for the purposes of prostitution, but then find that the conditions of work are continually shifting in favour of the employer as debts pile up.

These types of conditions force people to work for below their own cost of reproduction – set at the minimum wage by the capitalist state. Super-exploitation is the new frontier of global wealth acquisition. Super-exploitation of third world workers creates super-profits for imperialists such as the Bill Gates (Apple), Christine Walton (Walmart), and Henry Sy (Super Mall/Shoe Mart). But super-exploitation is backbone of capital accumulation within the imperialist countries. At Surrey People Power we have already heard dozens of stories of super-exploited workers under conditions of unfree labour within Surrey alone.

Slide8 Lumpenproletariat:

One flawed analytical trend within the Marxist tradition is to erroneously label workers in the sex industry, in particular street level prostitutes, as lumpenproletariat: considered to have no stake in the class struggle since the lumpenproletariat don’t engage in common labour and don’t produce anything – therefore are not exploited. This is bunk class analysis. Many goods are services are produced in the sex industry and, as with all industries, there exists a class stratification including workers, managers, small business people, and monopoly bourgeoisie.

Criminalized industries are typically labelled as lumpen-proletariat for being “parasitical” to the working class, but capital is what is parasitical to the working class – the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetics industry are two examples of industries that have heinous impacts on the people. What we do need to tackle is the question of class consciousness and class allegiance – we need workers to understand they are workers and how they are exploited, and to identify and participate in the class struggle!

Toward a Materialist Analysis of the Sex Industry

We agree there exists in the sex industry, like all industries under imperialism, a class stratification where some profit off the exploitation of others.  The sex industry is not an exceptional industry, and we should remove moralism from our investigation, analysis, and debate on the industry and the workers within that industry. When idealism and moralism skew analysis this should be exposed and challenged.

What is the sex industry? It is a grouping of commodities and sexual services including industrial-scale pornography, small-scale pornography, phone sex, internet sex, exotic dancing, adult entertainment, escort agencies, massage parlors, brothels, independent escorts, and street-level sex workers.

Effective mass line is shaped by our class analysis, and class analysis involves identifying who are the people we’re trying to organize and who are the people we’re trying to isolate and overthrow.



We must identify the correct enemy and build unity among our friends or else we’re sunk! We’ve lost before we started! And if we look around and see that our allies are right wing conservatives and neo-fascists, chances are we’re on the wrong side!

A class division exists in the sex industry as with all industries of under capitalism – an exploitative social relation where the owners or shareholders profit from the economic exploitation of the workers within the industry. And criminalized industries are particularly violent, and the rate of super-exploitation and slavery is undoubtedly higher in the sex industry, but overall the methods of accumulation are not necessarily exceptional to the sex industry.

There is a bourgeoisie who reaps surplus value and accumulates capital from selling sex and sexuality. Who profits from the industry? The enemy is the legal monopoly corporations and the criminalized bourgeoisie and their organizations that accumulate capital through the exploitation of labour. That’s who the enemy is, the bourgeoisie.



The proletariat are the people. This includes people who work for wages, by service provided, and for tips – those women that receive only a portion of their earnings while the remainder; research indicates 80% of value produced in the industry is centralized into the hands of the bosses and owners.

There is a heated and almost panicked debate on the left on the questions of how agency and free choice shape sex work in unique ways.  For sure, some women face conditions of literal slavery (we will come to that), for many it is a “survival job” until something better comes along, and for some it is a last-ditch attempt to make ends meet in the context of shrinking social programs. And once working in the industry it can be very hard to move out of the industry. At one point, 75% of street-based survival sex workers reported being in prison within the last 6 months. A criminal record is a heavy burden for survival workers. “Doors are slammed in our faces”, as my comrade Jenn Allan says, when trying to access housing and alternative work options. I guess the question is, how does agency and choice impact our organizing work in other comparable situations? In domestic work, or in agricultural labour? Let us take a breath and rationally consider the parallels.

And while we might shy away from saying it, since as anti-imperialists we don’t condone the commodification of any human being, some men who buy sex are also the people. There is some pretty good investigation into the alienated social conditions of working class men who buy sex, and this needs to be seriously addressed.


Slide11 POSITION #1: Practice mass line and organize the working class!

Welcome all workers into class-based organizations and build solid mass organizations that can tackle the economic demands of it’s members, conduct thorough social investigation and rigorous class analysis. Any limits to the rights of workers to organize should be exposed and opposed.


POSITION #2: Acknowledge that bourgeois law is not an instrument of liberation

Throughout history prostitution laws have been rooted in bourgeois morality and white supremacy. We know that bourgeois laws often don’t protect working class women. The bourgeois criminal justice system is not an instrument of liberation for working class and oppressed nationality women.

Benefits and harms within the law are a knife-edge balance: this is the dialectic of the bourgeois justice system which simultaneously has positive and negative impacts. For example:

  • Profit margins. When laws criminalizing the sex industry increase [criminalizing individual sex workers and/or the organized activity surrounding sex work] this has been shown in economic analysis to impact the profit margins of the bourgeoisie within the industry by increasing the costs of establishing and running a business. Yet, reducing profit margins for profiteers inversely increases violence against sex workers.
  • Acceptability of buying sex. There is no definitive evidence to support the claim that criminalizing men who buy sex reduces the number of women entering prostitution. There is evidence that criminal laws shape public opinion to make buying sex less legitimate, but once again, increasing the rule of law has the inverse relationship of forcing sex workers into unsafe working conditions, rushing them to conduct transactions without consideration of their safety.
  • Trafficking. There is evidence that harsher criminal laws decrease the volume of trafficked persons entering the country for the purposes of exploitation or slavery within the sex industry. There is no conclusive evidence that rather than decreasing trafficking, it rather pushes it out of the sight of those who would measure it. Again, this increases violence and stigma against sex workers within the industry.

There is a contradiction in the industry. We don’t want to normalize the destruction of women’s lives by imperialism, but no bourgeois-sanctioned solution exists to the abhorrent commodification of women or extreme violence in the sex industry. We can’t separate patriarchal sexual norms from the economic functioning of capitalism. The sexual commodification of women rests on the commodification of all workers under the private ownership of property and bourgeois control of the state.


POSITION #3: Slavery is rampant in the industry and must be seriously addressed

It is a moralistic assumption that there can be no true consensual participation in the sex industry, and we should dismiss that claim as idealistic and erroneous. But there is a high rate of slave labour within the sex industry proportional to other industries. According to the Federal Government data, Canada is a destination and a transit point for persons trafficked into the industry from China, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Russia, Korea, and Eastern Europe.

We need a class analysis of who is an exploited worker, who is a super-exploited worker, and who is a slave. How do we include an analysis of women captured as spoils of imperialist wars? Or women drugged and trafficked to communities where they are kept under conditions of lock and key? This is not employment and these human beings are not workers but rather prostituted in a practice of slavery that conditions the sex industry. The only way to conduct this analysis as anti-imperialist mass organizations is to engage workers in the industry within our organizations and alliances.

We need an analysis of trafficking that doesn’t assume all women in the sex industry are trafficked, and that many women who migrate as labourers in other industries such as the caregiving industry are expected to provide sexual services as an unspoken aspect of their contractual obligations.


POSITION #4:  Fight for wealth redistribution through social programs that alleviate poverty

Despite our critique of the bourgeois state, the state does enact useful functions such as minimal economic redistribution through economic social programs such as welfare and public health programs.

We should expose and oppose state spending priorities. We know from all our collective experience that the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, and state redistributive programs and social policies that favour the poor are better for our whole societies health and well being. Cuts to social programs have been shown to correlate with women entering the sex industry. High costs of housing and tuition leave poor people fewer and fewer options. Child apprehension breaks apart communities, in particular Indigenous communities, and as youth age out of state care, poverty rates are extremely high. Finally, instead of putting money into policing we should be putting money into collective social programs that help instead of harm, that lift up, instead of criminalizing; let’s not be duped by the rhetoric of community policing.


The ILPS is an international alliance of mass organizations who unite on the fight against imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. The stated objective of ILPS is to “promote, support, and develop anti-imperialist and democratic struggles of the peoples of the world against imperialism and all reaction”. Our member organizations span the globe and represent peasant, rural, indigenous, internally displaced, urban poor, and exploited women workers.  There is great diversity in our experiences. Developing political positions based on the process of social investigation and class analysis takes time, patience, and a will for collaboration. Thank you for joining us in that process.