II. Mutiny of the Body: On Sex Work and the Political Economy of Care
In this essay I want to continue looking at sex work as a dimension that generates what Joan Tronto calls “integrated acts of care” or the affective and ethical dispositions involved in relational practices of fostering attention and holding space for another human. In my previous essay, I discussed the idea of an ‘ethics of care’, introducing my research on care in economies of reproductive labor, such as service work, pleasure economies, domestic work, and sex work as forms of labour that allow for the regeneration and maintenance of the bodies and minds. Here, I will expand on what I mean by an ‘ethics of care’ and the integrated acts of care that permeate those ethics. I will discuss the entanglement of care, sex work, and gender; the historical pitfalls and the generative/contemporary considerations of those fields.
Joan Tronto’s “Ethics of Care”
Joan Tronto articulated the dimensions that join to generate an “integrated” act of care: the affective and ethical dispositions involved in concern, worry, and taking responsibility for other’s well being such as “caring about” and “taking care of”, need to be supported by material practices- traditionally understood as maintenance, or concrete work involved in actualizing care, such as “care giving” and “care receiving” (Tronto 1993, 105-108, sevenhuijsen 1998). The distinction between “taking care of” and “care giving” does not separate these modes of agency. A politics of care engages much more than a moral stance; it involves affective, ethical, and hands on agencies of practical and material consequence.”
Relying on the feminist ideals culitivated by Virginia Held, Carol Gilligan, and Joan Tronto in the 1980s (quoted above) I want to examine the opportunities in re-defining an ‘ethic of care’. Similar to contemporary notions of social reproduction theory, an “ethic of care” provides strong arguments that presuppose an end to the profit motive’s reign over interpersonal economies. An ethic of care reorganizes the class politics of care to be a collective ecology rather than one of values concerned with self interest or privatized commodity. In as much as neoliberalism is not only a description of economic life, but also an ethical system that posits the hierarchy of the individual over the community, a contemporary ethic of care demands the organization of social and political values over economic ones, taking into account the way that the values of neoliberal capitalism allow the market to dictate our relationships to one another.
In an interview with Dissent Magazine, Nancy Fraser eloquently breaks down the idea of a “Crisis of Care” and the intersection of social depletion and neolibieral economics. “In capitalist societies, the capacities available for social reproduction are accorded no monetized value. They are taken for granted, treated as free and infinitely available “gifts,” which require no attention or replenishment. It’s assumed that there will always be sufficient energies to sustain the social connections on which economic production, and society more generally, depend. When a society simultaneously withdraws public support (day care, childcare, meal distribution, community recreation centers, health care) for social reproduction and conscripts the chief providers of it into long and grueling hours of paid work, it depletes the very social capacities on which it depends. The current, financialized form of neoliberal capitalism is systematically consuming our capacities to sustain social bonds, like a tiger that eats its own tail. The result is a “crisis of care” that is every bit as serious and systemic as the current ecological crisis, with which it is, in any case, intertwined.”
Fraser’s description of social depletion locates a very useful analyses of ‘the social body’ pinpoint the economic hierarchy of production over reproduction in maintaining and sustaining bodies, as well as the relational maintenance that is mis-negotiated in said hierarchy. Nancy Fraser articulates the social depletion that has become hegemonic, that is to say, nearly universal both within the context of neoliberalism but also in the context of a global pandemic that starves many communities of public support for social reproduction. Herein lies the opportunity to radicalize and redefine care both as a solution and a theoretical praxis.
Social repair then, is a project for engendering new forms of co-existence that can replenish said depletion. It is a project for radical tenderness, networks of emotional support, collaborative pedagogies, intimacy, pleasure, interconnectedness and rest. The project of reclaiming agency within problematic structures is synonymous with collectivized care and repair because the nature of affect, social replenishment, empathy, and emotional support is fundamentally a pluralized experience dependent on the feedback loop of human relationality. Equally important, if not more important than a socialized economic restructuring of care, is the paradigm shift of interdependence. An ethics of care beyond mere survival (which, as a human species, we have not yet achieved) is contingent upon the collective discernment of needs. We might also phrase this as collective accountability or the consideration of responsibility to not just the personal household, immediate family, or individual survival, but also to a wider spectrum of kin such as neighbors, friends, mutually consensual sexual players members of our local communities who need more support. Where the state is not accountable to itself, local and global networks of care can be accountable to one another. This is the expanded definition of care I hope to elevate, and through which I want to frame sex work.
The economy of personal growth, well-being, intimacy, self-hood, and the value of “authentic” interaction be it engineered or not- carves out a space both for existential vulnerabilities and the socially reproductive forms of labor that those vulnerabilities demand. The sex industry, varied in all its forms (criminalized or not) is an example of an economy that relegates emotional labor as a commodity. Sex work has existed as an economic sector of relationality for centuries- almost as long as reproductive labor has been designated to women. I wish to identify the way that sex work has historically been a source of emotional, physical and psychic replenishment to both the working and middle class yet has never objectively been assimilated into mainstream economies of care. Despite sexist legislation riddled with reactionary hypocritcal moralism, sex work is an active economy all over the world. In all its forms, sex work provides attention, emotional and physical stimulation, amusement, pleasure, intimacy, and various degrees of emotional labor on a transactional basis.
Care ≠ Femme
There are various pitfalls in the political landscape of care and gender. The problematic nature of those pitfalls involves an assumption that sex workers are performing gender and thus are providing care as part of that performance. Emotional labor in sex work, and arguably all work, refers to the invisible yet highly necessary work of keeping other people comfortable and happy- historically attributed to ‘feminine’ or ‘maternal’ gender performance. This stereotype here is deeply regressive as it binds domestic work to care to sex to feminity. It also binds services in sex work to gender performance and a gender binary that is wildly inaccurate. These are not the appropriate avenues of exploring care, gender, or sex work by any means.
The social and political value of care has been a substantial bedrock of feminism and the fight for gender equality where unpaid reproductive labor is exploited as a national resource. My analysis of care is firmly rooted alongside the pillars of reproductive feminist theory, its legacy, and its contemporary embodiment in current forms of capitalist critique. In this section I will reflect on the synapse and ambivalence in anchoring a revolution of care in the doctrines of feminism.
There is an economic compulsion towards a gendered division of labor, as women have been the labor force procreating and reproducing capitalist subjects (bodies) for centuries. As Silvia Federici argues in “Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle”, the class that performs this work is the epitome of precariousness and furthermore is made up overwhelmingly of women. Trajectories towards repair proposed by feminist movements for the last 50 years demand solidarity and fortified socialized support of the jobs that have historically been the biopower behind ‘care work’ such as educators, service workers, childcarers, nurses, house cleaners, sex workers, midwives, and home carers. Despite the stratification of domestic and reproductive labor beneath production, the domestic sphere is central to economic and political life. Feminist social movements today successfully delineate the manipulation of a gendered workforce that is enmeshed in the exploitation of intangible labor via the institution of marriage. However, I will note that there is a tendency is mainstream feminism to diminish the true role of slavery and race that continue to perpetuate gender violence and disproportionally affect caregivers all over the world.
A proposition for the radical genesis of care should not be confined to gender because gender violence is not freestanding. The entanglement of social reproduction, care, engendered labour are tedious. That being said, my aim in this essay, is to calcify the notion that an expanded definition of care as a radical and holistic ecology will posit sex work at the forefront of maintaining the social body and in doing so (radicalizing care, means) dis-associating the term from it’s historically gendered connotations. Sex work is not a performance of gender so much as it is a performance of collectivity and care. It must be liberated from it’s historically gendered framework. As I attach ‘an ethics of care’ to the labour force behind sex work, I want to dis-integrate care from its gendered associations. I discussed this among other things on Radio AVA in October.
Towards a Commons That Supports Sex Workers
Sex work, the pleasure economy, and forms of emotional labor are provisions of care and need not be overlooked as we embark on a new year of social repair and recovery from the alienation we have experienced through a global pandemic. It is a provision of care that engenders forms of coexistence fostering radical tenderness, raw sensorial experience, networks of emotional support, intimacy, pleasure, interconnectedness, and rest. The consideration of sex work is a rudimentary part of social healing as pleasure, attention and sensorial connection are fundamentally essential ingredients of the social body.
The intervention in the deformed neoliberal practices of resource distribution, social relation, and affective continuity is inclusive of a broader effort to radicalize care as a political practice. How can we collectively reclaim our capacity to holistically support one another? Resolving the subjective crisis of social depletion calls for a new way of relating to one another, a new way of relating economy to the body politic, a new way of relating production to reproduction and a new way of relating public and private spheres.The theoretical framework and practice of ‘the commons’ addresses both an ethic of care (as it pertains to relationality) and also distributive justice. It is representative of a public form of care as it is an arena that houses both literally and theoretically public and private responsibilities to each other.
What does a generative rather than extractavist approach to care entail? An alternative model for economic restructuring might bypass the state, wherein the demand for instrumentalized subjectivity and transactional relationships involving care, intimacy, support, and mutual aid can be met with the power of an autonomous public capital for sex workers internationally.