frontline 13

The Unionisation of Sex Workers

Dr Gregor Gall, Reader in Industrial Relations, University of Stirling continues the debate on prostitution, sex workers and sexual exploitation.


Throughout many countries of the world in recent years, sex workers, ranging from prostitutes, escorts, and massage parlour workers, to strippers/exotic dancers/lap dancers, pornographic models, pornographic actors/actresses, and sex chatline telephone operators, have begun to be in trade unions for the first time. This poses stark questions for socialists. Since the rise of the women’s movement, and almost exclusively, the broad range of socialists, feminist socialists and radicals have viewed prostitution and pornography as either, or both the cause and consequence of women’s oppression, in general and sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression in particular . Consequently, the abolition of both prostitution and pornography has been viewed as essential to women’s liberation.

But with the unionisation of sex workers, some of those who sell sex and sexual services are putting forward the claim to be ‘workers’. If this is valid, then unionisation is open to them as much as it is to any other workers. And if this is possible, then what role do sex workers stand to play in their own emancipation and liberation? This article will first trace the genesis of sex worker unionisation and the extent of this before briefly returning to these questions.

Sex as Work: Work as Sex

The conceptual fulcrum for organising sex workers is the discourse or perspective of viewing sex workers as workers whose labour, whether emotional or erotic, is deemed to have two qualities. It is of a sufficient level of moral legitimacy, and it has a social worth as a form of employment that are seen as to be seen to be comparable to other forms of labour and paid employment to be deemed worthy of, and acceptable, to organise. The perspective is also that sex workers sell sexual services and not their bodies and persons per se. A distinction is not made between acts which involve the selling of sex and acts, and of selling sexual stimulation, between those acts which involve entering a body, acting on another body or entering personal spaces and those which involve the production of imagery. Allied to this, sex work is viewed as comprising work that can be socially useful and can provide job satisfaction, personal fulfilment, empowerment and self-actualisation, where becoming a sex worker can be a genuine life choice. The conditions of this potentiality are acknowledged to be existent in the present, and to be potential greatly enhanced in the future under different conditions. However, it is recognised that alongside these potential benefits, there are downsides in terms of violence, stigmatisation, poor pay, conditions of employment, and job insecurity.

This sex work discourse is one that has been developed by sex workers themselves and their supporters such as liberal and libertarian feminists (and not sex industry employers). Without it, or at least certain parts of the discourse, it is inconceivable that the unionisation of sex workers is conceptually or practically possible. Sex workers are not viewed necessarily as victims or as helpless. Rather, they are conferred with rights and legitimacy. What makes the manifestations of this discourse so notable is that sex workers are fighting themselves to achieve its further dissemination and influence.

Antecedents to Unionisation

Almost exclusively prior to the mid-1980s, where there existed any collective organisations of sex workers, these were collective organisations of prostitutes where prostitutes themselves and an array of supporters constituted pressure groups to campaign for the general improvement in the conditions of prostitutes (legal, political, social).

The modern prostitute’s rights movement throughout the world began in the San Francisco in 1973 with creation of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). It sought to repeal existing prostitution law, empower prostitutes to bargain with their employers, educate the public on prostitution, end stigmatisation and campaign for health provision. A series of similar organisations, often affiliates of COYOTE, were set up in the following years in another twenty U.S. cities.

Over and above ‘sex work’ being work and a legitimate form of service work, these initial organisations have adopted perspectives of; a) women having the right to determine how they will use their own bodies with regard to prostitution, sexuality, sexual orientation, reproduction, and abortion, where to do otherwise is a breach of civil rights; b) most of the problems associated with prostitution (and sex work) relate to its prohibition and stigmatisation not prostitution per se; c) women are not driven into prostitution and sex work merely because of economic pressures for some freely choose prostitution; and d) prostitution will not end after capitalism.

Other organisations also developed. The US Prostitutes’ Collective (established 1980) and the English Collective of Prostitutes (established 1975) emerged from and were influenced by the International Wages for Housework Campaign, which was set up in 1972. They are part of the International Prostitutes’ Collective, which has affiliates in Canada, Trinidad and Tobago. These organisations see prostitution in class-based terms of the poor and oppressed against the rich and oppressors. The corollaries are that they believe that, on the one hand, poverty forces on women into prostitution, that prostitutes are exploited in common and that women who enter prostitution should not be punished for being poor or wanting to be financially independent of men, and on the other hand, that women need human, legal, economic and civil rights so that they are not forced into prostitution. This is seen as part of the struggle of the women’s and working class movements. However, they are abolitionists and see decriminalisation as an interim step towards this.

Following these developments in the U.S. and Britain, similar organisations with an array of affiliated views were established in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But all these organisations experienced deep-seated and extensive problems after initial bursts of enthusiasm and effort in terms of achieving radical law reform, public toleration, de-stigmatisation and material improvements in conditions of work. The source of these problems revolved around lack of resources and marginalisation in society.

Firstly, these prostitutes’ rights groups did not operate as membership-based organisations of prostitutes, which would levy subscriptions, create democratic structures, use participative processes of forming policies and deploy elected positions. Instead, they came to depend on a small milieu of self-selected charismatic leaders and non-prostitute supporters. Secondly, they experienced an inability to construct alliances with other groups such as feminists and trade unionists. Thirdly, they then faced a counter-offensive following the ascendancy of the moral majority after the rise of HIV/AIDS that scapegoated prostitutes as problems of health and morality. This compelled these groups into concentrating their work on health (of prostitutes) and education (of public stereotyping) issues and away from civil and human rights following this. Of course, these problems were not wholly of the prostitutes’ rights groups, but that was immaterial.

Towards Trade Unionism

The relative failure of the prostitutes’ rights groups as well as the spread of the sex work discourse by sex workers who represent forces outside of prostitution created a situation where the notion of trade unionism had a purchase amongst some sex workers. Thus, the transition from focussing on civil and political rights to economic and worker rights and from embodying pressure group activity to then organise in a union manner constitute two critical developments. Many sex workers have taken inspiration from the self-organisation of prostitutes’ rights groups and come to the conclusion that they did not go far enough. This has five elements:

  1. A transition from the perspective of self-help in society to self-activity in the workplace, although still retaining the self-help aspect of promotion of collective interests where the rights of workers, and sex workers in particular, are recognised to be shaped and influenced by processes outwith the workplace.
  2. An increasing focus on the self-activity of members as the source of influence to change their working environments and less emphasis on the activities of opinion leaders and advice specialists who are not sex workers themselves as a modus operandi. Concomitant, the orientation is on larger numbers of directly-involved workers.
  3. A recognition of the inadequacy of civil and human rights on their own to gain objectives, and thus a widening out to also pursue worker and union rights.
  4. An increasing focus on improving the terms of exchange/the wage-effort bargain in the workplace with conventional trade union terms deploying collective leverage.
  5. Activities which can be described as trade union actions and behaviours whereas before sex workers’ collective organisation were ‘trade unions’ either in name only or with conventional issues of wages and conditions being only a formal focus of attention.

Sex Workers as Trade Unionists

The stimuli to unionisation, given the above, have resulted from grievances at work and the refusal of owners and employers to adequately address these. Before detailing specific grievances, there are two main ones. The first is that many are not deemed by law to be employed. Instead, they are categorised as ‘independent contractors’, i.e. self-employed. Consequently, they have no job security, no guarantee of earnings, no health care provision, employment insurance and so on. The second is that despite being deemed as ‘independent contractors’, they are subject to controls over their employment like work patterns, pace of work and content of work.. However, different groups of sex workers also have slightly different grievances.

Brothel or parlour and escort agency prostitutes. Charges for working (‘fees’), ‘tools of the trade’ such as linen, sexual aids, condoms and lubricants, and for on-site food and drinks, mandatory tips to staff, determination of client charges, exercise of code of conducts on behaviour (time-keeping, refusal of customers, use of drugs and alcohol), discipline and monitoring, personal safety, health and safety of working conditions, job insecurity and victimisation.

Independent Prostitutes (street prostitutes, entrepreneurial prostitutes). Issues concern personal safety, police harassment, the right to run an ‘immoral’ business, the right to have partners live off ‘immoral’ earnings, the use of business cards, compulsory health testing, availability of health services.

Exotic Dancers (strippers, nude dancers, lap dancers, table dancers, burlesque). Fees, fines and charges, pay rates, working conditions concerning dressing rooms, nature of interaction with customers and poor professional standing.

Sex Chatline Workers. Unilateral management setting of, and monitoring of, performance targets, inability to refuse calls, lack of training and advice on handling of customers, poor pay and benefits, and routine of work.

The following survey of sex worker unionisation is inclusive of the main developments without being exhaustive. It comprises a small but significant development: small in an embryonic manner given size of the sex industry, but significant in that it may represent the beginning of a bigger trend. Starting in Britain, three lap-dancing clubs are unionised and for which the GMB has union recognition agreements. There is also a unionised brothel. The GMB, after the London-based International Union of Sex Workers joined with it in 2002, is primarily targeting Spearmint Rhino and other major lap-dancing clubs for recruitment and recognition. In Germany, the Verd.i public sector union is recruiting and organising prostitutes in Dortmund and Hamburg, where it has helped set up a works council in one brothel. In the Netherlands, the long-standing Red Thread prostitutes’ rights group has become part of the FNV union confederation and the FNV is now organising and representing prostitutes.

In the U.S., after a long struggle the Lusty Lady peepshow in San Francisco, the dancers unionised and gained union recognition in 1996. Following closure by the employer, the dancers and other staff bought the club, turning it into a workers’ cooperative in 2003. Between 1993 and 1996, Pacer’s in San Diego was both unionised and had union recognition. Elsewhere, dancers have unionised but failed to gain union recognition in Seattle, Anchorage, Philadelphia and Las Vegas. In Australia, two prostitutes’ rights groups (Workers in the Sex Industry, Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria) joined the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in 1995. In 2002, the Striptease Artists of Australia was formed as a union to represent lap dancers and strippers, while UNITE in New Zealand organises prostitutes and dancers. Less advanced developments and formations exist in South Africa, Eire, Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago.

Where a relatively stable union presence and union recognition has been established like the clubs like the Lusty Lady or Majingos in London and brothels in Australia and the Netherlands, significant advances have been made in winning better terms and conditions for sex workers. As might be expected, employers have resisted the moves towards unionisation and the exercise of union recognition and collective bargaining. They have engaged in strategies of suppression (sackings, victimisation, violence, favouritism) and substitution (house mothers, concessions, staff forums) to avoid and crush unionisation while deploying ‘surface bargaining’ to undermine the process of collective bargaining. Established unions’ interest in helping unionise sex workers has resulted from trying to tackle their own membership declines, realising the de facto employment relationship of most sex workers, becoming open to the sex work discourse, seeing that not all sex work comprises prostitution and the legal reform of the position prostitution towards a more liberal status (e.g., Australia, Germany and Netherlands).

Sex work and socialism: Sex work under socialism

Two broad schools of thought exist on the relationship between sex work and socialism. The first postulates that there will be no need for sex work and thus, sex workers under socialism where the very oppression of women and the commodification of sexuality, of which sex work is part, will cease to exist as the material basis for these will be abolished. The other suggests that sex work and sex workers will continue to exist, but in a radically transformed context, where the stigmatisation, oppression and exploitation often represented by sex work will be abolished, leaving sex work to be conditioned by relatively free and unproblematic economic exchanges based on fully liberated sexuality, educational functions and personal development. Here, it is argued the full but as yet untapped value of sex work will be realised. Those advocates of organising sex workers, organisers of sex workers and a number of sex workers themselves belong to this school of thought.

However, both schools of thought represent rather abstract perspectives for two areas are not addressed. For the abolitionists, an ultra-left position is adopted where no consideration is given to the role of sex workers in abolishing sex work in terms of self-emancipation. Thus, do self-ascribed sex workers and unionised sex workers represent an obstacle to abolishing sex work because they have a vested interest in maintaining sex work as their employment as well as decriminalising it (and thus potentially allying themselves with sex industry employers), or can they be won to a position of actively engaging in the abolition of their work and retraining for socially useful work?

For the proponents of sex work as potentially free labour, no attention has been given to how the unionisation of sex workers may assist with other workers in the creation of a socialist society, the destigmatisation of sex work and ending of exploitation associated with sex work at present, again through self-emancipation and as part of a wider coalition of progressive forces. This is because it is predominantly assumed with the sex work discourse that liberated sex work can exist under capitalism and that this should be an end itself.


The predominantly hostile reaction from socialist to sex worker self-organisation has not always reflected what may be supposed to be a tradition of outright hostility. Marx argued: ‘Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker’ and Clara Zetkin recounted not unfavourably in discussions with Lenin in 1924 a woman communist politically organising prostitutes in Hamburg and bringing out a newspaper for them during the early part of the German Revolution (1918-1923).