All Sex is Transactional, Because It Takes Resources

Karl Marx. Image from Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.

FYI: This will be an obnoxiously Marxist blog post, and I hope everyone appreciates the helpful (and somewhat impish) spirit in which it is offered.

While at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit this past week, I listened in on a lot of conversations about sex work. The consensus in many feminist and sex-positive communities these days is that sex workers deserve human rights, just like everybody else, and decriminalization is likely a major step toward guaranteeing that.* The Amnesty International recommendation to decriminalize consensual adult sex work reflects this shift in opinion.

Another thing happened at the Summit: I had a chat with a colleague that alerted me to a possible argument in favor of normalizing sex work that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Imagine a handful of scenarios in which people want to have sex with one another:

  • A married couple travel separately for business to different cities, and decide to meet in the middle for a one-night rendezvous. They book a hotel room for this mini-getaway.
  • A heterosexual couple that doesn’t want kids wants to engage in penetrative sex, so they investigate their options and acquire birth control.
  • A young single person prepares to go on a date with someone they’ve been seeing for some time, and they’re hoping to have a safer sex elevator talk tonight, hopefully followed by some enthusiastically-consented-to sexytimes back at their apartment.

What do they all have in common? They require resources.

By “resources,” I mean commodities (many of them financial, like money, but basically things that are extrinsic to the person), to put toward solving the problems that wanting to engage in sex presents: access to birth control, access to a private space so as to avoid arrest for public indecency, and leisure time, among others. Not everyone can afford to throw these resources at sexual problem-solving, and that fact once again points to the importance of framing sex as a human rights and social justice issue.

I’ve blogged over at about sex as a universal human right, and the related rhetoric I often see about impoverished people being told to “just keep your legs closed” if you can’t afford kids. To reiterate my main point: it’s disgustingly classist to tell someone that they don’t deserve access to sexual pleasure and intimacy if they don’t have the money to ensure that the results of that sex act are optimal for their health and life goals.

Because here’s the thing: if someone’s not bringing resources to the table, sex is unlikely to happen in many cases. You can’t just screw on the street, since you’d get arrested. You can choose to engage in sex without using various barrier methods to prevent STI transmission and/or pregnancy, but for a lot of people that’s not a viable option. You could, in theory, stay home from work and roll around in bed, but if you do that instead of fitting sex into your non-work hours, what will you live on?

Some people require medication in order to be sexually active. Some people, who have different physical capabilities, may require equipment, or aid in some other fashion. It might be age, or physical or developmental disability, or trauma history… the list goes on. The topic of sexuality and disability is a huge one, so this is only skimming the surface.

My point is that if someone’s not bringing money or other resources to the table, sex cannot happen. Yes, in theory, someone could walk into the woods and find a secluded place in which to be sexually active. But how did you get to the woods – did you drive? Cars and drivers licenses and insurance and gas all cost money. Did you walk? Well, where do you live to place you so close in order to have that access? If you’re paying rent or a mortgage and have sex in your domicile, well, that’s an investment too.

I’d like to acknowledge that solo sex certainly counts as sex, but again, many of the same constraints arise: you can’t masturbate in public without drawing the ire of law enforcement (if you’re unlucky enough to get caught). You may still require tools or medication to make self-pleasure feasible. If nothing else you need the time in which to do it, and for many people, time is money.

Here’s the part where I get annoyingly old-school Marxist: many of these conditions are in place because of how we dwell in a capitalist society. Even our time is not our own. Time is money, after all. As Marx writes, “If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, binding me and nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties?”**

My comments pertain to capitalist societies, not all societies. Anyone who knows me knows that I loathe universals. Perhaps there are other societies in which sex is not as commodified or transactional as it is in every place touched by global capitalism, and I’d love to see what those societies look like. They’re just not what I’m talking about here.

So the next time you hear someone arguing that sex work is awful because it’s transactional, think about this: all our sex is transactional. It’s not always that explicit, but underlying our ability to be sexually active in this culture is a certain barrier to entry, one that requires the acquisition of private property, commodities, capital, and/or leisure time.

In other words, when’s the last time you got to fuck for free? Here and now, I’d suggest that the answer for most of us is, “Never.”

*Of course we distinguish between consensual sex work and trafficking/slavery, and anyone who tries to conflate the two is ignorant and/or trolling you. However, I recognize that I’m still new to learning about how to discuss sex work with nuance, since it’s not part of my life experience, and I welcome calling out/in or education, though I also know it’s not anyone’s job to educate me (for an example of me responding to a critique and being asked to check my privilege, see this blog post).

**The Marx and Engels Reader, 2nd Edition. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton & Co (1978), 104.

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