This article considers the figure of the sex worker across Marxist political economy. Taking up what Melissa Gira Grant terms the “prostitute imaginary,” the authors suggest that from classical political economy to contemporary Marxist-feminist thought, the sex worker has been rhetorically deployed to trouble the boundaries between productive, unproductive, and reproductive work. More recently, the prostitute imaginary has shaped accounts of contemporary service work: in particular, the figure of the sex worker has been used to metaphorize the intimate affects demanded by service work. Rather than use service work to think about the exploitation and coercion that shapes all wage labor under capital, however, such accounts tend to treat service work and sex work as uniquely abject. As a result, they do not attend to the systemic and structural features common to both. The authors take up one of those features in particular: the use of tip-based or piece-rate methods of wage payment. They explore the history of this insecure and informalized wage form not only to track the systematization of hyperexploitation in the service sector, but also to unearth a history of resistance to that exploitation, arguing that service workers and sex workers offer a new and urgent model of revolutionary class consciousness.
Service Work, Sex Work, and the “Prostitute Imaginary”
Annie McClanahan is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture (2016) and is currently working on a manuscript titled “Tipwork, Microwork, Automation: Culture after the Formal Wage.”
Jon-David Settell is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, and a clinical social worker at a community mental health clinic. His work focuses on the rhetoric and representation of homelessness. Settell is currently writing a dissertation chapter titled “How to Become Untamable: Radical Psychoanalysis for the Subjects of Accumulation.”
Annie McClanahan, Jon-David Settell; Service Work, Sex Work, and the “Prostitute Imaginary”. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 July 2021; 120 (3): 493–514. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-9154870
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