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Putting Out

By Rhyd Wildermuth

(Author’s Note: This essay includes a frank discussion of Sex-Work and some ‘strong language.’

It’s best read in an undistracted state)

salvation army girls

At the Bar (Salvation Army Girls) by Jeanne Mammen, 1926. ‘Salvation Army Girls’ were women who sold sex exclusively to other women in Germany during the Wiemar period.

Early in the summer of 2009, I whiled a fantastic summer with a lover in a beautiful apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

In the mornings (or what passes for morning in a city where Capitalism has not fully conquered the human day), we’d stumble down a short flight of steps into a scene of wonder–into a stone courtyard, out through the heavy wooden gate on the cobbled sidewalk, grapevines and trees and street art soaking my senses in luxurious intensity.

From there, one could walk to the tree-lined Canal, the enchanting and very crowded outdoor Turkish Market, along a bustling street filled with food-shops and stores.  Or cross a bridge to one of the nearby 15 gay bars (a fraction of the full number in that city), or descend underground to the U-bahn and travel briefly to anywhere else in that gorgeous, intoxicating city.

He was there to do research for his master’s thesis on queer occult societies during the Weimar Republic, a period of unrivaled gay and Pagan culture in the period just before the Nazis rose to power.  Set powerfully into the collective memory by the writings of Christopher Isherwood and the musical Caberet, Weimar Berlin was a fascinating mix of radicalism and sexual experimentation in the midsts of a breakdown of Capitalist power.  People were poor but sexy, and Berlin became both a pilgrimage site for queers in the Western world as well as a ‘degenerate’ symbol of all that was wrong with the world for the rising Nazi party.

Berlin had a church attendance rate of 1%, hosted occult events nightly, and the literature and art from that time speaks to an almost utopic exploration of the human soul.  Oh, and it was also full of prostitutes, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve never made much money, never much more than minimum wage.  Thing is, Berlin is cheap, or was when we first stayed there.  One of the ways to keep your costs down when traveling is to find an apartment to sublet. Costs of food go down significantly when you’ve access to a kitchen, and generally the cost of renting someone else’s home is usually much lower than a nightly hotel.

To do this, I searched a few free listing sites on the internet.  There was no AirBnB or other ‘services’ yet, but sites like Craiglist.org existed where people could list for free.  Each time I stayed in Berlin, the cost of renting an entire apartment (including the aforementioned one) was a little less than 100 euro (110 us dollars at the time) per week.  As a matter of fact, in each instance, I rented someone else’s home for the exact cost that they incurred for rent on their place.

One time we asked the person from whom we rented why they weren’t charging us more. Their answer was quite shocking, and they sounded awfully offended.  They’d said: “I’m not trying to make a profit here! What sort of person would do that?

While I’m near 40 years old now, this is a good time to tell you that I’m not engaging in nostalgia for an economy that existed several decades ago.  This was only 5 years ago.

Kapital Über Alles

Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores

Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores

Now, however, things have changed there, as they have also changed here, on account of a shift of social relations described by cheerleaders of Capitalism as “The Sharing Economy.”

On the face of it, AirBnB, a company which offers to set up people looking for sublets with hosts for a fee, appears to have made it ‘easier’ to find lodging at a cheaper rate than hotels.  However, it has actually all but displaced the older model which enabled someone poor like myself to stay in a foreign city.

The advent of businesses such as AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Taskrabbit, and many other ‘services’ are all part of this brave new economic world, where people can sell or rent their services to strangers at a piece-rate in return for money.  The enthusiasm for these Corporations and their ‘apps’ is intense, soaked in the usual optimism any new Capitalist venture generates through the Capitalist media.

It may seem almost a sort of liberation.  If you own a car, you now have the option to make money from it.  If you’re in need of extra cash, you can turn extra hours into waged-labor by running errands through Taskrabbit or Postmates.  And on the off-chance you’ve got an empty room in your home, have an extra home, or have the option to stay elsewhere, you can rent out your place to others for more money than you pay in mortgage or rent.  It’s a brave new world, full of opportunities to make money at every turn, the possibility of liberation from the drudgery of the old ways breathing down your neck before us.

Except, it’s not new. And it’s not liberating. 

To understand this matter, we need first to deconstruct and discard the ridiculous description of this activity as “the Sharing Economy.”

Let’s take the first part, ‘Sharing.’  What precisely is being ‘shared’ when a driver signs up with a company like Uber?  Uber’s not doing any sharing–in fact, Uber provides nothing to a driver except for access to their application system which provides drivers with customers. According to Uber’s VP of operations:

Uber currently keeps 20% of each trip as a lead gen cost. This percentage is common in the industry and commonly referred to as a farm out fee. There are no monthly fees to be a driver on Uber, outside of a minimal data charge for the iPhone. [emphasis mine]

Does ‘farm out’ sound familiar at all?

If you remember anything about the early history of Capitalism, you may be familiar with ‘Putting Out,’ the system by which merchants distributed raw materials to individuals in homes to assemble products (textiles, pins, matches, etc.).  ‘Farming out’ is a similar process, a loaning-out of access to resources in return for a high percentage of profits or income.

Uber, AirBnB, and all the other players in The Sharing Economy are not actually sharing at all, they’re ‘putting out’ access to customers.

Likewise, though, those who are using these services to make money from their homes or cars are not ‘sharing’ either, unless sharing no longer means what we were taught it meant in kindergarten.  I was told it meant letting someone use something you weren’t using, and I don’t remember a monetary exchange.

Let’s be clear.  Charging money to allow someone to use something of yours is called renting.

The Means of (Re)Production

Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happily here, I think.

Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happier here, I think.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was mostly homeless.  23, gay, new to a city, with only two friends to rely upon who lived in a suburb.  To find a place, I needed money, and to find money, I needed a job, and all the jobs were in the city, not the suburb.

I slept ‘rough’ many nights in those first few months.  Sometimes on a stranger’s couch, sometimes in an alley, often in a park, once in a while in a friend’s car. More often than not, though, I’d find myself trading sex for a place to sleep, not something I’ve ever admitted in public ’till now.

I’m hardly ashamed.  I found myself in some fantastic condos with great views, waking in the morning occasionally even to breakfast and once to a marriage proposal.  It was a way to survive, most of the men were polite, and it was usually consensual except for the whole “you have a roof, I don’t” bit.

It’s called ‘sex-work.’  And it’s a common means of survival for the poor, particularly when they have no access to the things you require to survive.

“Things you require to survive,” by the way, is called the Means of Reproduction in Marxist theory.  This includes food, housing, and leisure–the stuff that keeps you alive.

The Means of Production is slightly different–it’s access to the ability to create things others find socially useful, like cooking, art, coding…pretty much anything that we call ‘work.’  In Capitalist countries, most people don’t have the Means of Production and have to rely on the rich for ways to do things others will want to trade for.

The one thing a human always has, by the way, is their body.  Though not all sex-workers do so from extreme poverty (in fact, some of the greatest, most creative and powerful folks I know are sex-workers), the body is the one thing we can always fall back upon when we have nothing else.

In fact, that’s what all waged-work is–our bodies being used in exchange for money.  The sex-worker is no different from the tech worker, except one’s a lot more likely to be beaten, raped, or vilified than the other, and, also, one’s more likely to be a woman.

But, oh!  We were talking about The Sharing Economy, which we’re now calling The Renting Economy.

My Means of Production as a homeless person happened also to be my Means of Reproduction, as sex is a social relationship and part of the ways in which we create meaning in our lives.  In the best scenarios, sex is a freely-given exchange between two or more people; in patriarchal marriages, or in rape, or in situations of economic disparity, that exchange is not freely-given.

But this is the same with that category of social-relations called labor, too.   I only work for someone richer than myself because they have money and I do not–while I have some choice in who I work for (just as I had some choice in who I let fuck me when I was homeless), it’s difficult to say that I was fully able to exercise my free will.  We who have no wealth must work to survive in a Capitalist society because the laws ensure we have no other choice.

We are always trading our Means of Reproduction (again, the very essence of our life) for access to the Means of Production.  We sell our body (whether that be our mental faculties, our social skills, our muscles, or our genitals) in exchange for money we use to purchase what will give us the life we can get, to feed our ‘Reproduction.’

Pimp My Life

19ukhomeWhen I traded sex for a place to stay for the night, there was no one else directly mediating that exchange.  Guy takes a homeless guy back to his place, homeless guy gets a place to sleep, housed guy gets sex with someone younger than him, and that’s the end of the transaction.

But…what if there were some enterprising person eager to get in on this social exchange?  Say, some agent who helped make such connections in return for money from the ‘buyer’ or oral sex from the seller?

Such folks exist, of course.

A pimp or madam offer both a steady stream of clients to a sex-worker as well as some semblance of security.  The better ones keep the prostitutes they manage safe from abusive buyers, provide safer places for the sex to occur, and even screen customers beforehand.  They may even help those under their employ get to the hospital or pay for contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (that is, ‘work injuries.’)  Basically, benefits.

Much, much more common, however, are the abuses.  A pimp or madam wields great power over their sex-workers, and the litany of horrors people endure must be remembered.  One of the most common is stolen wages–the person acting as the intermediary demands a cut of income from the sex-work, despite not performing any of the work themselves, justifying this extortion through their ‘services’ of providing protection and a steady stream of clients.

Worst of all, the sex-worker cannot easily end their relationship with the pimp or madam out of fear of violence, poverty, and losing access to customers (that is, their Means of Production).

There was no pimp to arrange these meetings between myself and the men I slept with, though I’ve had plenty such pimps in my life.  They’re called employers.

Aside

I realize, for many, my comparison between Capitalist employment and sex-work may be upsetting.  For some, sex-work is always exploitative, while waged-labor is seen (particularly by those who are not convinced Capitalism is all that bad) as more respectable and free-willed. 

To those of this opinion, I’ll admit–it’s a lot easier to talk of my time working in restaurants than it is my time trading sex. And let’s be awfully honest–sex work is not highly paid.  But favoring one sort of work over another is why a CEO is paid millions while an immigrant janitor’s paid pennies.

And to those worried I’m ignoring my male privilege, I’ll admit–I’m pretty strong and a little scary looking–my experiences were certainly less dangerous than many of my trans and non-male friends who’ve engaged (and currently engage) in sex-work face. 

That said, we should insist that sex-work is work, just as any other work is work.  And work when you have no choice is exploitative.  Either all work should be legal, or all work should be illegal (I vote for the latter).

There’s an App For That

rhyd 2001

Me, streetpunk

So, hey…let’s return to that Sharing Economy thing, huh?

I guess you could kinda say that I was ‘sharing’ my body with those men.  On the better nights, with the more attractive and fascinating and kind men, it did kinda feel like sharing, except, well–no.  I was renting myself to them.

Again, I was turning my Means of Reproduction into something I could trade so I could get what I needed, which is the deal we all make with the Capitalists.

This Sharing Economy shit is a really pretty name we put on people renting out their life in exchange for money, turning their cars and homes into the Means of Production.  And we must be really clear about what AirBnB, Uber, and all these companies really are.

They’re pimps.

They’re extracting money from social transactions we make with each other.

When you need a ride from a friend, you offer to pay them gas money.  Now, you pay Uber who pays the driver less than what you paid, while the driver bears all the responsibility (insurance, car payments, gas, repairs).

When you’re going to be gone from your home for a few weeks, you might ask a friend to house-sit or even offer to let a stranger stay if they pay your rent while you’re gone.  Now, AirBnb gets to make money off of you doing so.

What gushing white tech CEO’s and their slobbering fan-boys declare is a ‘new economy’ is really just another way to extract money from the most basic of human activities, a new Enclosure of the social Commons.

Capitalism in Crisis

There’s that quote about remembering history, that I won’t repeat here, ’cause it’s lost its meaning.

Better to say this: certain forms repeat throughout history, and recognizing when they recur is a great way of learning to fight them.  The ‘open-plan office’ that many tech-workers rightfully complain about bears a strong resemblance to the factory floor of the 19th century, and though working for Google is nothing like working in a sweat-shop, noticing the similarities helps remind us when the powerful are relying on something that’s worked for them in the past.

Our current society is not really like Wiemar Berlin just before the Nazi’s rose to power, mostly because what passes for art and culture and sexual experimentation is rather mundane and banal compared to what they came up with.  Nor is using Uber or renting out your apartment with AirBnB quite like the putting-out industry of 1700’s England.  And selling your sex is not the same as using TaskRabbit.

But the forms repeat.  In Berlin, the weakness of Capitalism compelled people to rent their bodies for money.  In early 1700’s England, greedy people ‘put-out’ resources to have the poor make money for them.  And really awful people have always tried to get a piece of us, whether it be our sex or any of the other social relations we create.

Capitalism is in another crisis.  It does this, repeatedly, and in those moments where the rich aren’t certain they’ll be able to hold onto their wealth, they turn all their attention towards finding new ways of extracting our Means of Reproduction and turning it into their profit.

You’re being pimped.

What are you gonna do about it?


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram


Find out how to order our books here.

17 Comments »

  1. I realize this is a weird-ass thing to say in response to the very interesting and important (as well as insightful and revelatory) discussion you just shared with us, but here we are…

    The photo of you strikes me as strange, not because it’s you looking different than you do now, but because it’s you younger (I don’t know by how much, and have always been awful at guessing such things), and for some reason–though I know conceptually this isn’t the case–I just never imagined you having a “younger”; in this weird “old druidic tree” way, you just seem like someone who’s always been here. But, I also haven’t had enough sleep this past week, so maybe that’s it. 😉

    As someone who is about to get a place of my own–which I haven’t had since 2005, those halcyon days of being a student in another country spending most of my income on rent, and being on the verge of doing exactly that once again–it is very strange the thoughts I’m finding myself having to face at present in terms of the reality of that situation. (Not to mention all of the annoying logistics that come with having an extensive library, which has not been fully accessible to anything other than my memory since 1994.) In any case…

    Liked by 1 person

    • for me, it’s since 2004. I feel your pain. Husband and his mom do not understand. I miss each and every one of those books that I can’t access.

      Like

  2. I think about this, a lot. I have three independent contractor careers. I’m an escort, a tree doctor and a portrait painter. The only thing different between them is the task. In each scenario I’m being paid for my time, expertise, effort and attention.
    I find money a very clean, clear, attractive way to keep these tasks, focused and from neither party being abused. People design value to their cash from things like, how much they have, how they feel about how they earned it, what they’d like to do it with it and what they feel like they have to do with it. Or, I’d also say it like everyday events fashion people’s financial narrative.
    I feel money applies boundaries to client’s expectations, as in, my sex work rate is 200 an hour. You may not rent me for an entire night for 200 dollars. It will cost 600 dollars (I know “overnight” is more than 3 hours, but clients like it, and will repeat, if you give them a little price play). Tree work is similar. It helps keep clients focused on work agreed upon by reminding them I’m not endlessly available. That my effort, skills, and time have value. Often I have clients continue to ask for “little” tasks to be last minute tacked onto a project, I remind them of our initial negotiations and if I feel so inclined to include these new tasks, I can do so for an additional amount. As a portrait painter I find it develops a deeper attachment to the piece. Financial transactions are powerful spells that tie folk to things physically, sentimentally, emotionally, etc.
    I would like to state, I believe I have these ideals behind money because I have no pimp or madam in any of these cases. I run my own scene, speaking with clients, booking, scheduling, no cut is given to management. I do pay, very, very little, for some of my escorting ads. The percentage of my income that goes to these advertisement is 3% or less a month. My work as an arborist and portrait painter is advertised for free in the sense that I don’t use any forums that cost money to utilise, but in my opinion nothing’s for free. And, subtracting money from a situation doesn’t equate free.
    I REALLY enjoyed this piece you wrote. I agree with it so much. I find you did an amazing job articulating share economy, how it’s taking advantage of employee’s resources and is living under a guise that would like to maintain a shameful finger pointed at less socially accepted forms of employment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As an introvert, I find this doesn’t resonate. I usually come out on the raw end of negotiations. I’m happy to let somebody take a cut of my pay to manage market making activities (essentially, matching supply and demand).

    I did try stretching myself when I began writing and publishing books. I found myself, again and again, confronting women as gatekeepers that didn’t really care about my writing. I had a steady day job, I’m mature and physically fit, and they kept on hinting that my romantic availability was the primary consideration. Basically, I ended up feeling like a whore, and haven’t sold many books at all. If anybody knows a reputable “book pimp”, I’d appreciate a lead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As an (primarily copy-)editor, I’m not interested in romantic attachments to a client–the notion strikes me as warped, but I understand that you’ve had the experience of that.

      I’m not sure what you expect from a book-pimp, either. Care to explain? Also, what topics form your writing?

      Like

      • Saffronrose:

        Thanks for taking the time to respond. I wrote my comment to provoke a clarification of whether the original post was intended to legitimize “pimps” or denigrate “market makers.” It was kind of a fit of pique.

        Most of the people that I spoke of control venues at which books are marketed. My books try to imagine what it might be like if men and women joined forces to manage the world with love. I’ve just published my second work of speculative fiction, and have another that explains the Bible in 70 pages.

        Brian

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  4. This is brilliant. Thank you! As I wrote in my comment on the Facebook page, this reminds me of the time I heard a friend refer to his administrative job as “office prostitute.” He wasn’t actually selling sex in that job (as far as I know, at least) – just making the point that when people have no choice but to sell their labour for money to survive, in a sense all wage labour can be considered a form of prostitution.

    There is also a lot of pressure, especially in the more white-collar office job sectors like tech and finance, to pretend most people are exercising “free choice” in the hiring market. This can be seen in statements like “We don’t want to hire someone who’s just here for the paycheck.”

    I translate this kind of statement in my mind as: “Not only will you need to perform the labour of the job itself, but to have any chance of getting hired at all, you’ll also need to perform emotional labour sufficient to convince us that you’d take this job voluntarily even if you didn’t need money to survive.”

    The upshot is that job-seekers have to get really good at convincing employers that they want the job because it’s their ‘passion’ or whatever. No employer wants to hear that all wage labour in a system where you have little choice but to work for a living is prostitution…or as I often say, “colonising our time.” Employers are asking us to trade our most valuable resource – the hours of our lives, none of which we will ever get back – for money. I object! As far as I’m concerned, sovereignty over my own time is real wealth. That’s what I really want. I could do so much more good work in the world if I had that. But that’s never on offer, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for your first-hand insights… I had a friend who worked as a stripper but have never known anyone in person who has done sex-work. Judging from your experiences, doesn’t sound as horrible as I had imagined. Or even as bad as working in a sweat-shop or even in a call centre (worst job I ever took!)

    Interesting how you’ve collapsed the boundaries between the types of work we do, highlighting it’s all work whether we’re renting our labour, our bodies or minds. The admin work I’m currently doing, which is leaving me stupefied and struggling to be creative is showing me I’d much rather sell my physical rather than mental labour… Would I rather sell my body occassionally rather than being stuck in a job whereby I couldn’t create? Or would the trauma that caused cripple my creativity?

    Hmm… I get your point about being pimped… that’s why I’m *trying* to be become a self-employed poet / writer / workshop facilitator. However considering my refusal to jump through the market-friendly hoops in either the poetry or pagan worlds doesn’t look there’s much possibility of that ever becoming a reality!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes. I am eternally grateful for my introduction to Marxist feminism and this approach to sex work in the very early 1990s, and yet I hadn’t made the connection between pimps and AirBnB and the like before. Thank you.

    Like

  7. Thanks for this brave and potent discussion. I’ve often wondered why we don’t see being threatened with homelessness, starvation and death from disease if we don’t sell our time and lives to others as a dramatic lack of freedom. Your discussion of the “sharing economy” is all the more timely considering the anti-Uber protests occurring in Paris right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A wonderful and searching article Rhyd. As you correctly point out, under Capitalism – work is work is work. Some jobs are more dangerous than others, some jobs more socially acceptable, more well-paid, or more closely interwoven with the means of reproduction than others – but they are still figured as work. This is perhaps the most eloquent expression of how this works I have ever come across: I’m going to recommend it to my supervisees next year.

    The fact that the market is infiltrating ever more of social life is a matter that should be of grave concern to us all. The idea that “sharing” is something from which corporations can justly profit encapsulates the profound wrongness of this trend. I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to social media. Platforms like Twitter have privatised opinion, platforms like Facebook have privatised friendship. The fact that many people have come to see this as perfectly fine demonstrates just how dangerous a position we’re in.

    Like

  9. Friends of mine have pointed out the issues they and I are left with, as disabled / mentally ‘ill’ people: oftentimes we do not have even the capital of our bodies and/or minds to fall back on. I would be interested in development of your thoughts here in relation to those of us who are “unfit” for work.

    Like

    • I don’t want to speak for Rhyd, but personally speaking, the plight of the disabled under capitalism is one of the main reasons why I’m such a big fan of socialism. The fact that disabled folks, especially in America, can’t get their basic needs met and are forced to live in poverty is beyond disgusting and shameful.

      That being said, sadly I know far too many severely disabled and/or mentally ill folks who still engage in sex work despite being ‘unfit’ for ‘regular’ work as they absolutely have no other choice. The ‘capital’ of their bodies and minds may not be sound, but when you absolutely need to survive, one will do pretty much anything.

      From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. In a society with such wealth and resources, this should be commonplace.

      Like

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