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)
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
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:
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
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
When 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.
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
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 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 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