Feminism, Reproduction, and Communism

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, A II, 1924
Las­zlo Moholy-Nagy, A II, 1924

Fed­er­i­ca Gia­r­dini: In your tra­jec­to­ry there is the expe­ri­ence of being a sex work­er, of STRASS (Syn­di­cat du Tra­vail Sex­uel), and of advo­cat­ing again­st cam­paigns for the abo­li­tion of pros­ti­tu­tion. In which ways does sex work occu­py the front­li­nes for analy­sis, cri­tique, and the cre­ation of new pos­si­bil­i­ties?

Mor­gane Mer­teuil: As a sex work­er I’ve grap­pled with dif­fer­ent fem­i­nist dis­cours­es. Some, I think, stig­ma­tize who­ev­er doesn’t con­form to the mod­el they pro­mote of the “eman­ci­pat­ed wom­an” who dis­pos­es freely of mon­ey, sex­u­al­i­ty, and sen­ti­ments – a mod­el which is not acces­si­ble to all. What’s more, they legit­i­mate the dis­tinc­tion between more- and less- dig­ni­fied fem­i­nist tra­jec­to­ries. Con­se­quent­ly, sex work is osten­si­bly incom­pat­i­ble with dig­ni­ty, because it con­sists in plac­ing one’s sex­u­al­i­ty in the ser­vice of oth­ers. Instead, from the per­spec­tive of work­ing wom­en, dig­ni­ty may be the con­se­quence of a job that allows them to feed their fam­i­ly, edu­cate their chil­dren, or sim­ply to avail them­selves of the means of liv­ing.

FG: It is pre­dom­i­nant­ly state fem­i­nisms which express them­selves on the ques­tion of pros­ti­tu­tion. Is the rela­tion with pub­lic pol­i­cy a dead end?

MM: I wouldn’t say that the ter­rain of pub­lic pol­i­cy must be aban­doned. It could con­sti­tute an oppor­tu­ni­ty – serve as an instru­ment of fem­i­nist strug­gle. The fact is that, today, many pub­lic poli­cies are respon­si­ble for the oppres­sion of wom­en. It is thus nec­es­sary to con­front this ques­tion. One of the prob­lems, after half a cen­tu­ry of intense fem­i­nist strug­gles, is the fact that fem­i­nism “inte­grat­ed” into state pol­i­cy rather than chal­leng­ing and trans­form­ing it. Only once the inte­gra­tion of the fem­i­nist ques­tion man­i­fests in its worst forms does the prob­lem begin to be posed. This hap­pened last year, dur­ing the con­fronta­tion over burkin­is at the beach: those who had sid­ed with the exclu­sion of veiled wom­en from schools real­ized that, notwith­stand­ing their inten­tions, their argu­ments were adopt­ed for pur­pos­es that they them­selves deemed racist. This is an event that gives us a lot to think about. Fem­i­nists who, for years, have encour­aged the stigma­ti­za­tion of Islam in the name of sex­u­al equal­i­ty should take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their posi­tions.

FG: What rela­tions do you per­ceive between the return to nation­al­ist nar­ra­tives and nar­ra­tives cen­tered on the nuclear fam­i­ly, and the emer­gent ques­tion of the divi­sion of labor, as well as the ques­tions of pro­duc­tive and unpro­duc­tive labor, and of the divi­sion between cit­i­zens and those who are deport­ed?

MM: I don’t know the sit­u­a­tion in Italy in depth, but in France dis­cours­es about the fam­i­ly and migra­tion bring out the con­tra­dic­tions of a neolib­er­al con­text that tends toward an increas­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion of social repro­duc­tion. I wouldn’t say that in France the familist nar­ra­tive is espe­cial­ly dif­fuse, although the risk of it exists – think, for exam­ple, of the capac­i­ty of mobi­liza­tion of reac­tionary forces, as in the case of the ini­tia­tive “La Man­if pour tous,” and of the influ­ence they can wield on pub­lic poli­cies, espe­cial­ly as regards edu­ca­tion and repro­duc­tive rights.1 Nonethe­less, we must keep in mind that France has a much high­er birth rate than that of oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries – a fac­tor which is attrib­ut­ed to migrant wom­en – and that it is pre­cise­ly on the­se wom­en that the weight of the tasks of social repro­duc­tion falls (care of the elder­ly, of chil­dren, nurs­ing, and so on). So, if the sex­u­al divi­sion of labor appears to have waned, it is because a new, sex­u­al and racial, divi­sion has replaced it.

FG: In your expe­ri­ence, how does the phe­nom­e­non of sex­u­al­ized vio­lence present itself?

MM: From the expe­ri­ence of a sex work­er, the per­spec­tive on vio­lence again­st wom­en artic­u­lates itself, for exam­ple, as an issue that is not only tied to “mas­cu­line vio­lences,” but to the locus of polit­i­cal pro­duc­tion of this vio­lence… It’s a mat­ter of con­ceiv­ing of the vio­lences of which sex work­ers may be the vic­tims not as con­se­quences of the “malev­o­lence” of cer­tain indi­vid­u­als, but as the result of the way in which the state insti­tutes rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion – for exam­ple, when it ren­ders cer­tain wom­en and/or work­ers “ille­gal,” with the intent of com­bat­ing immi­gra­tion.

FG: Your analy­sis of the present takes up the the­ses of Lot­ta Fem­min­ista (Mari­arosa Dal­la Costa, Alise Del Re, Leopold­ina For­tu­nati) – who, in the 1970s, launched the wages-for-house­work cam­paign – along with more recent elab­o­ra­tions (Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Kathi Weeks, Cristi­na Morini). Are the eman­ci­pa­tion of work­ing con­di­tions and lib­er­a­tion from the dis­cur­sive domain the same front, today?

MM: That think­ing was derived from an analy­sis of the social and eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion of the post-war peri­od. Nonethe­less, I think it is pos­si­ble to uti­lize it today, in a neolib­er­al con­text. It had already shown how, in a peri­od when pro­duc­tive labor was social­ly dis­tinct from repro­duc­tive labor, the unre­mu­ner­at­ed char­ac­ter of the lat­ter con­tribut­ed to the process of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. It was a mat­ter of putting in ques­tion both the con­cep­tions that nat­u­ral­ized “fem­i­nine func­tions” and the idea of a pri­vate sphere exempt from cap­i­tal­ist dynam­ics. Now, neolib­er­al­ism tends to favor pre­cise­ly the sub­sump­tion of the pri­vate realm into the log­ic of pro­duc­tion, through the norms of flex­i­bil­i­ty and pri­va­ti­za­tion that it impos­es. It tends to make the entire sub­ject pro­duc­tive, con­sti­tut­ed as it is by an assem­blage of dis­cours­es: a sub­ject ori­ent­ed towards the val­ues of desire, free­dom, and per­son­al real­iza­tion. It seems to me impor­tant to grasp the con­tra­dic­tions that cap­i­tal­ism induces in sub­jects as so many incen­tives to rethink which “eman­ci­pa­tion” we are fight­ing for – that is to say, if it is a ques­tion of “eman­ci­pat­ing” one­self, indi­vid­u­al­ly, or of attack­ing the rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion in ser­vice of a col­lec­tive eman­ci­pa­tion.

FG: From your expe­ri­ence with STRASS, you speak in terms of juridi­cal and eco­nom­ic demands, but also, in par­tic­u­lar, in terms of the polit­i­cal work of rais­ing aware­ness, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly.

MM: The union work is all the more impor­tant in that sex work­ers are often iso­lat­ed from oth­er strug­gles or union struc­tures, and because orga­niz­ing labor in a pro­hi­bi­tion­ist con­text encour­ages indi­vid­u­al­ist and petit-bour­geois aspi­ra­tions. As a result, it is nec­es­sary to pro­mote those demands that imply a col­lec­tive eman­ci­pa­tion. In fact, the prin­ci­pal demand of sex work­ers’ move­ments isn’t the cre­ation of reg­u­lat­ed spaces, but uncon­di­tion­al decrim­i­nal­iza­tion and open bor­ders.

FG: For you, sex work con­sti­tut­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to denounce and com­bat new forms of exploita­tion. Dur­ing the large nation­al protest again­st vio­lence on Novem­ber 26th, a glob­al women’s strike was announced for the 8th of May next year. How can we imag­ine a strike from repro­duc­tive labor, from sex­u­al, affec­tive, and rela­tion­al labor?

MM: Recent­ly I’ve been reflect­ing on the ques­tion of the point of con­flict that fem­i­nist move­ments fore­ground. The nar­ra­tive that focus­es on “white - rich - able-bod­ied - het­ero - men” seems ster­ile when it comes to offer­ing con­crete per­spec­tives for strug­gles that are more far-reach­ing than the inter-indi­vid­u­al sphere. Sure, they ben­e­fit from the oppres­sion of wom­en, but my impres­sion is that they could do with­out it, too. The fact is that we’re exposed to ratio­nales of exploita­tion in which they are impli­cat­ed as well. A “women’s strike” can thus be an effec­tive instru­ment for mak­ing vis­i­ble the sex­u­al divi­sion of labor, espe­cial­ly the invis­i­ble labor per­formed by wom­en. Still, in order to achieve sub­stan­tial trans­for­ma­tions, we must block the pro­duc­tion of prof­it. Such a strike becomes dif­fi­cult because it’s not just a mat­ter of block­ing the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties, but of imped­ing the repro­duc­tion of human beings, the lat­ter of which has been assim­i­lat­ed into the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. From this stand­point, I think it’s more effec­tive to demand and devel­op a social­iza­tion of repro­duc­tive labor, with the dual objec­tives of reval­oriz­ing it, and of allow­ing for its col­lec­tive reap­pro­pri­a­tion.

– Trans­lat­ed by Alessan­dra Guar­i­no


  1. Editor’s note: La Man­if pour tous is a right-wing coali­tion orga­nized in oppo­si­tion to same-sex mar­riage in France. 

Author of the article

is a sex worker, secretary general of STRASS, member of the ICRSE office (International Comitee for the Rights of Sexworkers in Europe) and a representative of Western Europe in the office of NSWP (Network of Sex Work Projects).