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