Yvette Butler’s forthcoming article, Aligned: Sex Workers’ Lessons for the Gig Economy, is one of those pieces that sticks with you, that pops back into your head multiple times as you go about your day after reading it. This is because it is so packed full of framework-shifting insights about gig work, sex work, racial justice, gender justice, employment law, labor law, and worker solidarity, to name just a few of the topics it covers.
To paraphrase Professor Butler’s central insight, different types of work have different and complicated relationships with legal protections and with stigma. Sex workers have a long history of negotiating both legal status issues and stigma, and have much to offer gig workers in the way of strategy and solidarity lessons.
As Professor Butler observes, some work is performed primarily by employees, and those workers consequently benefit from the variety of protections offered within the “fortress of employment,” as Cynthia Estlund has labeled employee status. Other work is performed by less-protected independent contractors; still other labor is criminalized, leaving those workers entirely unprotected, and vulnerable to arrest and prosecution. Beyond legal protection, another axis for analysis is stigma: some types of work, regardless of legal status, are heavily stigmatized. Because of this stigma, these jobs have historically been occupied by women and workers of color, or perhaps the jobs have become stigmatized because of the race and gender of their occupants.
In Professor Butler’s telling, gig work—cleaning houses on demand, running errands, driving people around, delivering food—is “merely a formalization and de-stigmatization of labor” that is currently and was historically performed primarily by women and workers of color. Though the stigma around gig work may have lessened, particularly as that work has become associated with apps and tech platforms, most gig workers still work outside of employee status, and some struggle with “inconsistent jobs, non-negotiable pay, and no benefits.”
Professor Butler defines sex workers as “individuals who engage in commercial sexual exchange (in any number of ways), regardless of whether they do so because of choice, circumstance, or coercion.” She points out that many sex workers, too, work outside employee status, and even risk criminal prosecution, while performing work that is heavily stigmatized. Yet even in this shadow economy, sex workers have won some battles for legal protection and progress toward de-stigmatization. Some exotic dancers have sued club management, successfully claiming that they are employees who are entitled to wage and hour protections. In Washington state, exotic dancers lobbied successfully for legislation to improve their safety and working conditions in clubs.
Sex workers have also demonstrated the necessity of centering the voices and insights of workers themselves in efforts to legislate change. Drawing from the disability rights movement, and in particular its slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” Professor Butler notes that twin federal laws designed to protect sex workers online (FOSTA-SESTA) in fact deprive workers from access to online forums in which they can “find and negotiate their own work,” thereby limiting “their independence—a key factor in worker power.” Professor Butler cautions that current efforts to increase legal protections for gig workers may be similarly flawed, leaving out the voices of gig workers themselves, who are the authorities on the realities of gig work and have the best eye for unintended consequences. She urges solidarity between sex workers and other types of gig workers, so that sex workers can benefit from gig workers’ relatively greater privilege, and gig workers can benefit from sex workers’ decades of struggle for more rights and less stigma.
In sum, this article sets out an incredibly interesting outline for a rich future research agenda, while also providing some useful, hard-won insights for gig worker advocates today. By situating sex work alongside other types of work, and identifying its commonalities with contemporary gig labor, Professor Butler allows sex workers to teach us about how gig work might be improved. At the same time, she tells a compelling story about sex workers’ own self-advocacy, and their fight for legal status and against stigma. Finally, she connects all of these narratives to the struggle for racial and gender justice, as workers of all types struggle “to work free from exploitation” and hustle not only to survive but also to thrive.