“There is nothing so demeaning as having to take groceries out of the bag at a self service checkout because your card declines.” says Dot, a 32 year old sex worker from Camden, London. She posts ads online and clients visit her at home while her 7 year old is at school. She considers herself ‘an ordinary, mid market hooker, no frills’ and says that her hourly rate from the job is more than 18 times what she earned serving popcorn in a cinema. “The minimum wage is not enough for anything; neither are benefits. I can’t afford anything I need without sex work.”
Nobody reading British papers in the last decade will have failed to spot at least one headline sparking panic about rising numbers of people like Dot selling sex to keep themselves afloat. It’s equally impossible to miss that sex work remains as controversial a topic as ever. Conflicting schools of thought question whether the best answer to the urgent problems in the industry would be to remove the criminalisation that surrounds it – or adding more. The New Zealand model of decriminalisation has attracted some notable supporters, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, and Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. At the same time, several countries have followed the example of Sweden and adopted the criminalisation of clients, leaving sex workers struggling for safety, and still criminalised themselves.
Within the Labour Party, anxieties about the sex industry continue to play out in policy discussions. Labour MPs mount bids to ‘flush’ the UK of brothels (a brothel is legally defined as two or more workers, even if there is no boss), whilst others have called for increased police power to issue ‘crackdowns’ on those working illegally on the street. One describes prostitution as ‘demeaning at best’ while another says that prostitution can’t be a real job because ‘a mans orgasm isn’t productive’, both illustrating how legitimate feminist concern over rape and exploitation in the sex industry often crumbles away to reveal nothing but subjective distaste for the actual services performed.
Whatever one’s personal feelings about the job itself, poverty leaves a huge number of people in the UK without the luxury of preference. The Social Metrics Commission (SMC) found that 14.4 million people in the UK were in poverty in 2016-17, with households affected by disability, single-parenthood, and irregular or zero-hours jobs most at risk. The Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust found that women disproportionately bear 86% of cuts, particularly single mothers and BAME women. Nobody knows this better than sex workers. Grassroots collective Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) says that
“We know first-hand that poverty is a huge factor in why people sell sex. However, we cannot understand why criminalising the income source of people who sell sex is presented as a ‘solution’ to the economic coercion of poverty. If campaigners are concerned that poverty takes away people’s choices, we suggest that a real solution would be to tackle poverty, not to criminalise what is often the final option that people have for surviving poverty.”
When policymakers say the nature of commercial sex itself is the problem, they sidestep the less attention-grabbing concerns of working class people like Dot; concerns like keeping electric on, or managing childcare costs that are rising faster than wages. Sadly for sex workers, headlines about the scourge of ‘sex dens’ and ‘pop up brothels’ sell more papers than the more prosaic everyday realities of life on the breadline.
Nickie Roberts, who worked in the sex industry in the 1980s, illustrates how typical this class disconnect can be in the sex work debate:
“Working in crummy factories for disgusting pay was the most degrading and exploitative work I ever did in my life … I think there should be another word for the kind of work working class people do; something to differentiate it from the work middle class people do; the ones who have careers. All I can think of is drudgery. It’s rotten and hopeless; not even half a life. It’s immoral. Yet as I say, it’s expected of working class women that they deny themselves everything … Why should I have to put up with a middle class feminist asking me why I didn’t ‘do anything – scrub toilets, even?’ than become a stripper? What’s so liberating about cleaning up other people’s shit?”
Some things never change. Roberts’ sentiments echo those expressed almost a century earlier, by a prostitute who wrote to The Times in 1859 (under the pen name ‘Another Unfortunate’) observing that rich anti-prostitution campaigners would never understand the hardships of ‘poor women toiling on starvation wages, while penury, misery, and famine clutch them by the throat and say, ‘Render up your body or die.’ According to academic Julia Laite, this paucity of options would have been typical of the era. ‘Several late-nineteenth-century studies found that up to half of the women selling sex in Britain had been domestic servants, and that many had hated it so much they had willingly left service.’ Laite quotes a 1920s sex worker asking a police officer who arrested her, ‘What will you give me if I do give this up? A job in a laundry at two pounds a week – when I can make twenty easily?’
Of course, to say that prostitution is better than poverty, misery and death is a pretty low bar, and when we say ‘sex work is work’, we don’t mean it’s always particularly good work. In fact, sex workers have long been organising for better working conditions all over the world. In 1907, New Orleans prostitutes formed picket lines at their brothel doors, refusing to let customers enter until their Madams re-negotiated house fees. In 1917, two hundred prostitutes marched in San Francisco, with a speaker at the march saying ‘Nearly every one of these women is a mother or has someone depending on her. They are driven into this life by economic conditions … You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?’ Brothel workers in Hawaii went on strike for weeks in 1942 to protest the denial of their rights under martial law, including their freedom of movement. The 1970 and 1980s saw sex workers occupy churches in London and Lyon to demand an end to police harassment.
In Bolivia in the mid-2000s, 35,000 sex workers from across the country participated in a huge series of collective actions against police violence and closure of workplaces. ‘We are fighting for the right to work and for our families’ survival’, said Lily Cortez, leader of the El Alto Association of Nighttime Workers, surrounded by prostitutes who had sewn their mouths shut in protest. ‘Tomorrow we will bury ourselves alive if we are not immediately heard’. Some went on strike by refusing to go for mandatory STD testing ‘until we can work free from harassment’. Others blockaded traffic or went on hunger strike. ‘We are Bolivia’s unloved,’ said Yuly Perez from the sex workers’ union National Organisation for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution. ‘We are hated by a society that uses us regularly and ignored by institutions obligated to protect us … [We] will fight tooth and nail for the rights we deserve.’
In recent years in the UK, sex workers have protested outside Yarl’s Wood detention centre against the detention and deportation of women deemed by the Home Office to be trafficking victims, and marched in their hundreds through the streets of Soho during the Women’s Strike. Strippers and other sex trade workers are starting to unionise with the United Voices of the World, allowing them to enjoy solidarity with other precarious workers in the gig economy.
This week, sex worker activists will launch their new campaign Decrim Now at The World Transformed in Liverpool, alongside the Labour Party conference. An alliance of politicians, sex workers, sex worker rights collectives, feminists, students and human rights organisations, the campaign seeks to get prostitution decriminalised in the UK, including brothel keeping penalties and laws that criminalise clients. The campaign includes Labour Party activists who are also active in the feminist and trade union movements. It aims to address the historical lack of support for sex worker rights from both the Labour Party and the Trade Unionists. As sex work activist Morgane Merteuil observes, ‘[Sex workers] do not ask for permission to participate in the class struggle they are already an integral part of.’
As sex workers, we call on Labour members, particularly those elected officials whose priorities include women’s rights, to think carefully about what sex workers are saying we need: safety on the job is our priority. We want to feel able to call the police on a nasty client, rather than worrying he will be the one to call them on us. After New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, workers feel safer and more secure in their rights at work, and their bosses are accountable to the state under labour law. The overwhelming evidence from bodies like Amnesty International and UNAIDS is that full decriminalisation of sex workers – including our clients and bosses (i.e. our income and our workplaces) – is the best way to reduce harms against us, increase our access to justice and secure more control over our working conditions. Sex work is a form of labour; and we deserve labour rights. We do not view decriminalisation as a panacea, because we will still face the same issues as all other workers. Even after decriminalisation, to take a few examples, we will still face a lack of legal aid funding, weak union powers, and austerity policies that reduce our power to turn down exploitative work and access the services we need. Sex workers want to stand with other workers to challenge these injustices and improve the conditions for all workers. But we require the basic framework of a legally recognised workplace, and recognition from the Labour movement that we are indeed workers. What is the Labour movement without workers?