Why we need to change the way we talk about sex work

The revolution is being led by sex workers themselves – and it’s coming

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Toni Mac / SWOU

Six years ago, the Sex Worker Open University (SWUO) laid out its aim – to advance UK sex worker rights by fighting its criminalisation. Run by current and former sex workers, it aims to bring together its diverse community, which includes escorts, rent boys, porn actors, cam models, erotic masseuses and street workers.

But as sex workers come from all walks of life, it can be difficult to unite them. “It’s not a union, just a collective,” said Toni, a former sex worker and one of the organisers behind SWUO. “Many sex workers aren’t interested in forming a political identity. It’s just work to them. For those people, it’s even more important that we advance their rights and create better working conditions. These events allow for us to come together as a community and explore the nitty gritty issues that matter within the movement,” she told Dazed.

This year, SWOU took on its biggest project yet by organising almost a whole week of events, made up of a two-day conference, a day of workshops and a film festival, with one day open to the public. Held in East London’s Dalston, the crowd was an eclectic mix of sex workers from across the globe, social activists and other allies. Gay, straight, trans or anything in-between – the crowd was as diverse as it was supportive, making for lots of whooping, cheering and clapping throughout the day. Here’s what we learned.

MANY SEX WORKERS ARE FORCED TO LIVE A LIE WITHOUT HELP FROM POLICE

Sex work can be a dangerous profession. Many men and women experience violence but don’t report it to the police, according to Alex Feis-Bryce, director of services at National Ugly Mugs (NUM). Their study revealed that eight out of 10 street sex workers have experienced violence, while almost 50 per cent of sex workers have feared for their lives. When they do seek help, the reaction from the police is often unsympathetic.

“There have been instances where the police said they should have expected this to happen as they’re sex workers, or that what happened to them could never be considered rape. As a result, many sex workers don’t bother reporting these crimes,” Feis-Bryce said.

On a personal level, many sex workers experience high levels of anxiety on a day-to-day basis. They live in fear of being recognised, feel like they’re living a double life and struggle having romantic relationships. Alex, who is an escort in her mid twenties, has been working for four years but still isn’t “out”.

“I can’t tell any of my friends or family as they won’t understand. There is a lot of anxiety involved when it comes to my work. Sometimes I’ll get a text from a friend, asking what I’m up to and I’ll blatantly have to lie. I’m worried they’ll find out – they think I have a regular job,” she told Dazed. Dr Charlotte Cooper, a psychotherapist, added that keeping your job a secret can have real-life effects if not dealt with properly. “The sex work industry can be brutal, as your body is your business. I’ve seen a few general trends where sex workers have felt socially isolated, and struggle with the fear of violence or recovery from violence,” she explained.

Public health services don’t always support sex workers in the right way either. Due to cuts to the mental health sector, it has become increasingly difficult to get help. “A lot of public health organisations also tend to focus on exiting and victimisation, thereby marginalising sex workers. There needs to be training developed that sees sex workers as its own specific group,” Cooper said.

 

WE MUST CHANGE THE LAW

In the UK, the laws around sex work are incredibly confused. In England, Wales and Scotland prostitution itself (read: the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but some related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel and pimping are crimes. But Scottish sex worker activists are currently on a mission to change this and want full decriminalisation. Molly Smith, representing sex worker charity Scot-Pep, says they’re hoping to repeal four key laws with a 41-page long bill.

“Besides changing laws around brothel keeping and streetwalking, we want to introduce a law which would make it legal for four people to work together without fear of prosecution. It would massively improve sex worker safety,” she said. Even though sex workers want the public to be on their side, it’s even more important for laws to change across the globe. It’s a chicken and egg situation, but ultimately it’s the politicians’ minds that need changing.

“While there is a lot more respect for sex workers than there used to be, a lot of conservative politicians are against us. There are always going to be people who are against sex work, which is why it’s essential that you intervene at a legal level,” added Paula Ezquerra, an active sex worker and elected politician from Spain.

THE SWEDISH MODEL DOESN’T WORK

From its liberal inhabitants to high levels of equality between the sexes, Sweden tends to have an idyllic image in the eyes of the world. Many governments also look to the nation for inspiration when it comes to laws around prostitution. In 1999, the country criminalised the buying but not the selling of sex. While it aims to protect women, it has supposedly done the opposite according to Dr Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the law.

“Many sex workers have been displaced since the legislation came into place, and dangers have increased. Even though the law states it doesn’t go after sex workers, there are many examples that prove the opposite is true,” he said. For example, the police are allowed to inform landlords if their resident is a sex worker, who often force through evictions once they find out. There have also been various women who have been booted out the country, with the paper work stating that the individual has not “supported themselves in an honest manner”.

“There are lots of other bits of legislation that are used to target the women. The only place left for women to work is on the street, which is often the most dangerous place,” Levy said.

DATED FEMINIST BELIEFS ARE PROVING HARMFUL

Back in August, Amnesty International released a draft proposal in favour of decriminalising “all aspects of sex work”. It received criticism from various Hollywood actresses including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham, who said that it would “support a system of gender apartheid” and prefer the Swedish model. While frustrating, their decision wasn't surprising, according to SWOU’s Toni.

“Rich actresses need a vanity project to cast them as kind and prostitution is a sexy topic to get involved with. People should stop to think whose voices they aren’t hearing. It’s so easy to ignore sex workers, especially in non-English speaking countries,” she said.

Many of these beliefs are embedded in radical feminism, which sees prostitution as an inherently violent practice against women. Numerous feminist groups, including the Women’s Equality Party, have adopted this view around sex work. “A recent event called ‘Feminism in London’ tabled a workshop around sex work, which was in favour of pro-criminalisation. It’s a feminist take that no sex worker would ever agree with,” Toni said.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR SEX WORK?

Sex workers are pretty unanimous when it comes to what they want to achieve going forward: full decriminalisation. Many don’t want legalisation, as it would still involve a level of regulation and police interference. Many activists are realising that allies are essential to reaching their goal, which is why sex worker collectives have been reaching out to other marginalised groups, including the LGBT community, migrants and women’s groups.

In the UK, student groups are steadily becoming more aware of sex workers’ rights and a growing number of LGBT and feminist societies are pushing for full decriminalisation. “Student feminism is moving forward in leaps and bounds. A nation-wide student sex workers project has been set up, while York University has started a sex worker solidarity group. We are definitely not alone,” said Lauren, who works for the English Collective of Prostitutes. Ultimately, it seems that sex workers need to push forward and stay positive.

“Don’t feel overwhelmed or intimidated. We’re moving forward. We need to convince the public that while we understand that there is a lot of concern around sex workers, we’d rather have their respect,” concludes Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes.

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