photography László (@zzeroid), illustration Marianne Wilson

Sex workers now have a feminist movement on their side

After years of being seen as victims, is feminist activism finally centring one of the most marginalised groups?

TextStacey ClareIllustrationMarianne WilsonPhotographyLaszlo

International Women’s Day is growing more powerful each year, as women take to the streets all over the world to decry oppression and demand safety and respect. However, the feminist movement has a chequered history when it comes to supporting and protecting the rights of one group in particular – sex workers. But there is now one women’s rights movement on the rise that fully supports sex workers rights. Last year, the Women’s Strike Assembly (the UK arm of the Global Women’s Strike) supported sex workers to demand change.

International Women’s Day 2018 was a huge event globally – over six million women went on strike in Spain, and images of protests around the world flashed across newscreens. It was a massive boost for sex worker-led organisations in the UK as well. Over a thousand people demanding rights for sex workers gathered together for a march that was so successful it shut down the streets of Soho for the evening. A carnival of strippers, sex workers, and allies held a defiant rally with hundreds of supporters, the biggest public gathering of its kind possibly ever. This year promises to be even bigger, and we need the support of allies now more than ever. The demand is clear: decriminalise sex work for the safety of women.

2019 is already shaping up to be an important year for sex worker activism. It began with an important win in January. Strippers in Bristol’s jobs have been under threat from club closures for years, due to the relentless campaigning of local women’s rights groups, intent on shutting down strip clubs. After a decade of heavy restrictions on Sexual Entertainment Venue (SEV) licensing, which has seen numbers of strip clubs dwindle all over the UK, the two remaining venues in Bristol  – both notably run by women – have seen their licenses preserved for another year, thanks to the efforts of strippers organising to save their own jobs. This week, it was also announced that sex workers in Scotland can join a trade union for the first time.

In February, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) published a new community lead research paper titled “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This: A Comparison Between Sex Work and Other Jobs Commonly Done By Women”. Through a series of interviews with women doing a range of jobs traditionally seen as a female occupation – a teacher, midwife, home care worker, day nursery worker, and nurse – it demonstrates that sex work is not uniquely exploitative. By comparing hours, wages, and working conditions of different forms of labour, it becomes clear that women’s work is seen as inherently unskilled and unimportant, leaving the door open to exploitation in general. Yet, sex work is the only job that carries with it the risk of criminalisation.

The ECP’s launch was held in the Houses of Parliament, with the backing of Labour MP Dawn Butler. Getting sex worker’s voices into Parliament is no mean feat, given the tendency of politicians and legislators to assume a paternalistic approach to the issue. The ECP paper is timely and necessary, as the call for decriminalisation gets stronger by the day. The University of Bristol is about to publish a research paper commissioned by the government into the nature and the extent of the UK sex industry, following on from the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry, which recommended the decriminalisation of sex work.

The latest English Collective of Prostitutes campaign, #MakeAllWomenSafe, highlights the currently unfit-for-purpose law in the UK surrounding sex work, which forces sex workers to work alone. Legislation right now prevents women from working together, as it’s classed as brothel, which is against the law. Sex workers are forced to choose between keeping safe and the threat of arrest, avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger. The law, as it stands, is dangerous.

March is another important month for sex worker activism. Not only is it International Women’s Day on March 8, it was also International Sex Worker’s Day on March 3. The movement is gathering momentum, and the tide may well be about to turn. We are now seeing the beginning of a unionisation drive; an increasing number of UK strippers are joining the trade union United Voices of the World, to begin taking back control over what happens in their workplaces. After years of exploitative business practises, strippers and sex workers are using the power of trade union activism to reclaim their employment rights. So far this year, one of the strippers who joined UVW has won a substantial claim against a club for unpaid holiday pay to the tune of many thousands of pounds, proving by law that strippers have worker status. More claims are on the way, as strippers are finally starting to stand up to bullying and manipulation in the workplace.

“Trade unions, prostitutes, strippers, exploited workers, and feminists all working together might just tip the balance and make rights for sex workers, and all oppressed people, a reality”

Each year, license renewal hearings for strip clubs become a battleground for feminism, dividing women into opposing groups – those who believe the sex industry can never be anything other than an expression of the patriarchy, and those who believe a woman’s right to choose must also extend to those who wish to profit from selling their time and labour as sex workers. As a stripper and feminist myself, my 12 years of experience in the sex industry has demonstrated to me that there is validity to both sides of the argument.

I’ve worked in misogynistic strip clubs that can only be described as demoralising to the women working in them, and the sex industry is badly in need of reform. However, the feminist mantra “My Body My Choice”, if followed through to its logical conclusion, means that women must have the freedom to choose demoralising work within an economic framework that reduces all labour to a commodity – even if it is sex work. Women are often making such choices within a limited set of choices, so where is the benefit in making that set of choices even smaller?

Campaigning to abolish the sex industry by criminalising it simply fuels the underground sex trade where the patriarchy thrives, while wreaking havoc in the lives of the most vulnerable workers by placing them in further precarious circumstances. Defending the needs of people who are marginalised most of all, must be at the heart of any sex industry reform – and there is no doubt that putting them out of work, or criminalising their jobs puts them in danger. By absorbing some of the most oppressed members of society into the movement, 21st century feminism can only become stronger.

Sex worker-led movements continue to galvanise across the world. In the US, where the shutdown of Backpage and SESTA/FOSTA only marginalized sex workers more, people have been demonstrating nationwide for recognition and change. The New York stripper’s strike is testament to that, and just last week, new coalition Decrim NY announced work with state lawmakers to introduce laws that would fully decriminalise sex work in New York.

I’ve seen for myself the dangers of ignoring the voices of women most affected by sex work legislation and policy – the workers themselves. The latest effort to break down the barriers to decriminalisation may finally succeed by way of collaboration between multiple organisations, each committed to placing the lived experience of sex workers at the foundation of their cause. Trade unions, prostitutes, strippers, exploited workers, and feminists all working together might just tip the balance and make rights for sex workers, and all oppressed people, a reality. This year the call out is wider than ever. We invite all supporters to get behind the Sex Work Strike on March 8, and support some of the most vulnerable women in society in their fight for self-determination. It’s time to switch narratives on sex work, and end the relentless punitive measures that only serve to marginalise and stigmatise individuals. We have a fight on our hands, but we may yet just win.

Sign ECP’s petition calling for the decriminalisation of sex work here

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