It has been a sex work week or two…though nah: this is not an excuse for off-colour joking. Its actually quite – deathly – serious.
So no apologies to those who find the subject a bit difficult. And while it is lovely to welcome aboard journo’s who appear, at last, to be “getting” some of the issues that i and a very few others (including Brooke Magnanti and Laura Agustin) have been banging on about publically for a while, its a shame it took so long.
I get totally that many feminists are more than queasy about sex work, so i’m not going to rehash here arguments about whether it is genuine choice or false choice or whether positioning it as false choice is itself to deny autonomy and adds to the oppression of those involved. I do passionately believe that unless you are some sort of exponent of ultra-tough love (its not working unless its hurting!), “helping” women out of sex work by criminalising them, imprisoning them and leaving them wide open to violence and abuse is something that most of us ought to be able to unite against.
I’ll start with a photo exhibition by journalist and photographer, Vera Rodriguez, currently hosted at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Camden by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). It showcases images of Belgium’s red-light district taken from the peep show where she was working, is accompanied by an audio installation of sex workers’ voices from various levels of the sex industry – and projects a hard-hitting message that should not make anyone currently riding the back of these issues politically comfortable.
Vera writes: “The laws are not fair to those of us who offer sexual services for money. Criminalisation, stigma, isolation and lack of protection are just some of the problems that we face. Some countries decide to persecute the client but that doesn’t make it easier for sex workers. Trafficking is used by the police as an excuse to deport migrant sex workers, while genuine victims don’t get help.”
Guide to rights for sex workers
The exhibition launched alongside the ECP’s guide “Know Your Rights – A-Z for Sex Workers” (download here). This innocuous little factsheet is legal dynamite. For it is about building a movement to empower sex workers to demand their rights – to give them the ability to control their own working environments and to live in safety, not constantly under the threat of violence or arrest should they report violence.
The Olympics and the “lost tribe of sex workers”
Its a timely launch. As i’ve been writing for years now: there is another very twisted meme at work within our law-n-order culture right now: a myth, about some apparently lost tribe of sex workers that is trafficked from major global sporting event to the next.
The figure of 40,000 keeps coming up – i did talk to a researcher recently as to whether there was some peculiar urban mythic significance to the number – and yet…and yet…the evidence for this number is pretty absent.
As it should be. For neither economic logic nor any sense of criminal self-preservation makes trafficking large numbers of women in and around big sporting events worthwhile. There is no good evidence it has ever happened. Not even the Met believed it happened last time i asked them – though this hasn’t stopped them apparently accepting half a million smackers to prevent it happening at the London Olympics.
Action plan to protect women
And this gives rise to three separate points:
– First, we can go away and debate the extent of trafficking in general til the cows come home. I don’t believe it is non-existent: organisations such as ACPO are now producing some reasonably solid figures as to its extent. And where trafficking occurs and involves co-erced victims, i want it stopped and i want those responsible in jail
– second, if its not happening around the Olympics (which is a very different issue from whether it happens at all), then pouring good money into addressing a non-problem is absolutely criminal. Half a million pays for a lot of outreach and shelters and support for domestic violence victims. And if the latter is being reduced – as in some sense it must be – to pander to the clichés of moral demagoguery, THAT is criminal
– third, mixed in with this, perhaps with lines between trafficking and everyday sex work deliberately blurred, there’s been a pre-Olympic crackdown in some London boroughs, with raids, arrests, prosecutions, convictions and imprisonment of sex workers are on the increase.
Ah yes. I remember that one. WHen, many years back, i stayed a couple of nights at the Rome Youth Hostel, a notice kindly asked visitors not to sit on the front step. Why? Because from there it was possible to watch the local working girls picking up their clients at the roadside and, to our fine morally upstanding Romans, twas better for visitors not to see than to do anything about the issue.
Still, its lovely to see the Indie has cottoned on to this with a good but perhaps confused article about same. And there is an initiative that all those who care about the treatment of women should go contemplate – its called Xtalk – and its calling for a moratorium on arrests of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games. Go check it out. They make the case for themselves.
The basics: its all about violence against women!
They also, unsurprisingly, bring this issue back to its basics. Which is that as long as government insists on facing both ways over sex work – on the one hand viewing sex workers as victims to be helped back to normality, on t’other, clamping down hard on women involved – then women will continue to be hurt.
Thus, government and police are backing a nationwide roll-out of the “ugly mugs database”, a co-operative venture between sex workers and police, designed to help avoid potentially dangerous clients. But at the same time, government is going for high profile easy wins.
They have shut down channels of communication, online and in small ads, which allow women to work without ceding control to pimps and organised crime. When violence is reported, police are as likely to institute proceedings against the women reporting that violence as against the perpetrators of same.
Which brings me last to a meet, also at Crossroads Women’s Centre, hosted by Women Against Rape, to start thinking about this year’s slutwalk. yeah, yeah: i can see SOME arguing that this and the issue of sex work are diametrically opposed. Whereas what emerged, in shocking and emotional personal disclosure about sex work in Guyana, in Haiti and – yes – in good old london, is just how its the same old, same old the world over.
That where criminalisation is the norm – and where sex work is seen as something to be eradicated – it becomes all too easy for those, including members of the police and judiciary, who enjoy using and abusing to do so under cover of legalistic do-goodery. Its a big complicated issue – and its definitely time that we moved on from the easy journalistic clichés which are commonly used to analyse it.