I was very pleased to chair on Friday what many afterwards said to me was a powerful session on the Green Party policy on sex work, which is, in short, in favour of the New Zealand, decriminalisation, model, which aims to protect the safety and wellbeing of sex workers by ensuring that they receive the coverage under employment law and under criminal law as anyone else, and that the stigma against them is minimised.
Catherine Stephens, of the International Union of Sex Workers, said that estimates suggested 80,000 people were working in the sex industry in the UK. Estimates for street sex work range from 3,000 to 22,000, and the Home Office says a maximum 4,000 women are trafficked. “So between 70-90% are non-trafficked off-street workers: an invisible majority who have no reason to the attention of the authorities or rescue organisations.”
Catherine said that streetworkers were generally accepted to be some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. “Street sex work shows a high prevalence of problematic drug and alcohol use, a correlation with a background in care, frequent low educational achievement, homelessness and a host of other problems.”
She added: “These women – referred to by a recent Home Secretary as a “blight” – are criminalised under the Street Offences Act of 1959. That’s now had a 50-year trial period and signally and completely failed to solve the problems associated with street sex work. However, recent legislation has intensified the existing approach, including defining “persistence” for soliciting: twice in three months. That gives this profoundly vulnerable group of women the opportunity to have contact with the police four times a year without fear of arrest.”
Yet even those women working indoors were, Catherine said, threatened by current legal conditions, which ensured that while prostitution itself was legal, many acts commonly associated with it were not. “Working indoors, the only way to be free of the risk of prosecution is to work for yourself in complete isolation. No current legislation actually targets coercion, violence, abuse or exploitation. Two people working together fulfils the legal definition of a brothel, so the law builds in isolation at the most fundamental level. … Would we be safer working together? Yes. Is that legal? No.”
“It is vulnerability which creates victims, not sex work itself, and the law makes us vulnerable.”
This was a powerful argument, but I think the most striking contribution was from Thierry Schaffauser, who has worked in the sex industry for sex years, in Paris and London, and is an activist with the IUSW, president of the GMB sex workers branch and I am International Relations for STRASS, the French sex workers union that includes more than 300 sex workers. (He also stood for Les Verts in local elections in Paris. (And he has also written on Comment is Free.)
He said: “I am happy to be invited to speak today because most of the time political parties don’t want to hear sex workers’ voices and even less if it’s a male sex worker although male and trans workers represent easily 30% of the sex industry in London.
“…When you are convinced to know better for others what is good for them, this means oppression. The only experts on sex work are sex workers themselves.
“The portrayal of sex workers as poor victims, sex objects, commodities, slaves, drugs addicts, victims of Stockholm syndrom and post traumatic disorders. All that, is not meant to help sex workers. But to deprive us our capacity to speak for ourselves and to allow false experts to present themselves as saviours and to confiscate our voice.
“…Anti-prostitution activists say that we are not workers. They say that we don’t sell our labour but our body. This is still the same strategy to deny our agency and intelligence. But this is also to prevent solidarity with other workers and exclude us from the labour movement. We can’t separate ourselves from our body. We all have to use our body in a way or another to work.
“…My body is more than just my sex. Being penetrated doesn’t mean that I give my body. The most important organ I use when I have sex is my brain. Being paid for sex doesn’t make me an object, at least not more than when I was working for minimum wage for a boss and that my legs and my back were hurting after 40 hours a week of work.
“What makes me an object is political discourses that silence me, criminalise my sexual partners against my will, refuse me equal rights as a worker and citizen, and refuse to acknowledge my self-determination and the words I use to describe myself.”