The demands coming out of the UK’s sex worker rights movement right now – Believe Us When We Report Rape; Respect Our Rights and Our Labour; and Fight for Our Safety not Criminalisation – tell us a lot about why sex workers protested the recent parliamentary “debate” proposing to further criminalise their lives and work. In addition to whipping up yet another moral panic about trafficking, the debate proposed to further criminalise the purchase of sex and the introduction of similar legislation to the FOSTA/SESTA laws that recently banned online sex industry websites in the United States. It was chaired by conservative, reactionary DUP politician Ian Paisley, organised by Sarah Champion, Labour Party MP for Rotherham and, like most political discussions of sex work, failed at the first hurdle: it deliberately excluded the opinions and experiences of people currently working in the industry.
There has been an uptick in the energy and determination to achieve sex worker rights in the UK – with growing evidence that the most effective way to address instances of exploitation and abuse in the sex industry is through collective labour organising. It really is a no brainer that working class organising against exploitative bosses and unsafe industries – tactics that have worked for over 200 years – would prove successful even in informal, feminised and stigmatised industries. The growth in sex worker rights movement follows the successful #strike4decrim demonstration called by the Women’s Strike Assembly on 8 March 2018, a launch of a unionisation drive across the sex industry with the grassroots union United Voices of the World (UVW) and initiation of the Decrim Now national decriminalisation campaign by sex worker rights organisations. So it is unsurprising that the likes of Sarah Champion and the pro-criminalisation lobby of the Labour Party are panicking. The growth of a movement for sex worker rights is very real, and is bolstered by the current Corbyn and McDonnell leadership – both of whom are on record personally supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.
Not only is the political and polemic discussion around trafficking misleading, the framing of trafficking as a problem of the sexual exploitation of migrants fails to understand that it is immigration policies and the criminalisation of sex work that produces the violence and abuse that occurs in the sex industry. A similar racialised manoeuvre can be seen with the child abuse scandals that shook Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford, Huddersfield, and the nature of the response by the media and politicians like Sarah Champion, who claimed that “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”. The framing of child sexual abuse as a unique problem of “Asian grooming gangs” deliberately makes invisible how devastatingly widespread child sexual abuse is in the UK.
The racialisation of trafficking and grooming gangs are part and parcel of a hegemonic political discourse that relies on identifying, criminalising and removing a sexualised ‘other.’ This helps generate a false sense of national crisis – making way for violent state manoeuvres in the name of ‘national security’. By locating the problem as one of ‘foreign’ migrants or cultures, the British media and political establishment conveniently sidestep the need to dig deeper and confront the misogynist foundations of our society. But let us be even clearer: the problem is not of exceptional monsters and evil men (despite how horrifying and shocking the cases are). The overwhelming majority of abuse and harm experienced by women and girls happens under utterly ‘normal’ circumstances – it is perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends, ex-partners, priests, sports coaches etc. We have to ask why the sexual crimes of certain racialised men are framed as “grooming gangs”, while the same logic isn’t applied to instances of child sexual abuse in institutions like the Catholic Church or international sports teams.
In both trafficking and grooming gangs cases, women and girls are stripped of their agency and routinely discredited and not believed (be it when reporting rape and sexual abuse, or in their assertion that what they do for a living is work or their reasons for migrating). The message is clear: women are not to be trusted as narrators of their own lives and only “worthy” victims will be protected. What makes the current framing of trafficking and grooming gangs so insidious is that the structural conditions that perpetuate harm and violence against women are rarely mentioned, let alone acted upon. Gone from the narrative are the immigration laws that criminalise border crossings, visa applications that cost thousands of pounds, neoliberal structural adjustment policies and war that force people to leave their homes, government policies that make it impossible to afford to heat homes or feed kids and our failing social care system that routinely stigmatises and blames vulnerable young women for their own plight.
Sarah Champion and her cohorts want us to “join the dots between prostitution, modern slavery, trafficking and child sexual exploitation”. In doing so they identify the problem as one of particular localised violence by an exceptional few – whether that be foreign men abusing young girls or the ‘small minority’ of men who pay for sex. By joining the dots, Champion means bolstering state power through criminalisation, detention centres and policing in the hope of curing the problem of sexual violence and exploitation. However, those of us who have been deemed ‘unworthy victims’ by the state because we are drug addicts, or poor, have sex with too many men, or make money from sex already know that criminalisation fails to address the systematic reasons why sexual and economic violence prevails. When it is illegal for sex workers to work together in the interest of their own safety, they are seen as easy targets by perpetrators of violence. When an undocumented migrant is unable to report rape or violence for fear of prosecution, detention and deportation, they become vulnerable to trafficking. When young working class women are routinely dismissed and not believed when they report instances of violence, those that perpetuate harm can rely on the police to create the conditions for abuse to continue.
It is important to understand how the racialised and carceral framing of “trafficking” and “grooming gangs” are connected. The politics of the pro-criminalisation lobby in the Labour Party – overwhelmingly dominated by women MPs – is the product of a middle class, carceral logic of how violence and power operates in society. Women of colour, migrant women, sex workers, trans and queer women have, for years, been calling attention to the fact that increasing state power (in the form of police and prisons) does not keep women safe. Rather these state interventions threaten the safety of those they purport to protect. A quick glance at the effects of decades of anti-trafficking campaigns has meant more raids, sex worker arrests and deportations. This is a moment of fundamental class/racial conflict between white middle class feminists who the British state generally keeps safe (enough) and marginalised women who are routinely abused, ignored and harmed by the state agencies who are supposedly meant to provide safety and protection.
Secondly, far-right and fascist movements across England are currently mobilising thousands on the streets in support of Tommy Robinson (whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon). In May 2018, Robinson began serving a 13-month prison sentence for publishing a Facebook Live video of defendants in a “grooming gang” case entering the courts in Leeds. The seriousness of his stunt is that as a result of Robinson’s “reporting” the case risked being declared a mistrial. Only highlighting the cynical and disingenuous way that the far-right are capitalising on community anger and outrage about institutional state failings and neglect to produce a narrative of “foreign men” as predatory, evil and something that must be expelled and paving the way for fascist politics to be popularised and normalised.
If we can learn anything from the current situation, it is that solutions begin with believing women when they name the problem – whether it be sex workers identifying criminalisation as a driving force of stigma and violence against them; trafficking victims naming detention and deportation as the force pushing them into silence; or childhood survivors naming institutional bias by the police and neglect by social workers that allowed their abuse to go on unchallenged. If we are to begin to address the problem, we must forgo empowering the state and look to empower women, even if they do not fit our conception of the “worthy” victim.