A few months ago, around 200 sex workers and allies gathered in Parliament Square with placards, banners, and a sound system. Inside, just metres away, a Westminster Hall debate was taking place on a UK equivalent to the US SESTA-FOSTA laws, legislation that would shut down online advertising platforms that sex workers all over the UK use.
The above paragraph ends rather abruptly. I began to write this article sitting in the basement of a brothel which was at that point unexpectedly raided by the police. I had not worked there for long, but the other workers could not remember it ever happening before. Raids are generally carried out under the guise of “rescuing” trafficking victims, however the undocumented people collected in these raids end up at the mercy of our inhumane immigration system – in detention centres such as Yarls Wood, for example.
When the raid happened, male officers made us get dressed while they watched, recorded our names and other information, and terrified us in the process. Handing over her ID, my co-worker worried out loud that if she was recorded as a sex worker, she might be deported after Brexit. When they got to me, I asked if I could make a phone call first for some legal advice and they sent me into the hallway, where I frantically phoned the ECP, a prostitutes’ collective who came to the aid of many victims of the Soho Brothel Raids. They explained my rights and helped me calm down, sending over details of a lawyer. It was with their support that mine was the only name the police didn’t record. They made no arrests – only the cleaner was there, not the manager. Still, I know that I might never go back there, because in the past raids have frequently been followed up with closure orders. I don’t know what we will all do if our income disappears overnight. We are all in sex work for complicated reasons – my own being disability – that mean we can’t just “get different jobs”.
I hadn’t intended to talk about brothels in this article, or even about my own experiences, but the timing of the raid seemed like too much of a coincidence. The truth is that we, as sex workers, are scared. We all live precarious lives as it is. Those who work alone, as the law pushes us to do, are in greater danger of becoming the victims of violence. Workers like me, working under management where it is generally safer, face exploitation at the hands of our bosses and the danger of brothel raids. Street workers sit on an even more dangerous intersection of safety and criminality, working alone and falling foul of the law.
We have built up communities and safety measures, improved conditions for ourselves and other workers, adapted to changes in technology and the industry and helped other workers to exit the industry if they wish to do so. We have been collecting and fighting for better laws, for an end to stigmatisation and for the actual reasons that some of us enter the industry unwillingly to be addressed: poverty wages, housing prices, zero hour contracts, unjust benefit systems, employment discrimination, to name a few. Then, suddenly, the little progress we have made is being threatened by the very people we trusted to care about our welfare the most: Labour MPs.
Sex worker led organisations have been speaking out about different legal models for years now, advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work – not for the benefit of clients, as abolitionists like to claim, but because we know any detriment to punters manifests in risk to the workers. For example, a reduction in demand from the Swedish Model, also known as the Nordic Model, without targeting the reasons that people work in the sex industry has, in Norway, turned the industry into what the Norwegian government describe as a “buyer’s market” that has left workers less able to demand condom use or screen clients. Advocates of the Swedish Model see the sex industry as, quite rightly, a symptom of the patriarchy. However, the idea that we can just stamp it out with a new set of laws shows a vast misunderstanding of why it exists in the first place.
While the Westminster Hall debate droned on and Sarah Champion, the Labour MP who organised it, made a passionate speech about the merits of the Nordic Model, outside we chanted “No bad women, just bad laws” and held placards emblazoned with phrases like “Shutting down our sites sends us on to the streets”. Among the protestors, feeling betrayed by the Labour Women they had trusted and devastated that Jeremy Corbyn had come out in support of the Nordic Model just two days before, was the beginning of a new campaign that united several sex worker led organisations behind a common cause – decriminalisation of sex work.
We started Decrim Now and have launched Labour4Decrim, because sex work law is literally a life or death situation. Whether or not you accept prostitution as a legitimate job, whatever that even means, for those of us in the industry it functions as one. It is a means to put food on the table, and this desperation for survival puts many of us in exploitative conditions under the same nefarious mechanisms of capitalism that have meant Amazon workers are forced to sleep in tents outside the warehouses. As long as we need money to survive and we need to work to get money, exploitative industries are going to exist. Yet, when our workplaces are criminalised, we cannot fight for better conditions or unionise the same way that other workforces do.
We are asking Labour not to contribute to the oppression and stigmatisation of sex workers that we already feel in our daily lives. We are asking Labour to acknowledge, as Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, and the United Nations have acknowledged, that decriminalisation is the safest legal model for sex workers. We are asking Labour to recognise us as vulnerable workers and to stand with us in our struggle for safety, not turn its back on us as so many others have before.
DecrimNow is a campaign led by sex workers and supported by academics, politicians and allies. Labour4Decrim launches at The World Transformed on Tuesday 05/09/18. You can read our campaign statement here.