Sex workers have long felt betrayed by the Labour party, but recently they have been besieged with attacks on multiple fronts. From opposing strip clubs in Bristol to attempting to use the sinister and controversial new police bill as a vehicle to smuggle through an amendment that would further criminalise sex work, a certain set of Labour MPs seem fixated on a crackdown that workers say would put them in danger. When workers try and make these politicians listen, says Alice, a sex worker from Bristol, they are “belittled or ignored”.
Alice is currently organising with comrades in the Bristol Sex Workers’ Collective against a determined campaign spearheaded by Labour MPs and women’s groups to close down the city’s two strip clubs. The campaigners argue the clubs cause violence against women and girls – a claim that is not supported by evidence, and one that Alice says makes it hard for sex workers to report harm when it does happen, “because you’re afraid that it will get used as a reason to take away your livelihood”.
But far from an isolated incident, the proposed strip club ban – vocally backed by Bristol MPs Kerry McCarthy and Thangam Debbonaire – is symptomatic of a broader damaging and dismissive attitude within the party, sex workers say. People in the industry are also resisting dangerous moves by Labour MPs towards increasing criminalisation; earlier this month, Hull MP Diana Johnson announced that she would be tabling amendments to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill in an attempt to enact Nordic Model sex work laws in England and Wales, having previously, in December, attempted to push this legal model in parliament.
Madison, a sex worker from London, argues that every Labour MP should be “massively opposing” a bill that threatens protest, democracy and free speech, rather than “trying to shove an anti-sex work narrative” into it. It’s frightening, she suggests, that Johnson is so fixated on pushing her own agenda, that she’s willing to let civil rights be seriously eroded in the process.
Abi, a sex worker, academic and activist with the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement in Manchester, agrees. “That bill has had so much criticism from a non-sex work perspective,” she says, “I think that jumping on it for your own moral gain is even worse than simply trying to push it through”.
Johnson’s willingness to back the bill, Abi adds, speaks to her own privilege – something sex workers have been critiquing for years. “It says that she doesn’t give a shit about anybody other than white middle-class British women […] for her, the police are safe and good and wonderful, and generally respectful. Whereas if she were to be part of any communities that do actually really struggle with police relations, I think her perspective would be completely different.”
When it comes to sex work, the Labour party refuses to extend solidarity to a marginalised group of mostly working-class women.
Earlier this month, one of Alice’s comrades – who may lose her job as a result of the campaign in Bristol – spoke in defence of her livelihood on BBC Politics West alongside her MP, McCarthy. Rather than listening, McCarthy resorted to moralising, in a way Alice says was “insulting”.
“I think she needs to reflect on the fact that it’s not just about her,” McCarthy said, of a constituent facing unemployment. “It’s part of this wider problem about men not just objectifying women, but being encouraged to objectify women. I think there’s something very odd about men paying to go and see women take their clothes off in the first place.”
The Nordic model – which is opposed by sex workers and groups including Amnesty International, harm-reduction charity Release and Women Against Rape – criminalises clients and third parties in the sex trade, aiming to ‘end demand’ and ‘exit’ women from the industry. Evidence from countries where it is enforced shows that it increases violence against sex workers, whilst still criminalising them, and not supporting exit for those who do want to leave the industry. Over the year following the introduction of the Nordic Model in Ireland in 2017, there was a 92% reported increase in violent crime against sex workers.
Johnson – along with Labour MPs Diane Abbott, Jess Phillips and Carolyn Harris – sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on ‘Commercial Sexual Exploitation’, which defines sex work as “violence against women” and a cause of “sex inequality”. As part of this APPG, Labour MPs are also attempting to outlaw so-called “online pimping” – referring to advertising websites that sex workers use to find clients, without which workers would be forced to rely upon potentially exploitative third-parties. In the United States, research shows that similar laws have had a detrimental impact on workers’ financial stability, safety, access to community and health – whilst doing nothing to combat exploitation in the industry.
Earlier this month, McCarthy responded to a sex worker on Twitter, who was urging her not to make “100s” of workers “homeless, unemployed [and] devastated” by pushing for a strip club ban. “Banning strip clubs does not solve sexism and misogyny,” the worker argued.
“I have listened [to sex workers],” McCarthy replied. “I just don’t agree. There are other voices I do agree with.”
Abi says this “utterly callous disregard of sex workers’ voices” is symptomatic of a culture around sex work within the Labour party that puts “ideology [and] morality above the actual lives and wellbeing” of sex workers. This has led to a lack of trust between workers and the politicians who are meant to represent them.
“If you are a middle-aged woman in the Labour party and an MP, I do not trust you,” Abi says. “I don’t want to not trust you, but I have never [encountered] anybody who fits that demographic who has my best interests at heart – who will listen to me, who will hear what I have to say and respect it and value it and actively work in my interest.”
The most vocal Labour MPs on sex work subscribe to an ideology that sees the work as inevitably and inherently violent – as a cause rather than a symptom of patriarchy – and as such, in need of more criminalisation, with a view to abolition. This attitude “completely ignore[s] what sex workers across the country and across the world are crying out for,” says Abi: decriminalisation, which evidence shows increases sex workers’ rights and safety.
Madison describes Labour’s prevailing stance on sex work as “misogyny under the guise of feminism”.
“I understand a lot of this stuff comes from mistrust of men,” she says, “but stopping sex work is not the solution to that”. The MPs peddling anti-sex work rhetoric and policy, she says, often “come from really privileged backgrounds” and don’t “understand that life is just not like that for everybody”. The majority of sex workers are single mothers who have faced hardship under austerity. Migrant women, trans women and disabled women are overrepresented in the community.
Abi describes the ideology behind Labour’s lack of support for sex workers as “middle-class feminism… woke in the 90s feminism… JK Rowling feminism,” that has not “gotten to grips with intersectionality”. Such politicians, she says, “don’t understand the conditions that lead to sex work, they don’t understand the huge pressures that sex workers are facing”.
Chloe Hopkins, a Labour member campaigning with Labour4Decrim and standing for the Labour party National Women’s Committee (speaking in a personal capacity) observes that much of the hostility around sex work in the Labour party comes from “moralising that this is the wrong kind of job”. To sex workers, says Alice, this “feels like we’re being presented as ‘bad women’, and they’re the ‘good women’”.
The “liberal – as opposed to socialist – feminism,” displayed by the Labour party, says Hopkins, “sees the existence of sex work as harming other women,” and therefore refuses to extend solidarity to women working in the industry. This attitude, she says, is a form of victim-blaming: “Trying to conflate some men’s terrible attitudes or terrible behaviour, with the workers, as if they’re responsible for them.”
Male Labour MPs, by-and-large “won’t get embroiled” in debates about sex work, Hopkins adds, because “they’re hesitant of being ‘men speaking over women'” on “what they see as a ‘women’s rights issue'”. The women being heard when they speak, however, aren’t sex workers, the mostly working-class women whose lives and livelihoods are at stake in such debates.
Abi recently cancelled her Labour membership on account of the party’s refusal to engage with and support sex workers’ demands for rights and decriminalisation. “It would be really nice if I could support the main leftwing party that this country has,” she says, but “I do not feel able to… knowing that I am not welcome.”
Labour’s approach to sex work, says Abi, stigmatises sex workers as people who are “responsible for the denigration of our society,” rather than uplifting them as workers, deserving of better working conditions and rights like any other. “They speak for us, they speak over us, they never ever speak to us,” she says – “If it’s not ignorance, it’s just outright dismissal.” The fact “the party of the working people, as it historically has been,” ignores workers, she says, is “disgusting”.
Sex work allows many women to earn enough money flexibly, whilst managing – for example – caring responsibilities, disabilities or studies. For Madison, sex work has been an option that has allowed her to manage her mental health and survive without “spend[ing] [my] whole life working for some company that [I] don’t care about”.
The pandemic, which has seen most of the industry disappear overnight, has entailed extreme hardship for many sex workers. But, notes Hopkins, “instead of the Labour party thinking about ways to improve the conditions of all workers, there are some members of the party whose obsession instead is pushing forward a bill or an amendment that will actually be damaging to them”. The fact that many sex workers are struggling to survive amidst the pandemic, whilst Labour is pushing a policy that evidence shows will put their lives at risk, she says, is “galling”.
Hopkins believes the obstinance around sex work in the Labour party mirrors a general tendency within the party to not always “listen to what the unions are demanding”. Along with the majority of sex workers in the UK and globally, unionised sex workers are calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work and better working conditions and rights.
In addition, Hopkins says there is an “impulse [in the Labour party] towards a paternalistic saviour complex” towards lower-paid workers – “to kind of be ‘the rescuers’.” In fact, she says, “what we should be doing as a party is working to empower [these workers]… we want people to be in unions so that they can give voice to their own discontent and work together to change it.”
Hopkins sees Labour’s lack of solidarity with sex workers as reflective of the party’s “limiting of possibilities” when it comes to thinking about work. She says that often MPs build a straw man argument against sex work, claiming that, if it is accepted as work, it will become a job that benefits claimants won’t be able to turn down without getting sanctioned. This argument is a fallacy on two grounds. Firstly, sex workers want decriminalisation, not legalisation, of the industry. Secondly, Hopkins says, such arguments don’t go far enough – Labour MPs should be challenging the idea that it is acceptable to make people’s “ability to buy food, pay their rent, to live their life, dependent upon them having to accept any job”.
If Labour wants to build a society that keeps women safe – rather than abolishing the sex industry, it needs to be offering women financial and housing security, says Sarah from Labour4Decrim. “Labour’s ten-point plan [‘to keep women safe’] doesn’t include anything about liveable benefits or affordable rent,” she notes – “that’s what increases women’s choices in terms of what jobs they do, but [also in terms of] whether or not they can afford to live on their own rather than having to live with someone who might be abusive.” Tackling the roots of patriarchy, she argues, is “much more difficult than closing down one or two strip clubs.”
What is hopeful, agree all those who spoke to Novara Media, is that by-and-large Labour members are supportive of sex workers. “There’s a disconnect between members and their electorate representatives,” says Sarah – because “Labour members understand what it’s like to do crappy work and still need to do that work to pay your bills.”
Chloe says that, in her campaigning experience, once Labour members understand that sex work is “a workers’ rights issue”, they engage with the fact workers will benefit from “a strong union that can protect them,” and will be harmed by criminalisation.
Within the party, sex workers point to MPs Lyn Brown and Nadia Whittome as among the few sources of solidarity.
“It’s really important that Labour members make their views known,” says Sarah, by writing to MPs in support of sex workers’ demands and by passing motions at the constituency Labour party level and at affiliate conferences, in favour of decriminalisation.
“Listen to sex workers… and lift our voices up,” says Abi. “We have so many resources out there – we have letters, we have facts, we have statistics [that can be used] to support decriminalisation and to support sex workers’ voices generally.”
“It has to be hammered home,” says Hopkins, that “we are the Labour party, we are the party of the labour movement, and sex workers are a part of the labour movement. And therefore we should be respecting them and listening to them.”
“Labour [claim to be] ‘the many, not the few’,” says Madison. “It’s not for the many if you aren’t also for sex workers.”
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.