Feminist Fightback was specifically singled out in Cath Elliot’s article ‘The Great IUSW Con’, and formulated the following response.  I was asked if I would post it on my blog, which I am doing.

Reply to Cath Elliot’s ‘The Great IUSW Con’

Having been mentioned several times in Cath Elliot’s ‘The Great IUSW Con’, Feminist Fightback would like to reply to the accusations levelled at both the IUSW and Fightback’s support for sex workers’ rights. We have been saddened to read yet another abolitionist article which, rather than engage in thoughtful and honest debate, seeks to obscure the issues through factual inaccuracies and faulty logic.

Feminist Fightback supports the right of sex workers to organise amongst themselves to fight exploitation in the sex industry and transform the conditions under which they work. The International Union of Sex Workers is the only such organisation in the UK, as a result Fightback has supported this union and worked alongside it, just as it has a number of other trade unions on various different issues. Some of us have attended London IUSW meetings that are open to allies, while a few other Fightback members are themselves sex workers and members of the IUSW. Cath Elliot’s supposed ‘exposé’ hardly strikes us, then, as a piece of biting investigative journalism. We have no need of her advice to be careful of who we make alliances with for we are perfectly capable of investigating, analysing and making judgements about the political issues on which Feminist Fightback campaigns.

It is no secret that Douglas Fox, a male escort who also runs an agency, is a member of the IUSW. But Cath Elliot seems to think that by ‘uncovering’ this single fact she has discredited not only the entire union but also all arguments in favour of sex workers’ self organisation and decriminalisation. Through an absurd leap in logic Elliot moves from a discussion of Fox to conclude that the IUSW is ‘populated with pimps, agency owners and punters’. Unfortunately no other evidence for this is offered. Nor does Elliot offer any further arguments against sex workers’ right to unionise. In the absence of more sophisticated debate, we’d like to address Elliot’s accusations one by one.

It bears re-stating that because one member of the union runs an escort agency this does not mean that all members are ‘pimps’ and punters. In working with the IUSW we have met members in a variety of jobs in the sex industry including strippers, maids and men and women selling sex in brothels and working independently. Unlike other trade unions the IUSW finds itself in the position of seeking to organise workers who are effectively illegal, denied the right to work by laws which criminalise the conditions under which sex is sold. Decrimalisation is deemed a pre-condition to transforming working conditions and challenging the exploitation which takes place within the sex industry. For this reason union membership is open to others working for decriminalisation, including academics and researchers in this field.

Moreover, the GMB membership ensures confidentiality, for how else could a union seek to recruit illegal workers? It also seeks to challenge the fetishisation of ‘prostitution’ by actively recruiting from a variety of jobs within the sex industry, including, for example, security staff in strip clubs or receptionists in brothels. This is a common trade union approach – to organise all workers in a particular industry collectively rather than pick out a particular trade or role in isolation. (A comparison is the RMT union whose members include drivers, platform staff and cleaners on the London Underground.) We ask Cath Eliott what she would like the union to do? Demand that each individual out themselves? Specify exactly how much cock they suck, whether the do or do not do penetration in order to confirm for her whether they can truly be considered ‘authentic’ sex workers?

This concern for so-called authenticity is worrying. By implication it equates suffering with legitimacy. Does a woman who sells sex have to be addicted to drugs, working on the street and regularly beaten and raped in order to qualify to speak on behalf of sex workers? Can we not accept that a variety of experience exists in the sex industry? Can we not recognise that trade unionism is often about better off workers working alongside those experiencing the worst conditions, in order to improve the lives of all? In fact, we suggest that for Cath Elliot and other opponents of sex workers’ rights, the only ‘authentic’ sex worker is the sex worker who agrees with them.

Since Cath Elliot raised the issue of who, as feminists, we make alliances with, we would like to question the company she keeps by supporting the proposed government legislation to further criminalise sex work. The Policing and Crime Bill proposes to convict clients buying sex from anyone who is ‘controlled for gain’, strengthens police and local government powers to close down brothels, and further criminalises women working on the streets. (See the Safety First Coalition website for why this will make conditions more dangerous for sex workers). This legislation has been vocally supported by Cabinet ministers Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith, politicians who Feminist Fightback would likewise urge Cath Elliot to think twice about allying herself with. Among the numerous attacks on working-class women that these supposed champions of women’s rights have voted through include Harman’s drastic cuts to single parent benefit in 1997 and Jacqui Smith’s support for a draconian immigration system which regularly deports women who have been the victims of sexual violence back to the very countries from which they have fled. If Cath Elliot wants to purge the feminist movement of women’s real enemies then she might do well to start with Smith and Harman.

Finally, we would like to raise the wider question of why so many wish to block open debate on the subject of sex work – be this through refusing to speak on platforms where the voices of those they disagree with will be heard, through misinformed smear campaigns against sex workers’ organisations, or through mythologising and false claims regarding trafficking (for the government’s almost total lack of actual information on sex trafficking see here). Why does such a fundamentalist attitude persist around feminist responses to sex work? Why can we not think through the complex issues? Why can we not try to deal with the messy reality of the situation rather than resort to myth-making and scare mongering?

Those who want to decide whether they support the IUSW can find out what this union is and stands for for themselves – by reading IUSW materials and website, talking to the GMB or listening to IUSW representatives when they speak at events. We in Feminist Fightback continue to discuss and debate with each other what we think about the multifaceted issue of sex work. We do not claim to agree with every individual member of the IUSW, any more than we agree with all the policies of the other trade unions whose members we work with. We do, however, believe that anyone who is serious about fighting violence and exploitation in the sex industry needs to side with the workers organising within it, rather than seeking to criminalise or deny such workers a voice.

URGENT ACTION REQUIRED

January 20, 2009

From Women Against Rape:

Rape survivor detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

and facing removal today Tuesday 20 January, at 7pm

 

Please phone or write to:

1.    Phil Woolas MP, Immigration Minister, Home Office Minister of State for borders and immigration, UKBApublicenquiries@UKBA.gsi.gov.uk

2.    Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office Fax 020 8760 3132 Privateoffice.external@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

3.    European Court of Human Rights,  Fax: +33 (0) 3 88 41 27 30,  Tel: +33 (0) 3 88 41 20 18

4.     Kenya Airways Flight KQ101  Telephone 01784 888 222

Ms Flavia Nambi has been in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre since Wednesday 14 January. She has been given Removal Directions for this evening.  She is at risk of taking her own life and is on suicide watch. 

 

Evidence of rape submitted to the Home Office.  A fresh claim lodged in December included compelling expert evidence from WAR and psychiatrists corroborating her account of brutal gang rape by Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers.  As a result, the Home Office have for the first time accepted Ms Nambi is a rape survivor but are still insisting she should be sent back. 

 

Ms Nambi could not survive if sent back. Ms Nambi lives in the UK with her Aunt who is her sole surviving relative from the terrible conflict in Uganda.  She has no-one to whom she could turn for help and expert testimony confirms that women in Ms Nambi’s vulnerable state could not survive if sent back. 

Other women returned face rape and other torture.  WAR has first hand accounts from women who have been returned to Uganda of the deprivation, rape and other torture that they suffer. The Home Office has refused to monitor or investigate what happens to women in these circumstances. 

 

This is the THIRD time Ms Nambi has been detained.  Last time she was so traumatised, she lost her memory, became profoundly depressed and was close to taking her own life.  After her release, despite her own ill health, Ms Nambi has been dedicated to helping other women in detention who share her experiences.

 

Refusal to acknowledge rape breaches international obligations.  The Home Office by refusing to reconsider it’s responsibilities to Ms Nambi, now it has accepted she is a rape survivor, is flouting its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and European Convention of Human Rights.  What use are its own “gender guidelines”[1] if in reality officials decide that it makes no difference whether or not someone has suffered the devastating trauma of rape?   

 

The treatment of rape survivors.  Like many survivors, Ms Nambi could not give an account of the rape she suffered to Home Office officials when she was first interviewed about it.  Court precedents have long established that, considering the stigma and discrimination faced by rape survivors, delay in reporting rape shouldn’t be used to throw doubt on a woman’s credibility.[2] Immigration Judge D P Herbert, who presided over Ms Nambi’s case at appeal agreed: 

 

“I accept as wholly plausible the explanation given by the appellant that she was too embarrassed and humiliated to disclose this to the Immigration Officer upon arrival.”

 

He ruled that she should not be returned.

 

I find that given the fact that this is a young woman who has been raped and treated in the most appalling manner by the Lord’s Resistance Army simply to return her to the capital city Kampala where she has never lived and has no family connections or means of support would be unduly harsh.” 

 

The Home Office appealed this decision and at the hearing Judge Handley went beyond his remit and accepted the Home Office argument that delay in reporting cast doubt on Ms Nambi’s account of rape.  Further appeals failed because higher courts ruled that whether Ms Nambi had been raped was irrelevant as she could safely be returned to another part of Uganda.

 

Removal scheduled for today.  Today Ms Nambi’s lawyers will take her case to the Appeal Court to try to prevent her flight.  We are determined to do everything we can to prevent her suffering any further, and are asking for your help by writing or phoning the above. 

 

Please send copies of emails/faxes of any letters you write to: war@womenagainstrape.net  Fax: 020 7209 4761

 


[1] See campaign Black Women’s Rape Action Group’s Asylum from Rape petition for the re-instatement of the Guidelines, for more information about this and how you can help by signing and circulating Black Women’s Rape Action Group’s Asylum from Rape petition.

[2] In 1998 WAR helped establish the High Court precedent that women may be unable, not unwilling, to report rape and therefore are entitled to further consideration of this “fresh evidence”. RvSSHD ex parte Ejon,(QBD) [1998] INLR 195


 

Make a date with Feminists!!

GENDER/ RACE/ CLASS: AN ANTI-CAPITALIST FEMINIST EVENT

Sat 14th Feb, 10.30am -6.30 pm, Tindle Manor, 52-4 Featherstone St EC1 (nearest tube Old St.) Fully accessible venue. This event is free!

 

for more info see www.anticapitalistfeminists.co.uk

to register email anticapitalistfeminists@gmail.com

Discussing and organising our fight for women’s liberation – open to all those who want to learn, think and plan for grassroots feminist activism… Join us for workshops which identify the interconnections between oppressions and our struggles against them. Work together with other feminists to find ways to actually change the material conditions of women’s lives.

Workshops include: learning from feminist history/ sex workers’ rights/ challenging domestic violence/ international solidarity/ a woman’s place is in her union?/ reproductive freedoms/ rape and asylum/ community organising/ queer and trans politics/ prison abolition/ self-defence workshop/ feminists and the capitalist crisis/ films, stalls and campaign planning

Free creche – please register by email by Friday 6th February

Stalls available – email laurarogers53@gmail.com to book

Organised by a coalition of groups and individuals. Groups involved so far include: Anarcha-Fem Kollective, All African Women’s Group, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, English Collective of Prostitutes, Education Not for Sale Women, Feminist Activist Forum, Feminist Fightback, Left Women’s Network, London Coalition Against Poverty, Permanent Revolution, RMT Women’s Committee, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Women Against Rape, Workers’ Liberty.

PLEASE FORWARD FAR AND WIDE AND ADVERTISE ON YOUR BLOG.

I’m Back!

January 13, 2009

I’ve been in Canada for the last two weeks (and am now so badly jetlagged I can barely remember my own name).   Apologies for the lack of posts, and the delay in approving comments.