A Response to ‘The Great IUSW Con’

January 21, 2009

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.

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14 Responses to “A Response to ‘The Great IUSW Con’”


  1. Wild applause. THIS is a thing of beauty- well said and well done


  2. […] by Caroline on 21 January, 2009 A Response to ‘The Great IUSW Con’ from High on Rebellion. Having been mentioned several times in Cath Elliot’s ‘The Great IUSW […]

  3. Glen Parry Says:

    A simply superb response.

  4. hexy Says:

    Wow! What a brilliant, well-written response!


  5. I noticed that commenters were horrified that the IUSW would allow ‘anyone’ to join and would draw their attention to the GMB’s own website for the whole UK, all industries, which says that anyone who wants to join may. Regardless of job, employment status, belonging to other unions, etc. The IUSW branch of the GMB is only doing what the GMB invites all branches in any sector to do.

    Laura Agustín

  6. Gwen Says:

    Thanks for all the positive feedback! I wish I could take credit, but I’m afraid my contribution to the response was mostly by frequent rants about Jacqui Smith on the Feminist Fightback list.

    Laura – I don’t necessarily agree that managers SHOULD be allowed to join unions, but it’s true that they are allowed to join most unions, including the GMB.

  7. voltairespriest Says:

    Great post, absolutely spot on.

  8. Almanac Says:

    There is one particular union that does not, under any circumstances, allow managers to join, and that union is the Industrial Workers of the World. They actually have a Sex Trade Shop in this union, which of course Douglas would not be able to join as he is someone who is in a “hiring and firing” position.

    If, however, Douglas and his partner turn the escort agency into a cooperative, with each person an equal member, then he could ethically join this union.

    Anywhoo, the IUSW is not the IWW, but the IWW is really in a class by itself, being an anarchist union, which most large unions aren’t.

  9. Bubbly Creek Says:

    “The IUSW branch of the GMB is only doing what the GMB invites all branches in any sector to do.”

    To recruit pimps?

    There is absolutely no chance, none whatsoever, of Jacqui Smith meeting the IUSW.

    “If, however, Douglas and his partner turn the escort agency into a cooperative, with each person an equal member, then he could ethically join this union.”

    You mean the girls in school uniforms get to be charge?

    ****************

    Jobcentre does naked IUSW approved cleaners for almost double minimum wage.

    So Feminist Fightback, is making progress!

    **********************

    “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.”

    Your side has boo koo of pimps agreeing with it.

  10. Gwen Says:

    Bubbly Creek,

    I edited all your comments so that they all appeared in one place, on the appropriate comment thread. While you are welcome to comment on any other post here, I would appreciate it if you could make your comment relevant to the post in question.

    I’m sure Jacqui Smith won’t meet with the IUSW. She also probably won’t meet with the Congolese rape survivors she is having deported. At this point, Jacqui Smith’s approval is hardly a feminist credential – possibly the opposite.

    I see no reason why women in school uniforms shouldn’t be in charge. I don’t think that sex workers are stupid.

    I don’t really understand your second comment because of the syntax. Sorry. But yes, Feminist Fightabck is in support of Tubecleaners getting more money. And we don’t believe that ANYONE should be forced to work naked. And we oppose any attempt to force people off benefits into dangerous and unsuitable work, and let’s face it, a lot of sex work is dangerous. So we would absolutely oppose any Jobcentre attempt to force people into taking up sex work.

    As for your third comment – you can read what I personally, and most of Feminist Fightback actually believe here: https://highonrebellion.wordpress.com/2008/11/13/there-are-no-easy-solutions-feminism-and-the-sex-industry/

    As you can see, Feminist Fightback believes that most people in the sex industry are there because they believe they have no choice, or because it is the best of a lot of bad choices (there are also people forced into prostitution, as well as people who really, really like being sex workers). We believe strongly that we need to create exit strategies for these people, and generally fight the oppressive systems that put people into such appallingly limited situations to begin with. Consequently, we believe that supporting the IUSW is just one step in an overall sex-work strategy. We believe that we must also fight sexism, racism, capitalism, transphobia, immigration controls, and other oppressive systems. Since most pimps rely on these systems to enable them to exploit and/or coerce sex workers, I’m pretty sure they would oppose Feminist Fightback’s ACTUAL policies.

    And on a personal note – please stop purposefully butchering the language of my ancestors (French).

  11. Bubbly Creek Says:

    “I see no reason why women in school uniforms shouldn’t be in charge. I don’t think that sex workers are stupid.”

    If you knew Jacqui’s problems, and I do

    you’d understand that schoolgirls were the decider.

    The FBI know the secret, and the FBI may not stay quiet for much longer.

    That’s the insider version,

    Britain has a little secret and the yanks know it.

    so long as Bush was there, it was staying a secret, you should be able to work out why.


  12. […] High on Rebellion: A Response to ‘The Great IUSW Con’ […]


  13. […] You know, at this point you need to be reading High On Rebellion’s take down, quite simply because she’s a lot more informed on unions in general than I am. The sex […]


  14. Bubbly Creek Says:

    “If you knew Jacqui’s problems, and I do

    you’d understand that schoolgirls were the decider.

    The FBI know the secret, and the FBI may not stay quiet for much longer.

    That’s the insider version,

    Britain has a little secret and the yanks know it.

    so long as Bush was there, it was staying a secret, you should be able to work out why.”

    Methinks Bubbly Creek = Yvette Doll = Gregory Carlin.

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