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.

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.

An Open Invitation

December 4, 2008

Since this year’s RTN, there’s been a lot of discussion on all sides about the protest and counter-protest outside Spearmint Rhino, and Feminist Fightback has been criticised quite a bit for it’s role in the counter-protest.

My personal view is that some of these criticisms are valid, and worth exploring, while some are just scurrilous and slanderous.  For the record, Feminist Fightback does believe that trafficking for sexual slavery happens, and also opposes pimps, along with anyone else seeking to benefit from the exploitation of women.

I would urge everyone to come to a Feminist Fightback meeting and find out what we think for yourselves.   I don’t even agree with other members of Feminist Fightback on all issues, so I’m not issuing this invitation on the assumption that we’ll suddenly all agree with each other.  Sex-work/prostitution is a complicated issue and I’m sure feminists of all stripes will continue to disagree with each other.

However, you may find that we have more common ground than previously thought.  Or at the very least, that it’s possible for all of us to be in the same room without a fistfight breaking out.  And, you may find that it’s possible for you and your group to work with Feminist Fightback on other campaigns.  At the moment, we are active on 2 main issues:

1) Reproductive Freedoms, which for us means ensuring that a woman is free to choose to have or not to have a child, as she sees fit.  This involves campaigning for free abortion on demand, free birth control of a woman’s choice, decent healthcare for all on the NHS, a welfare state that ensures that no one chooses to end a pregnancy because she can’t “afford” a child, and an end to the demonisation of single mothers and migrant mothers in the popular press and government policy.

2) Migrants Rights, which for us means working in solidarity with the campaigns of migrant workers, opposing the detention of asylum seekers, opposing all forms of immigration control, and doing what we can to offer solidarity and support to migrant women’s groups and their campaigns (eg. we do what we can to support the No Recourse to Public Funds Campaign, and we work closely with the Black Women’s Rape Action Project and the All African Women’s Group).

For those of you in London and the South, our next meeting is:

Saturday 13 December from 3- 5.30 pm, Arbour Community Centre, 100 Shandy Lane, Stepney Green, E1 4ST

Feminist Fightback London meets the 2nd Saturday of the month at that location.

For those of you north of the Watford Gap, Feminist Fightback is co-sponsoring “Feminism and the Student Movement”, also 13 December, 11 – 5pm at the University of Manchester Student Union. 

The next Feminist Fightback North meeting has not been scheduled yet – but I’ll let everyone know when it is.

With other anti-capitalist feminist groups, we are also involved in organising “Gender, Race & Class: An Anti-Capitalist Feminist Event” which will take place in London on 14 February and in my opinion will be the most awesome feminist conference of all time.  More info to follow.

I think it’s important to remember, that basically, we’re all on the same side.  People of good will can disagree with each other; it doesn’t mean that anyone is “evil.”  It’s possible to build a feminist movement where disagreements are aired openly in a civil and respectful manner, and dissent is valued, and where we still work together on issues where there is agreement.

So at the last Feminist Fightback meeting, we were having a debate about where capitalism and racism fit in our analysis of women’s oppression.  One woman, B, was arguing that women’s oppression had it’s origins in class exploitation.  As is obvious if you’ve read this blog, I strongly disagree with that.  What really disturbed me about some of what she’d said, however, is that she outright denied the existence of white privilege – all working-class people, in her opinion, are equally oppressed.

I was arguing for the intersection of all oppressions, but because of what she’d said about race, I spent a fair amount of time on white privilege.  I figured someone in a feminist group might say that sexism is less important than class exploitation, but she’s here, right?  However, white privilege is clearly a huge issue in the British feminist movement, and one which I struggle with alot myself.

Somewhere, however, things went horribly, horribly wrong, insofar as I managed to alienate B’s friend C, who is one of the few Afro-Caribbean women to ever come to a Feminist Fightback meeting, who said she felt as if I was being condescending and that she generally felt alienated and erased.

Now, I think there are things on which C & I would disagree no matter what.  But clearly, I must have made several serious errors of communication if I ended up alienating C to that extent. 

My comments are below.  Where do you think I went wrong?  I’d really, really appreciate feedback.  There are very few people that I can talk to about trying to develop as an anti-racist feminist.  Feminism here is really segregated, and rarely goes beyond trying to get a woman of colour to speak at your event.  There’s no real commitment to fighting racism as a key structure of UK society.  So I really need your help & input.   And yeah, if you think I was completely out of line, please say so – there’s no need to try to soften the blow or anything.   Thanks!!!

NB for non-UK readers – BME means Black & Minority Ethnic and is the preferred term (I think) for people of colour in the UK, at least in non-academic circles.  I tend to use both terms.

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

What I said 

When I went to get my visa in Liverpool, my partner and I were the only couple in the room where both parties were white.  Most of the other people in the room were people of colour.  At the time, we were worried because we technically did not have enough money to support ourselves – luckily, the immigration officer barely checked.  She literally flipped through my paycheck and said “what’s important is you have a steady job.  Come back in an hour.”  Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice that the immigration officers treated my partner & I way better than everybody else in the room.  When I came back to pick up my visa, the same woman was speaking rudely to an African couple.

This is what I mean by white privilege.  It’s not my fault that the immigration officers were polite to me and rude to the BME people.  I was unhappy that they were like this.  But I benefited from it nonetheless, regardless of whether I agreed with the immigration officers’ behaviour.

Class exploitation does not directly cause women’s oppression.  Yes, women’s oppression began in a class based society, but that does not mean it was caused by a class-based society – after all, women’s oppression also came about in a world where the atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, and women’s oppression is not caused by nitrogen.

Even if you do think that class exploitation causes women’s oppression, it should be clear that today sexism as an ideology exists independently of capitalism as does racism, as do numerous other oppressions, like transphobia, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc.  In the interests of simplicity, I am going to focus on Capitalism, Sexism and Racism.

Basically, I would argue that Sexism, Racism and Capitalism are interconnected systems of oppression.  What that means is that they all feed into each other, and shape each other, and you can’t really consider them separately.  I tend to think of this as a tangled ball of yarn.  Sometimes, you can tug a small piece of yarn free – and women get the vote; a Black man is elected President; a minimum wage is achieved.  But you will never untangle the yarn completely unless you are working at all the oppressions at once.

So, women’s oppression won’t be ended while capitalism exists, but ending capitalism won’t automatically end women’s oppression.  And as a white woman, I think it’s important for me to fight against racism, not out of a sense of charity, but because I will never be liberated while racism still exists.

I think we realised this when we were campaigning in solidarity with the tube cleaners.  We didn’t say that they were working-class people who happened to be immigrant women from Africa & Asia.  Rather, we recognised that their gender and their race and their immigration status were also key to their oppression.  That they were underpaid because their work was viewed as “women’s work”, but that the type of work they were doing is often assigned to BME women.  For example, the Windrush generation of women often found themselves employed in the heavy care industry, because it fulfilled the gender stereotype of women doing care work, and the racial stereotype of black people doing the heavy lifting. 

And in the tubecleaners campaign, we were able to use the privilege that some of us have of being white and holding British passports (not me, obviously) in a subversive way in service of the tubecleaners campaign, by risking arrest.

So, white privilege exists and that has to be recognised.  You can’t change the world unless you recognise how the world works.  And once you recognise your white privilege, you can then try to figure out who to use it subversively.

We’ve been quite properly critical of the Fawcett Society’s sexism in the city campaign because they treat the sexism experienced by the CEO and the sexism experienced by the cleaner the same.  Of course, the sexism experienced by the cleaner is very different from the sexism experienced by the CEO.  If we don’t recognise white privilege, I think we risk becoming the class-based version of the Fawcett Society.  Women experience sexism differently because of their race and class, and our campaigns have to recognise this.  We have to fight all oppressions simultaneously, not out of a sense of charity, but because while racism exists none of us will be free.

Maybe we all feel isolated?

September 23, 2008

Charlie Little is calling for a radical feminist gathering up north, because she feels that radical lesbian feminists are underrepresented in present feminist politics.  She specifically mentions FAF as being a “queer feminist group” and also that socialist feminists are active (which I assume means Feminist Fightback), but that there aren’t any visibly active radical feminists anymore.  She also wants an “unapologetically women-only space”, which means no transwomen.

 What I feel is fascinating about this is that it completely mirrors my own feelings.  As you can see from this post, I feel like radical and liberal feminists dominate the feminist movement in the UK.  Activism seems to focus on all anti-porn all the time.  The only feminist group where I live for a long time was a radical feminist group, the members of which made it pretty clear they considered me misguided at best, and a sellout to the patriarchy at worst.  The two biggest feminist events of the year are Reclaim The Night and the FEM conferences.  RTN is very much a radical feminist event – not too friendly towards transwomen, and don’t even TRY discussing the way rape is a weapon of war, or whether it should accept an endorsement by the police.  As for the FEM conferences – I walked out of the first one after someone suggested that, actually, feminists shouldn’t concern themselves with racism.  Subsequent conferences have been better – actual women of colour spoke!! – but it’s still overwhelmingly a radical/liberal feminist conference.  Combined with the sectarianism of some radical feminists – Object won’t attend ANY event organised by Feminist Fightback, including events completely unrelated to pornography, like protests about immigration detention centres – I feel like socialist feminists are the ones who are underrepresented and isolated.

That’s part of my undying devotion to Feminist Fightback, incidentally.  I went to the first conference, where people weren’t convinced that censorship was a good idea, and they had speakers from No One Is Illegal, and when I schlepped down to London for a subsequent meeting they took me out to the pub afterwards.  It was worth the trip to London every couple of months just for the feeling of community that I had been missing (that’s not to say that FemFight is above criticism).

Now, I’m not saying Charlie’s wrong.  I’m saying that it’s interesting that every group of feminists basically feels like an isolated, marginalised community.  Why is that?

Part of it might be geographic location.  It could be that where I am radical feminism dominates and where Charlie is there’s more socialist feminism.  It could be issues of definition – what I think of as radical feminism may be different than Charlie’s definition, so I see radical feminism everywhere and she sees it no where.  It could also be that everyone (or at least, me) thinks that everyone else should agree with them (‘cause, I’m right about everything), so the people who don’t loom larger than the people who do.  In my case, it’s also a culture shock thing – in the feminist circles in which I travelled in Toronto, intersectionality was the watchword, and transwomen were welcomed without question.  So, I was pretty surprised when I got to the UK, and that might make it seem like radical feminism has more influence than it does.

It could also be the “cachet of victimhood”, which is something I want to write a post about, but basically – standpoint politics, which is a very good idea, is sometimes misinterpreted as saying that whoever is the “most oppressed” (and yes, the post will deal with the ridiculousness of that concept) must be right.  Therefore, whichever strand of feminism is the most isolated must be the most awesome strand of feminism!!  So everyone begins thinking of themselves as isolated crusaders, bravely challenging an uncaring feminist hegemony.

While I disagree pretty strongly with some of Charlie’s politics, I know from personal experience that feeling like you have no feminist community sucks.  So best of luck to her in organising her event.

Just please – next time Feminist Fightback is supporting striking workers, or protesting immigration controls, can we have your support?  We swear that protesting against detention centres will not lead to an increase in pornography.