I’m Alive!!!  But really, really busy with activism, and work, and PhD applications.  It’s quite possible no one is actually going to read this, due to my extended absence.  Also, I wish I could write something about the G20 protests, but I’m not there as I couldn’t get the time off work.

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Rahila Gupta has an mostly very good article in today’s Comment Is Free arguing in favour of the European Convention on Human Trafficking, which would allow women up to 90 days of accommodation in which to gather evidence that they have been trafficked and apply for asylum. 

Unfortunately, in the article, Gupta says that 80% of prostitutes in the UK are foreigners, and that most of them were trafficked, and condemns those who would rubbish those statistics.

Here’s the thing – it’s fully possible to “rubbish” that particular claim and still agree with every other word in Gupta’s article.

There were serious methodological issues with the survey that claimed to find that most foreign prostitutes were trafficked – among other things, the authors interpreted a willingness to have anal sex as proof that the woman in question was trafficked.  Good methodology is important – as sociologists, are we interested in the truth, or in what “proof” would best serve our particular view of the world?

That being said, of course women who are trafficked should be allowed to stay in the UK.  And of course, as Ms Gupta says, a lot of women in sex work are not there by a full and free choice but because the situations in which they find themselves provide them with no better option.  And of course we have to provide exit strategies for anyone who wants out of the sex industry. 

I feel, however, that the government approach to trafficking, which includes the acceptance of the statistics quoted above, actually makes migrant women, trafficked or not, more vulnerable to being exploited and forced into the sex industry.   The government defines trafficking very narrowly – and any organisation, like the Poppy Project that requires government funding must adopt this definition.  This definition would continue even if women are given 90 days to decide if they want to contact the police.   Women who knowingly came to the UK illegally and were coerced into sex work, or became prostitutes willingly but were deceived about the hours, or became sex workers later because no other jobs were forthcoming given their lack of papers – none of these women would necessarily qualify for government assistance.

Furthermore, the government uses the spectre of supposedly widespread trafficking to justify crackdown in immigration and more authoritarian border controls – the new concentration camp for migrants being built in Calais, for example, has been portrayed by the government as necessary to prevent human trafficking. 

Finally, let us not forget our sisters (and brothers) in other industries, where they are viciously exploited and subject to sexual violence.  While the government pretends to care about trafficked sex workers, Transport For London is having many of the tube cleaner union activists deported, in retaliation for their union activism.  Many of these women have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape on the job – but somehow, this sexual violence is of no concern to the government.

One of the many reasons I have undying respect for Rahila Gupta, even where I disagree with her, is that she knows this and incorporates it into her analysis of the situation of migrant sex workers.  In her book Enslaved, Ms Gupta profiles not only a sex worker, but also a domestic worker, a women in an arranged marriage, a (male) construction worker and an asylum-seeker.  She makes it clear that non-status women in any industry are very vulnerable to sexual violence.  She also argues that the only way to eradicate this exploitation and violence is by eliminating all immigration controls.

In the short-term, advocating for the Convention may be the best way forward, though it is crucial that feminists engage very warily with the government, and recognise the shortcomings of this law.

However, in the long-term, only the abolition of immigration controls, and the establishment of a society where no one is forced to become a sex worker / prostitute to fend off starvation, will end human trafficking. 

While I may disagree with Ms Gupta’s acceptance of the quoted statistic, I fully support  her goal of abolishing immigration controls.  And I think this is very important to emphasize – that a lot of people who “rubbish” those stats still agree with  most of what Ms Gupta says are still vehemently opposed to trafficking and to the exploitation and abuse of any migrant workers, regardless of whether they were trafficked or not, and believe strongly in providing all sex workers / prostitutes with exit strategies.   Hopefully, we can build a movement from these common goals and agree to disagree on peripheral issues.

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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.

There’s actually a fairly interesting piece in The Guardian today by Zoe Williams on the subject of prostitution.  I say fairly interesting, because I think she’s right about how prostitution is viewed by the general public.

Basically, Williams argues that the current discussion around sex work tends to divide sex workers into three areas – “high class” prostitutes like Belle De Jour; street workers feeding drug habits, and “proper low life sex industry hookers” with no “personal agency” and who are so disadvantaged they can be considered as “kidnapped.”  Therefore, the issue becomes less that people go to prostitutes full-stop but that they exploit vulnerable people (and Williams gets serious bonus points from me for including European women who travel overseas for sex from local men as exploiters; shockingly, I find exploitation based on racial and class privilege as appalling as exploitation based on gender privilege).  This is especially true if you take the stigma out of sex – then it does seem like for “high class” prostitutes, sex work is just a job like any other.

Williams argues, though, that ultimately no feminist can align herself as “pro-prostitution” because so much of it involves violence against women.

First of all, I think it’s very perceptive of Williams to recognise that “ordinary” sex workers, the ones working in brothels, flats, etc. are often constructed as having no personal agency, and I think that the feminist movement actually has a lot to answer for here.  I remember having a surreal conversation once with some radical feminists where they argued that it was OK to chant outside a strip-club because the strippers were colluding with the patriarchy.  About 5 minutes later, the same women were arguing that all sex workers are effectively slaves since no one can be said to “choose” sex work.  Obviously, both of these statements can’t be true.

Any discussion of sex work has to involve a discussion of what we mean by personal agency and “choice.”  No one makes completely free choices; are options are limited not only by material factors (ie I’d like to do a full-time PhD but I can’t afford it) and also by ideological, discursive factors (I don’t like showing my bare legs when they are hairy, which is clearly internalised sexism).  I do believe that within these confines, however, free will is possible.  I can’t afford to do a full-time PhD, so I’ll do a part-time one; but I’ve still made a decision regarding whether I want to do a PhD.   I don’t feel comfortable in bare legs if my legs are hairy, but I can choose whether to shave my legs or whether to wear trousers.  This is the arena of personal agency.

Most of the writing I’ve read by sex workers, and many of the sex workers I’ve met, are people trying to make the best of some fairly appalling situations.  There was a well-known case in Thailand a few years ago where some American missionaries attempted to “rescue” a whole bunch of sex workers, who then ran away from the American mission at the earliest available opportunity.  The missionaries weren’t going to feed their families.

This doesn’t mean that sex work is a “good job” – and I’d really appreciate it if certain radical feminists could stop caricaturing everyone else’s beliefs in this way.  I agree wholeheartedly with Williams that it usually involves appalling violence and exploitation.  What it means is that we should be focusing on the structures that put people into situations where sex work seems like the best of a lot of bad options –  not only sexism, but capitalism, racism (First Nations women are disproportionately represented among sex workers in Canada), imperialism, homophobia, migration controls, transphobia (trans*people are disproportionately represented among sex workers), the lack of routes out of sex work, a justice system that treats an illness (drug addiction) as a crime, etc.  And clearly, neither side of the criminalise/decriminalise debate addresses these issues.  I believe in the decriminalisation of sex work myself, but only because I think it would make addressing a lot of the above issues a lot easier.

I also do think it’s fair to say that not only are some people properly forced into sex work (kidnapped and held against their will), but that for some people the constraining factors are such it’s hard to see whether they are actually exercising agency.  I’m thinking particularly of people who get into sex work to feed a drug habit, and also people who were subjected to such appalling sexual abuse as children, and have so many mental health issues because of it, that it’s hard to see what they are doing as a choice.  I know at least one person who falls into the latter category, and she does not see herself as having “chosen” sex work, but does see herself as having been “forced”.

But what of “high class” sex workers?  Victims?  Or are they colluding with violence against women by suggesting that sex work is a job like any other?  I certainly feel Williams’ discomfort on this issue.  As a friend of mine once said “I don’t judge sex workers, but I feel perfectly comfortable judging their clientele.”  No matter how “high class” the sex worker in question is, no matter how able to choose his/her clients, I still have this gut feeling that buying sex from someone is somehow inherently exploitative.  And I can’t tell you exactly why – as sex workers have pointed out, there are a lot of people whose jobs are just as intimate and are “affective”, ie. designed to make other people feel something.  Is the care worker being paid minimum wage to give people sponge baths really less exploited than the “high class” sex worker?

I think part of it is that we live in a society where sexuality is considered key to our identity in a way that washing other people is not.  And I do think it’s significant that most sex workers are women in a society where women are often reduced to sex; in that light buying sex  from a woman seems almost equivalent to buying the woman (though I know many sex workers find this idea objectionable).

I do think the existence of people like Belle de Jour serves as a sop to the patriarchal conscience.  She’s not a victim, so it’s perfectly OK to buy sex, even from women in more dire straits!!  However, that seems to hold the sex workers accountable for the actions of their clients, which is clearly unfair.  Sex work as an industry exists because people are willing to buy sex; is it fair to blame the people who take advantage of this to make ends meet?  If all the Belle de Jours of the world gave up the sex industry, that might put a dent in the idea that buying sex is OK, but it wouldn’t end the industry in and of itself.  So while “high class” sex workers might be reinforcing the sex industry, that reinforcement is dependent upon a complete abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the clients.  Guess who I think is really responsible in this case?

Additionally, I’ve met a couple of “high class” sex workers and they’ve always said that they felt less exploited as a stripper/dominatrix/porn star, etc. than they did in their regular jobs.  That’s pretty significant and suggests, once again, that the overarching issue of capitalism has to be addressed when discussing the sex industry.

With regard to the aforementioned care giver – I think we have to stop seeing it as a competition.  Certainly, this is also something the feminist movement is responsible for; the notion that no other job is as exploitative as sex work and consequently that no other workers are as exploited.  It’s not a competition.  The care giver is alsoexploited, and you know what – that’s a feminist issue.  Please see BFP’s fantastic post on migrant farm workers in the US and then ask yourself if you still believe that sex workers are automatically the most victimised people in the world.

 As in so many other areas, I think often feminists are looking for a “magic bullet” or a quick fix – and I definitely think that’s what Harriet Harman is looking for.  There is no quick fix; prostitution is the consequence of multiple systems of oppression, not the cause, and it will not be solved by a simple legal change.  The best statement I’ve ever read on the issue of  sex work was from UBUNTU! a sex worker’s collective from North Carolina (h/t BFP).  They argue that activism around sex work should move away from criminalisation v decriminalisation and reconceptualised as being responsible to the communities involved?  What would this look like?

Just in case anyone in Toronto reads this blog…

Residents of the Maitland and Homewood area in Toronto (Sherbourne and College) have formed a “safety association” to force sex workers, in particular trans* sex workers, out of “their” neighbourhood (h/t Questioning Transphobia).  More here

First of all, there’s the obvious issue of “who’s safety?”  Because these tactics are rather obviously endangering sex workers, forcing them into more secluded areas.

This is also part of a general pattern in Toronto, relating to the gentrification of certain areas and the utter contempt with which the new residents view the old residents.  Maitland and Homewood was an unofficial “red light district” when I was a kid.  I remember taking the streetcar home from university late at night and seeing sex workers at Jarvis and College.  For all these residents’ talk of “their neighbourhood”, the fact is the sex workers were there first.  It’s just as much their neighbourhood.

The area in which I grew up has experienced something similar.  For most of my life, it was a mixed working-class/middle-class area.  There had been a lot of factories at one point, but they closed a few years before my family arrived, and the impact on the neighbourhood was obvious.  It had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the city, at the time.  There was a lot of public housing, but there were also families like mine, middle-class families who couldn’t afford to live in a nicer area, but figured that the area would become more affluent eventually.

Well, it did become more affluent – a few years ago.  When I left to do my MA it was still greasy spoons on every other corner; when I came back 14 months later, I could no longer afford to eat breakfast anywhere.  Several steps in the gentrification process have been skipped, and it’s now yuppie central.

And, during the last election I was there, the liberal candidate for Parliament ran on a platform of trying to get the remaining public housing closed.

The yuppies would rather not be bothered by the people who actually grew up in the area.

Something similar is happening in the Maitland area – it’s also an area that’s been gentrifying rapidly.

I urge everyone in Toronto to fight this transphobia, classism and sex worker oppression.

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