Sex workers need a trade union and a
decriminalised industry, not feminist pity
Based on an article from
Ana Lopes and Callum Macrae
When they prosecuted Paula for running a brothel last year they had to
resort to a 450-year-old law (the charge called it a "bawdy house"). That
says it all, really.
But if you ask Paula who she is really mad at, it isn't the legal ass
which convicted her - it's the kind of people who read this newspaper.
"There's people who think they're open-minded - people who don't accept
racism, don't accept sexism, don't think of themselves as homophobic. They
like to think they can accept all walks of life, but they can't. They have
an 'ism', a 'prostitute-ism'."
Paula is right. Something strange happens to otherwise
democratically-minded people when it comes to sex work. We too have seen
this "ism" close-up.
One would have thought it self-evident that the best way to confront
exploitation in the sex industry is to empower the women and men who work in
it. Change happens when the oppressed themselves say enough is enough. It
was black people who confronted racism; gender inequality was fought first
and foremost by women; dreadful working conditions by workers selforganising
Yet when it comes to the sex industry, social reformers become moralists
and certain strands of feminism lose the plot. Witness Julie Bindel, writing
on these pages recently, who was enraged at the very idea of a sex workers'
The justification for this position is riddled with contradiction. It
usually starts with a description of the misery of prostitutes who face
daily victimisation and violence; it concludes that this abuse defines the
industry and that allowing prostitutes a union would simply legitimise it.
In other words, the greater the exploitation, the less justification there
is for a union. What complete nonsense.
But there is something more sinister about this argument: why do these
moralists want to portray all sex workers as degraded junkies with lives of
unremitting misery? In fact, less than a third of prostitutes are street
workers. Of these, not all are drug users, and it is insulting to assume
they are. Of those who are, a chaotic lifestyle and drug use usually
preceded their sex work and is not (as Bindel suggested) an inevitable
consequence of it.
The problem is that in their hearts these concerned moralists regard all
sex workers as by definition degraded; people who are somehow no longer
capable of social self-determination. They may think they want labour
rights, the argument goes, but in fact they are so debased by their
circumstances that they don't know what they want. They need to be rescued.
This is dangerous and condescending nonsense.
The other plank in the antiunion case is even weaker. The moralists argue
that sex work is not work at all, but abuse - and therefore workplace
safeguards like unions are not relevant. On what conceivable grounds is it
not work? It is certainly an important economic activity. Prostitution
generates in excess of £700m a year in Britain. The wider industry,
including lap dancing and pornography, earns millions more and employs tens
of thousands. For many women around the world sex work is not just work, it
is the only available work; for many in this country it is the best of the
available options. Better than working shifts in a fish processing factory,
say. As one working woman put it: "When I become Jazz (her working name) I
like myself better. I get less hassle and less aggro in here [the massage
parlour] than I get at home. I get treated with more respect here than I did
when I worked in a bar. Here I am liked."
Of course that says much about our society and the contempt in which many
workers, and many women, are held. It says a lot about the hardship in
Jazz's family life, too. But it also says something about sex work. A lot of
sex work is dreadfully exploitative. But not necessarily all of it. The
people able to say what is acceptable and what must be challenged are those
who work in that industry. It is not up to outsiders to say to Jazz: "OK you
can join a union - but only if you leave sex work and get a job in a bar."
Finally, in an attempt to silence sex workers altogether, liberal
opponents of the union attempt to dismiss the sex worker activists in the
GMB as "not typical". The same could be said of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but
their activism helped improve the lives of "typical" workers.
In the few months since the sex industry branch was formed it has
attracted 150 members, and has signed recognition agreements with several
table-dancing clubs, where working conditions have improved - codes of
conduct and grievance procedures have been introduced, and union reps have
been elected. It's a start.
Concerned hand-wringing over the morality of prostitution will neither
remove nor reform the industry. And telling sex workers that what they do is
so degrading that they are not entitled to a union helps perpetuate the
stigma which encourages the violence from which so many sex workers suffer.
Whether you like it or not, women such as Paula and Jazz don't want to be
saved - they want the right to do their work in a decriminalised industry,
they want labour rights and health and safety rights. They want dignity and
Ana Lopes is a student, a sex worker and spokesperson for the sex
workers' branch of the GMB; Callum Macrae is a journalist and filmmaker who
directed My Body, My Business.