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How Unions Could Protect Our Sex Workers

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Surely, we should be entering an age where sex has been demystified and ideas about its supposed sanctity safely abandoned. However, when we consider the social perception of sex workers, it is clear that this is not yet the case.

Across the globe, assumptions that sex work is immoral are still rife, with sex workers often being perceived as ‘dirty’ or vulgar. It is vital that we recognise the misogyny inherent in such opinions, which are based on ideas of sexual purity and of what it means to be a ‘decent woman’. Furthermore, the notion that women should be victimised for exercising their right to bodily autonomy is beyond me: and it should be beyond you, too.

Many well meaning individuals succumb to the dangerous logic that sex workers are victims, and have been coerced into doing what they do. It is important to counter this by highlighting the very real difference which exists between consensual sex work and human trafficking. The elision of the two in the minds of the public surely springs from the idea that no-one could ever choose to work in the sex industry. As such, this springs from a profound disdain for the industry and not from a standpoint of moral concern, as it may initially appear. The confusion of the two is dangerous as it validates the continued criminalisation of sex-work-related activities (owning a brothel, soliciting in public), forcing the industry underground and into unmonitored territory.

The British organisation, Rights of Women have the following take on prostitution: “it enshrines men's right to buy women”. While this statement is perhaps intended to criticise sex work on the whole, it is rather illuminating when applied to the situation under contemporary legislation. Within the current model of criminalisation, prostitutes are workers without rights and without the platform to fight to gain these rights. The lack of social recognition for their labour means that, rather than being seen as workers whose contribution should be recompensed, they are seen as commodities to be bought. It is this which perpetuates a power imbalance between sex workers and clients, one which leaves sex workers at times vulnerable and open to abuse.

Despite a trend towards sex positivity in feminist circles (and elsewhere), it seems like little is being done to actively improve the lives of sex workers. With continued harassment from the police, victimisation at the hands of government legislation, and little support coming from social justice movements, it seems like positive change can only spring from within the community itself. As such, a real solution to help improve sex workers’ conditions could be the organisation of sex workers into networks similar to trade unions.

In fact, we can already see this model in action via the work of the English Collective of Prostitutes, a syndicate of sex workers working to improve conditions and campaign for decriminalisation. As a representative from the organisation explained, “We have fought hundreds of legal cases and won against charges of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and brothel closure orders as well as against charges of soliciting and brothel-keeping and controlling – the last two most often used against women who are working together for safety.” Elaborating on the organisation’s purposes and goals, they say: “In campaigning for and winning better legal and working conditions, sex workers are refusing the work of illegality, stigmatisation and other violence and discrimination – and redefining what and how much work we will agree or refuse to do. We are demanding that this struggle be acknowledged as part of the working class movement for more money and less work.”

Lost in the abyss of stigmatisation and criminality, sex workers are denied the platform to speak out against mistreatment and to push for a safer working environment. Individually, the contributions of sex workers are easily dismissed and overlooked but, when organised into larger networks, it becomes possible for them to pull their resources, fight the system and attract attention. A key task for sex workers’ unions is to campaign for the legalisation of the activities surrounding their profession that are currently prohibited.

To lead a valid and effective fight for the rights of sex workers, there must be a fight to legalise and regulate the profession of prostitution. Rather than a model of laissez-faire decriminalisation, which wouldn’t hold abusive pimps liable for misconduct towards their employees, we need to adopt a more stringent model which treats sex workers as workers with rights and makes it easier for sex workers to fight for their rights in a court of law. It is via organisations like the English Collective of Prostitutes where sex workers can fight for such a model and where, until then, they can find support and legal aid rather than stigmatisation and harassment.

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Image by Orianne Lopes, from the series Les Mélanies
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