Screaming Violets: Sex work is work
In 1975, two immigrant women living in England heard about church occupations and a strike of sex workers in France protesting brutal murders and the refusal of the police to investigate them.
Encouraged and inspired, the two women formed the English Collective of Prostitutes to campaign for the abolition of the prostitution laws. Our first public statement spelled out the need for our group:
“We face arrest, jail, fines, being called ‘unfit mothers’ and losing custody of our children. . . Those of us on the street face the worst dangers but we are all threatened . . . we want to break those divisions among women on the game. . . If you are a prostitute, the courts assume you can’t be raped. . . Through prostitution, we provide the welfare the State won’t provide for us and our children, husbands and elderly parents.”
That is how we started and we have remained true to those aims for nearly 40 years.
With our sister organization US PROStitutes Collective and our international network we are campaigning to end the criminalisation sex workers face so we can work in safety and without discrimination. We are not victims in need of being saved, we are workers demanding rights and justice.
Over the years we have won some important victories including the first ever private prosecution for rape in England and Wales where a serial rapist who had targeted sex workers was convicted on the basis of evidence that the authorities had in front of them when they refused to even prosecute. In 1982 we occupied a London Church for 12 days to protest police illegality and racism against street workers.
The ECP is often referred to as the ‘Girls’ Union’ and we do similar work trade unionists do. We have fought hundreds of individual legal cases and won against charges of soliciting, closure orders, ASBOs, brothel-keeping & controlling – the last two most often used against women working together for safety. 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. We want to ensure that the work of sex workers, which has been essential to the survival of millions of families, entire communities and even countries, is made visible and acknowledged as the economic contribution to society it really is.
When we started, the Wages for Housework campaign was one of the very few women’s organisations that acknowledged sex workers as workers. They said:
“our whole lives are stolen from us by work… all women benefit from prostitutes’ successful attempts to receive cash for sexual work, because the cash makes it clear that women are working when we are fucking, dressing up, being nice, putting makeup on, whenever we relate to men… The prostitute, lesbian or ‘straight’, refuses the unlimited emotional and sexual work (and laundry) that normally accompany relations with men, in favour of a cash demand.”
Demanding a Living Wage for Mothers and Other Carers has been an easy leap for many of the women in our group. One spoke recently at a meeting in Parliament:
“I am the mother of a child with learning difficulties. To pay for the basics that most people take for granted, keeping warm, having decent food, replacing essential furniture, I have worked on street corners as a prostitute. Most of the other girls that I meet on the street are there to keep their families together; their children out of care. What I want is a little recognition. I’m not asking for the £1000 they would pay a stranger to do my job as a mother. Just a little of that money would have made my life and my daughter’s life much easier and I could have got off that street corner.”
It is disturbing in some ways to find out that the main opposition to decriminalisation comes from self-proclaimed feminists who have not baulked at getting into bed with fundamentalist Christians to wage a moral crusade against prostitution which has deliberately mixed up consenting sex with coercion. But there are signs that the tide is beginning to turn. More people are demanding to know why at a time when prostitution is increasing because of massive benefit cuts and sanctions, increased homelessness and unemployment and lowering wages, politicians won’t give serious consideration to decriminalisation. Prostitution is labelled uniquely exploitative and degrading but are women less degraded when we have to skip meals, beg or stay with a violent partner to keep a roof over our heads?
False claims about trafficking have been used to justify a crackdown on prostitution
In reality anti-trafficking legislation is primarily being used to target immigrant sex workers for raids and deportations. During well publicised raids on Soho flats last year, done in the name of freeing victims of trafficking, 250 police broke down doors and dragged handcuffed immigrant women in their underwear onto the streets.
Considering that “internationally only 22% of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation”, creating fair working conditions and ending abuses in low-wage labour industries will ultimately do far more to end trafficking in persons and protect the human rights of workers in vulnerable situations.
We draw much of our strength from our international network. When sex workers in New Zealand won decriminalisation in 2003, it was a massive boost for us and we immediately used it as a model for change here. When sex workers from Sweden courageously spoke about the dangers of criminalising clients under the so-called Nordic model, we lapped up every word they said and did what we could to amplify their message. When women in India spelling out in excruciating detail how anti-trafficking legislation had increased the criminalization of sex workers we broadcast their precious words wherever we found people to listen. If we campaign together we can win.
Ultimately we are organising for an end to prostitution: our first slogan is that we are “for prostitutes, against prostitution”. When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time and skills in order the survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.
Sign our Pledge for decriminalisation issued by the Safety First Coalition. Email your parliamentary candidates to support the decriminalisation of sex work.
With thanks to the English Collective of Prostitutes for this article.
 For example, for Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP, Women’s Hour, 15 January 2008 said 80% of prostitute women are trafficked. The figure derives from a report (Sex in the City, 2004) by the Poppy Project which found that 80% of women working in “brothels, saunas and massage parlours” in London were “non British nationals” and concluded (without evidence) that “a large proportion of them are likely to have been trafficked into the country”.