The strike highlights the call by sex worker-led organisations across Europe for full decriminalisation of the industry
In the UK, sex workers will be a central part of the International Women’s Day sex/work strike (Picture: Juno Mac/SWARM)
This International Women’s Day, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) is launching a campaign calling for all feminists to support sex workers. The campaign focuses on sex workers’ grassroots activism across Europe – from Norway to Romania, Germany to Ukraine – and highlights the call by sex worker-led organisations across Europe for full decriminalisation of the industry.
The sex work strike will draw attention to the fact that, although buying and selling sex is legal in England and Wales, most activities associated with the transaction are criminalised. Working together indoors is illegal, as is soliciting. Sex workers say being forced to work alone, in isolated areas, makes them more vulnerable to abuse.
In the UK, sex workers will be a central part of the International Women’s Day sex/work strike, which culminates in a mass demonstration in Soho Square, London on 8 March. Support for the sex worker rights movement is at an all-time high, according to organisers the Women’s Strike Assembly,
“Ten years ago, mainstream feminists were able to ignore the demands of sex workers calling for decriminalisation,” says spokesperson Camille Barbagallo. “Today, the UK has several pro-decriminalisation Labour MPs and the unionisation of strippers had led to impressive wins against exploitative clubs. Sex worker rights are decidedly on the feminist agenda.”
Alongside Dawn Butler, who has questioned the efficacy of the Nordic Model (under which the purchase of sex is criminalised), a form of legislation favoured by some female Labour MPs, Nadia Whittome, Charlotte Nichols and Zarah Sultana form the new crop of MPs sex worker-led organisations count as allies.
Whittome, MP for Nottingham East, told i: “I support calls from the Royal College of Nursing, Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, and most importantly sex workers themselves, to decriminalise sex work.
“All workers should have the right to join a union and organise. Giving sex workers basic workers’ rights and removing the threat of criminal sanctions best protects their safety and helps to tackle trafficking, whereas criminalising buyers drives the industry underground. To prevent exploitation and give workers options, we must provide a social safety net, tackle poverty and the cost of living crisis, and ensure job and education opportunities for those who choose to leave the industry.”
Whittome would like to see full decriminalisation adopted as Labour policy. She said sex workers’ organising has led to several constituency Labour Parties passing motions supporting decriminalisation. “I hope that this will also trigger a debate in the Parliamentary Labour Party that centres sex workers’ voices, safety, and autonomy.”
A spokesperson for English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) said that feminist support for decriminalisation should no longer be controversial. The organisation told i: “We have to ask why, in 2020, as women are getting poorer and when the global sex worker rights movement is united in its demand for decriminalisation, some women who call themselves feminists push for the Nordic Model which makes it more difficult and dangerous for sex workers to earn a living. Pushing for increased police powers against us and staying silent as we are left penniless, is no real feminism at all.”
Migrant Brazilian sex workers, Ms O and Ms R, were sharing a work flat when they were raided in September 2019. Police confiscated £1,000 from the premises, their phones and ID, and the women were charged with brothel-keeping. With support from ECP, the women’s charges were dropped.
“I was so scared when the police came to our flat and when they said I had to go to court I was more frightened. I thought, how I am trying to stay in the UK now and how will I support my children?” Ms O said outside the court. “When I heard the case was over and we were free to go I couldn’t believe it. I cried and laughed. It was like a big cloud had been lifted off me.”
Since the UK’s sex work strikes in 2018 and 2019, United Sex Workers, a branch of the United Voices of the World union, say it has won a number of worker’s rights cases for strippers, including compensation for sexual harassment. The branch told i it is currently handling eight more cases at different stages of the employment tribunal process, including claims for loss of earnings, harassment, whistleblowing and trade union victimisation.
Tania, a 29-year-old sex worker who works from a shared flat in London, told i she’ll do her best not to work on International Women’s Day. “I have children to support so it’s not always an option for me to miss work, but if I’m able to I’ll turn my phone off on 8 March. In any case I’ll be in Soho Square for the rally. Women’s Strike has condemned Tory austerity policies which is what forced me, and many others, into sex work in the first place. This strike is – and has to be – inclusive of sex workers, of trans women, queer women and migrants. We’re all struggling.”
In Norway, sex worker activist Lilith Staalesen is part of this year’s ICRSE campaign. She told i she supports the message of feminist inclusivity: “We need the support of a larger community to ensure rights and protections among governments that would otherwise see us cleansed from existence.”
Frankie Miren is a writer, a sex worker activist and a member of SWARM and ECP