“Unless we are aware of what we have in common as women and as workers, we tend to be complicit in the myth that social status equals human value. Our prejudices can reinforce the hierarchy of whose struggle is valid and central and whose is unworthy and marginal: who are “real” women and “real” workers and who are not.”
Life-long activist Selma James wrote these words in 1983, in Hookers in the House of the Lord, an account of the English Collective of Prostitutes’ occupation of the Church of the Holy Cross in North London, to draw attention to police brutality against sex workers. This is how sex workers’ rights have been won in the UK: they’ve had to struggle fiercely to be heard, noisily invading the institutions and spaces from which the establishment constantly works to exclude them.
I volunteer with the ECP, who are still active today in leading the fight for sex workers’ rights, against a grand coalition of governments, the police, feminists, religious groups – people from all walks of life who find their existence morally repulsive. Current laws on sex work in the UK are hazy, badly defined, and therefore open to manipulation by police and local authorities. Whilst selling sexual services is not illegal, offences such as “Soliciting” and “Controlling Prostitution for Gain” mean that workers are often punished for remaining in the (relative) safety of brothels or in groups, rather than working alone on the streets.
This is why the ECP demand full decriminalisation of sex work. It is the only way workers can ensure that their basic rights are respected in law; the only means of ensuring their safety. Decriminalisation would allow them to work together, to report rape and sexual violence without fear of prosecution, to prevent their wages being stolen by police. While Corbyn and the ShadCab haven’t yet formulated an official policy on sex work, decriminalisation is a position he’s stated that he supports.
However, sex workers and allies have something more solid to bank on than the notoriously flimsy currency of the politician’s promise. Last November, the spirit of the Holy Cross occupation was revived; a grassroots mobilisation of sex workers’ groups defeated an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill, which would have criminalized the purchase of sex. This is a system known as the Nordic Model, widely opposed by advocacy groups for the way it perpetuates social stigma around sex work, and pushes prostitution underground in a way that’s highly dangerous for workers.
The amendment was proposed by Fiona MacTaggart, Labour MP for Slough; John McDonnell, our new Shadow Chancellor, and long-term ally of the ECP, fought it energetically. Unlike anti-sex work activists, McDonnell was not acting upon ideology or vague moral impulse. He simply listened to the evidence, drawing on research and testimony to advise the House that it
“…must listen to sex workers: the English Collective of Prostitutes, the Sex Worker Open University, the Harlots collective… Sex workers themselves were saying [of the Nordic Model] ‘It means that we never have time to check out the clients in advance. We are rushed and pushed to the margins of society as a result, which does us harm.’”
Criticism of Jeremy Corbyn has often hinged on women’s issues: most recently, he was accused of sexism for giving the Shadow Cabinet’s “top jobs” exclusively to men. Many feminists, as is often the case, prioritised representation over liberation, ignoring the fact that for the first time ever we have an opposition led by figures who have vocally supported sex workers’ rights.
To borrow James’ terms, no government yet has ever considered sex work to be “real work”, or given sex workers even the most basic labour rights. Under Corbyn, there’s a real possibility that this could change.
Sex workers of all genders face routine discrimination, harassment and sexual violence, and are alienated within the criminal justice system. Many are migrants with insecure immigration status. These are the struggles that British feminism needs to turn its attention to, and it’s about time our Shadow Cabinet did too.
Niamh McIntyre is a freelance journalist and English student, interested in feminism, sex work, and grassroots activism (and their intersections)