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Labour's Grassroots Are Fighting for Sex Worker Rights – and They Might Win

Decriminalising sex work is the next logical step for any political party that wants to put workers first.

by Cat Smith
27 September 2019, 1:11pm

Sex workers and allies striking as part of the International Women's Strike in 2019. Photo by Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

At this year’s Labour conference, delegates went further than ever before in putting forward the kind of ambitious, far-reaching socialist policies that, if implemented, would have a transformative positive effect on society. Banning zero hour contracts, introducing a higher minimum wage and defending free movement don't just help the entire working class – they will also change the lives of sex workers.

Adopting a position in favour of the full decriminalisation of sex work is a logical next step. Grassroots members are pushing for it, and it’s only a matter of time before leaders in the Labour Party are forced to catch up, or make way.

In the past year, seven constituency Labour Parties (CLPS) have passed motions supporting the full decriminalisation of sex work. Many more have plans to debate the motion in the coming months. There was even a motion to decriminalise sex work put forward to conference this year by Harrow West CLP, which sadly didn’t make it through the priority vote stage. But gatekeepers can’t keep this issue off the agenda for much longer.

Sex worker rights is an issue of increasing prominence among a new generation of feminist activists. Anti-austerity group Sisters Uncut has taken a strong position in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work and against the Nordic model, which criminalises the purchase of sex. Thousands of feminist allies joined sex workers to march through Soho demanding decriminalisation as part of the Women’s Strike on 8th March this year. So it should come as no surprise that the Labour Party, under Corbyn’s leadership, is attracting activists who are confident and passionate about speaking up for sex worker rights.

Ana Oppenheim, Labour for Free Movement co-founder and a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP, explains: “Labour should stand for all workers, and that includes groups often ignored or thrown under the bus by our movement, such as migrants or sex workers. Current laws lead to arrests and deportations of working class women, and leave sex workers unsafe and unprotected. That's why I strongly support the campaign to decriminalise all forms of sex work and I'm calling on the Labour Party to adopt it as policy."

But when it comes to prostitution law, several women MPs from Labour have chosen to ally themselves with the likes of Fiona Bruce – a Tory MP and member of the Evangelical Alliance – and Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Sex workers protested outside Parliament in 2018 as Labour MPs Jess Philips and Sarah Champion teamed up with these ultra-conservative politicians to lobby the Government to introduce the Nordic model. When the minister used the phrase “sex workers”, they interrupted her to shout “prostitutes!”

I am a member of Decrim Now, a coalition of sex workers, trade unionists and feminist activists. When we say that “sex work is work”, we aren’t making a “pro-prostitution” argument – we are just stating the fact this is a job that puts food on the table for thousands of families across the country. Sex workers are workers, and need rights and safety at work the same as workers in any other industry.

The right to organise collectively in trade unions is essential to this struggle. Strippers – whose workplaces are legal in the UK, unlike brothels – are currently unionising to fight for better working conditions within United Voices of the World. Brothel workers would be able to do the same if their workplaces were decriminalised. The appetite for collective organising across the industry is clear, as the sex worker members flooding in to UVW and GMB’s recently launched Adult Entertainment branch show.

Advocates of the Nordic model within the Labour Party want to see the purchase of sex criminalised, despite clear evidence from Norway, France and Northern Ireland that this approach puts sex workers at greater risk of violence and does nothing to improve their material conditions. Proponents talk up “exit programmes” that would be introduced alongside criminalisation to allow women to leave prostitution – but in every country where the model has been introduced, these highly restrictive programmes have either failed to materialise or been a total failure.

In France, which adopted the model in 2016, sex workers are told that in order to be eligible for the ‘exit programme’ they have to quit sex work first (even if they have no other source of income), then wait months to receive any form of financial support. Unsurprisingly, very few sex workers have left the industry through the programme.

Real routes out for those who want to leave sex work can only be achieved through far-reaching policies that tackle poverty and structural inequality, and by offering more economic options to the most marginalised – particularly migrants. That’s why the Labour Campaign for Free Movement’s motion is so important: Labour finally stood up for all migrants, refusing to pander to racism or the far-right. For years under the hostile environment, migrant sex workers have been particularly targeted as ‘undesirables’, arrested in brothel raids, taken into detention centres and removed from the country. The toxic anti-migrant climate since the Brexit referendum has made things even worse on the ground, and EU migrant sex workers fear an acceleration of raids and deportations after Brexit.

So many other measures which are now Labour policy would make sex workers’ lives better too. A ban on zero hours contracts and a £10 an hour minimum wage would reverse the trend of people going into sex work as a second income. Free university tuition would mean that students currently selling sex to pay tuition fees will be able to quit if they want to. Abolishing ‘no recourse to public funds’ would mean that migrants facing destitution can access the benefit system rather than being pushed into survival sex work. Scrapping universal credit would halt the rise in survival sex work which has been directly linked to its rollout. Rent caps and a major expansion of social housing stock would be a huge help for all the sex workers who struggle to pay rent and worry about keeping a roof over their head if they need to quit or take a break from sex work.

The conference also unanimously passed the Labour Homelessness Campaign motion which included the pledge to call on local authorities to stop using “anti-social behaviour” orders such as PSPOs to criminalise homeless people. These same orders are frequently used to harass and criminalise outdoor sex workers – punishing them for their own poverty and pushing them into more isolated areas to try to avoid police harassment. Ending the use of these measures to target poor and vulnerable people would be a huge step forward for sex workers rights.

There are more social policies that we urgently need – such as reversing the cuts to benefits for disabled people which have pushed some into selling sex to survive, universal basic income and free childcare so that mothers have more options for raising their children out of poverty. And sex workers are still wary of a Labour Party feminism-from-above that has tended to side with police over the migrant women they arrest in brothel raids.

Blair Buchanan, a sex worker and member of Decrim Now says: “While it is encouraging that our motion was referenced back and the Decrim Now events were a massive success in Brighton, we are still sceptical about the party's willingness to support sex worker's rights and treat us as integral parts of the labour movement. This is particularly obvious when members of the Shadow Cabinet still refuse to engage with sex workers.”

But on the level of an increasingly confident, leftwing Labour grassroots, it is clear that change is already here.

Cat Smith is a member of Decrim Now, a coalition of sex workers, trade unionists and feminist activists which campaigns for the full decriminalisation of sex work in the UK: @ukdecrimnow @decrimnowuk

The fee for this article has been donated to Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement.