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This is a speech made by Catherine Stephens at the International Harm Reduction Association conference in Liverpool 2010. I have with permission placed this on Harlots because it is an excellent speech that encapsulates the injustice faced by sex workers (in this case prostitution) and calls very eloquently for justice. It explains I think why Catherine Stephens, myself and so many others are involved in activism. Catherine is an activist for the IUSW. I hope you enjoy reading this superb speech.
My name’s Catherine Stephens, and I’m feeling nervous – for once, it’s not because I’m standing up in front of a whole bunch of people and saying I’m a whore, but that this is my first power point presentation. One of the good things about working in prostitution is that it’s pretty low tech, there’s not a lot of equipment to go wrong.
I’m a prostitute and dominatrix, and I’ve worked in the sex industry for nearly ten years. I love my job, and I’m proud of what I do. I work mostly independently, but also in brothels and for escort agencies. I’m UK born and have worked only in London, but I know many migrant sex workers in this country, and of many nationalities across the world.
I became an activist for sex workers’ rights because of the profound mismatch I observed between the day to day reality of the sex industry, and the social discourse about sex work, and by the fact that most of the consequences of this discourse actually make things worse.
The organisation I work with, the International Union of Sex Workers, is an organisation of people currently working in the sex industry and adult entertainment. It’s open to everyone who works in the sex industry and adult entertainment, regardless of role, immigration or taxation status.
That’s a really diverse group, with many differences between us. However, there are some things we all share. We share stigma. We share social exclusion. We share vulnerability. Many of us share criminalisation.
The IUSW campaigns for people in the sex industry and adult entertainment to have the same human, civil and labour rights as other citizens, for the full protection of the law, for decriminalisation of sex work and freedom to choose, including the absolute right to say no, for everyone in the industry, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion.
We campaign for the inclusion of those most affected in the decision making process, and for policy based in reality and on evidence.
Because policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, not on ideology, assumption, dramatic individual cases and stereotypes.
I’ll try to give a brief sketch of UK sex work law; as in many countries, it is legal to sell sex but many activities around it are criminalised – outdoors soliciting clients is a criminal offence, but the vast majority of people work indoors.
80,000 people are estimated to work in the UK sex industry – mostly women, but also men and transgender people. Estimates for street sex work range from 3,000 to 22,000, and the Home Office estimates a maximum 4,000 women are trafficked, again, based on a series of guesses and elaborations. So, these are figures with big approximations, we’re floating in a statistical soup here. And even taking the top end of those estimates leaves 54,000 – nearly 70% – non-trafficked off street workers, if we take the lower estimations there’s 73,000, over 90%: an invisible majority who almost never come to the attention of the authorities or rescue organisations.
Indoors, it is possible to work entirely legally, though legality and safety are not necessarily compatible: the only way to be free of the risk of prosecution is to work for yourself in complete isolation.
Two people working together fulfils the legal definition of a brothel, so the law builds in isolation at the most fundamental level. Independent workers are less likely to work together due to fear of arrest: such prosecutions may fail or may, and have, succeeded. As a “brothel keeper”, the owner or tenant is liable to up to 7 years imprisonment.
So the law doesn’t just fail to target violence and exploitation, it actually facilitates it. Would we be safer working together? Yes. Is that legal? No.
“Controlling for gain” – legislation on “pimping” – explicitly includes people who are working of their own free will and covers almost every way of working with or for a third party. (If this term were applied to other industries, it would include anyone who works for any kind of temp agency or other third party who arranges their work.)
Prosecution requires no evidence of coercion, violence or abuse; there have been several recent successful prosecutions where it was accepted in court that the defendant offered a safe, fair and honest working environment to women who freely chose to be there.
Likewise, our legal definition of trafficking fails to meet the standard of either the UN’s Palermo Protocol or the Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking. It refers to knowledge and intent, not coercion, deception or abuse – so if any of you were to give me a lift to work, knowing what I do, you would have trafficked me.
Over past six years has been a process of reviewing some of the laws relating to sex work, culminating in new legislation that came into force at the beginning of this month, and the voices of sex workers have gone largely unheard in that process.
The political conversation we have seen bears relatively little relationship to the facts.
second slide: Se non e vero, e ben trovato. (Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story.) Italian Proverb The political conversation is not health oriented, not evidence based – but it’s a good story. It has drama, emotion, desperate women in need of rescue…
Described almost exclusively in gender terms – it is argued that as those involved in prostitution are “disproportionately” women that this is an issue to be seen exclusively in terms of women’s rights. So all women’s opinions have value, whether informed by evidence and experience or not; “women’s organisations” are given ownership of this issue at a policy level. There is an ideological construction of sex work as incompatible with gender equality: “women are for sale”; the idea that because some women exchange sexual services for money therefore some, or all men, believe that they are entitled to sexual access to some, or all, women. The fact there is no evidence for this construction of prostitution having much currency outside fashionable feminist circles does nothing to deter its promotion as a target for political change
third slide: A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life. Virginia Woolf
So although sex workers’ voices contradict this paradigm and describe a diversity of experience within the sex industry, senior Ministers of the Labour government have by and large bought into view that prostitution is violence against women, prostitution is trafficking, prostitution is child abuse, and make no distinction between coerced and chosen sex work
fourth slide: …prostitute use creates harm to those involved and to communities…
Eaves Housing (Poppy Project) Response to the Home Office Consultation on Prostitution
… the term “prostitution” recognises the harm and exploitation inherent within the industry, the vulnerability of those selling sex, and the exploitative nature of paying for sex. Eaves information sheet on prostitutionHere I’m quoting an organization that receives millions of pounds of government funding for its practical work with victims of trafficking, and also presents all sex work as a form of violence against women and campaigns for greater criminalisation.
There is no evidence that most purchasers of sexual services wish to buy services from the unwilling. There is no evidence that demand for commercial sex is the primary cause of trafficking. There is no evidence that the majority of sex workers are unwilling.
It is absolutely the case that there are people who are coerced to work in the sex industry, or who would far rather receive help to resolve problems with addiction or other issues that enables them to move on to other work – but at present the law and prevailing ideology makes no distinction between those experiences and mine, impeding the freedom of those who choose, and offering almost no assistance to those who need it.
fifth slide: There are many “sex work” projects in the UK, which provide a range of services, from needle exchange and condoms, legal advice and counselling to housing and exiting support. Some projects prioritise “harm minimisation” – measures to make the lifestyle more comfortable and to reduce risks for the continuation of prostitution; other projects promote exiting – routes out of prostitution, providing an holistic framework of specialist services to assist women who want to leave the lifestyle.
Effective harm reduction should operate in a context where harm elimination is the ultimate goal. There is evidence that the promised government funding towards exit strategies does not always materialise in those countries where brothel prostitution is legalised and street prostitution tolerated.
…. It should be noted, however, that such schemes can only reduce, rather than eliminate harm, and can be seen as a way to maintain women in the sex industry, as opposed to assisting their exit from it.
This view presents harm reduction as a way of perpetuating women’s involvement in prostitution, that should be replaced by programmes which promote exiting sex work, rather than finding ways to work that decrease risk.
At its most hostile, this describes harm reduction with sex workers as a form of “pimping”, ensuring a supply of clean and ready women for men’s sexual use. And of course this is done with the best of intentions:
sixth slide: I’m fighting for the sex workers right to be human here, the right for which they are themselves unable to fight. In a way I care more for them than they do themselves.
[prohibitionist posting on a newspaper website in response to a sex worker rights article]
though sometimes the language used makes those good intentions difficult to believe in
seventh slide: Eaves Housing Press Release:
Harriet Harman says: “Prostitution is the abuse and exploitation of women by men…”…Helen Atkins, co-author of Big Brothel, comments: “it has been said that we are never more than six feet away from a rat in London. Apparently, something similar applies to brothels…
Catherine Briddick, Rights* of Women*:
Only a very small percentage of women are in the sex industry from choice and “I’m not interested in protecting them.”
* exclusions apply
Harriet Harman is Deputy Prime Minister, and minister for women and equalities. Both she and senior police officers have expressed interest in criminalizing adverts for sexual services, so it could be illegal to advertise a service that it is entirely legal to sell. The inverted commas in the Catherine Briddick quote indicate her exact words.
Although violence against women is used as an argument for the eradication of sex work, almost no effort is made to prevent violence against us, or to enable us to report violence to police.
After all, if you are promoting the ideology that prostitution is a form of violence against women, there is no place for the voices of individual sex workers when we talk about actual incidences of violence against us.
Much of the violence experienced by indoor sex workers is through robbery. Gangs make a rational choice, in the expectation of a small number of people on the premises, cash available, reluctance to report, and the knowledge that if the robbery, rape or other assault is reported, the police may be dismissive, the prosecution service wary of prosecuting due to low expectations of a conviction, and judge and jury may be influenced by their assumptions about sex workers.
But effective work against violence can be done – Shelly Stoops will be presenting this afternoon in room 12 about the fantastic work she’s done here in Liverpool, putting violent offenders behind bars.
eight slide: You cannot be free, before you act like a free person and stop letting others abuse you, stop going out , in fact, looking for people to abuse you. Wanting to ADVERTISE looking for people to abuse you! No, sorry, we’re going to have to stop you doing that.
[prohibitionist responding to a sex worker writing about their right to advertise]Despite this, the ideologically motivated desire to focus on clients, to end demand, means that it is likely that our advertising will be the next focus of legislation.
And possibly politicians here will attempt to emulate Sweden by criminalising all clients, creating an underclass of women whose consent to sex is considered to be overruled by the state.
ninth slide: When you pass laws stating that one minority does not deserve equal rights, you encourage society, as a whole, to view that minority as less than human.
Vic Basile, First Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign, and co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund
Organisations and individuals campaigning for these policies create obstructions to our engagement in civil society, refusing to allow us entry to meetings, refusing to share panels with us, contacting venues that invite us to speak or that allow us to hire rooms saying they are supporting pimping and trafficking. At an annual women’s march against violence, sex workers’ allies were told they had blood on their hands, and individuals have been targeted for allegations and abuse.
tenth slide: If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist in AustraliaSex work is a profoundly stigmatised activity, particularly for women, and in the UK and in other countries there is a process of dynamic and organised social exclusion of sex workers’ rights organisation that builds on and enforces stigma: we’ve heard about it in the most extreme and formalised way in Melissa’s description of PEPFAR.
Prostitution is having sex for money, and neither having sex nor getting paid is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful. There are women in prostitution who are coerced or drug dependent or have otherwise limited choices – but the problem is coercion, drug dependency, social exclusion, limited options, lack of rights, not having sex for money itself. But by confusing prostitution with a whole host of other problems, we allow those problems to flourish.
Everyone’s making everything up / There is no one in charge except for those / Who pretend to be /
No one is coming / No one is going to /
Rescue you, Mind read your needs, Know your body better than you /
Always fight back.
Say no when you don’t want to do something /
Say yes if your instincts are strong /
Even if everyone around you disagrees /
Decide whether you want to be liked or admired /
Decide if fitting in is more important than finding out / What you’re doing here /
Believe in kissing.
from The Manifesta to Young Women and Girls, Eve EnslerProstitution is a really big topic, it takes in lots of different things – it’s where sex and money and gender and power all come together, all of which are actually and symbolically some of the most powerful phenomena in our, or any, society. It’s also a very sticky subject – actually and symbolically: it can take us to a lot of different places very quickly – one minute we’re talking about prostitution, and the next minute we’re talking about eating disorders in teenage girls or female genital mutilation, or a whole range of things that are not prostitution at all.
So if you care about the human rights, the safety, the freedom, of people in the sex industry, what can you do?
Stand in solidarity with us as organizations and as individuals. Contradict the simplistic narratives that most people believe represent the sex industry. Speak about diversity, question the evidence base for people’s beliefs – because usually, they don’t have one.
Make contacts with sex work projects, recognise sex worker self-organising – if you email me, I will tell you how to find out who is working in your area.
If you’re in a service provider organisation, develop services for sex workers that meet service user need, not promote a prohibitionist ideology.
If in the UK, contact us – we really need your support.
Some of you may have seen the TV programmes showing earlier this week about the Steve Wright killings, five murders of street working women in Ipswich in December 2006. These horrific events intensified the debate around sex work, and have been used to bolster arguments for increased criminalisation.
Silenced forever, the victims of Steve Wright cannot dispute the many uses to which they have been put in support of opinions we do not know they held. One thing is certain – they have received far more attention in death than they did in life.
What the IUSW and the global sex workers’ rights movements wants to see, is a society that enables, not excludes, sex workers when we speak out, in all our diversity. A society that offers support and makes space for people in the sex industry – while we’re still breathing.
Thank you for listening.