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Do sex work activists exclude the majority?

An interesting article by Amanda Brookes on how she believes sex work activists discriminate against the majority of sex workers.

By the time I began stripping, I knew what a sex worker activist was: a lesbian vegan living in San Francisco who didn’t shave (let alone wax) and was often very overweight. She had a useless degree in philosophy or women’s studies from Berkeley (unlike my highly-useful photography degree!).

Yes I can see activism will bring to the front those who have or had other battles to fight, and those who belong to the LGBT already have been fighting stigma in their sexuality, so promoting sex workers rights is really an extension to their previous activism.

“Inclusiveness” and “diversity” are such huge preoccupations in the movement that they often derail energy and focus on the real-world issues staring all of us in the face. In the stampede to be inclusive and make sure that all ethnic/gender/occupation/whatever boxes are ticked and that a token representative is present, a huge majority go unnoticed and unwelcome.

I agree we must be inclusive of all ethnic/gender/occupation/whatever, but I do take the point that the majority female heterosexual escort is under represented in the activist groups.  Why is this?  Is this because they are actively discriminated against by the activist groups, or some other reason.

I think the reasons in the UK are a little different to those expressed by Amanda, but I do take the point that activists must be more inclusive. Yes the group I help with are inclusive, and that means total decriminalisation of sex work, including street sex workers and their clients.  This point of total decriminalisation does though stick in the throat of many potential supports.  Amanda alludes to this.

They’re generally an open-minded bunch: they have almost zero tolerance for racism, understand the discrimination gay people face and most are cautiously open to transgenders. The most unfortunate thing about them is a widespread adherence to the sex work-hierarchy and their profound dislike of street workers. This is something that a little education and mind-opening personal interaction could change.

There are several reasons why the majority sex worker does not get involved in activism.  This is a qualitative list from my interaction with several thousand sex workers and not in any way quantitative, and the points both support Amanda, and oppose Amanda.

  1. I presume Amanda has had success with  opening personal interaction.  I haven’t and neither have other advocates.  There has been open hostility expressed by several sex workers in the UK and on various forums by their owners.  All kinds of reasoning as to why street-work should be decriminalised  with these escorts and the forum owners have made very little impression.  They don’t want to be associated with street workers in any, though I don’t see how decriminalising street work for harm reduction would stigmatise the independent indoor white escort.
  2. Apathy, and I believe this is one of the biggest problems.  Prostitution in the UK is legal, advertising is free and easy.  There are lots of sites to advertise on, including equivalents of Craigslist (I never knew CL had closed down its non US listings, that probably because it was only a bit player in the UK). Despite threats from Labour ministers, many papers take adverts in the persoanl pages. Many escorts do their work, make their money and keep  private.  There is a belief that no matter what happens, there will be clients and there will be sex workers, and that no Government will ban prostitution.  Incredible as it sounds, many UK clients belive prostitution is already illegal in this country.
  3. The Danger.  It is often perceived that being an activist means you will have to appear on TV, give radio and press interviews.  All exposing you to being outed.  Yes the sex worker still has family to consider, and the hatred of  of neighbours.  Its not every brothel owner like Claire Finch who could rely on her neighbours to provide parking for clients when parking was an issue on her property.  Its more likely you will end up with human excretment being posted through you mail box, and the loss of any normal job you might have.  This occurred to a good friend of mine.
  4. Brothel workers and Agency Workers.  Both brothels and agencies are illegal in the UK.  Agencies do seem to get away with their operations in the main, though there are the occasional prosecutions.  Brothels are  targeted more, this can be a post code lottery, with some cities tolerating the well run brothels.  Manchester is one such city, but still you cannot take it for granted that you can continue to operate.  This Manchester brothel had run for years, but was closed and prosecuted.  No coercion occured there.  What relevance has this to activism?  The owners of the brothels are committing and offence, the sex workers are not.  Most, but not all escorts will walk in through the door, do their shift, leave and forget about the work until their next shift.  Campaigning for their rights to work together is not generally on their mind, so long as they can find some where to work.
  5. Publicity. Sex workers activists have failed at publicity.  They are failing to get to the sex workers.  So many have not heard of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), or the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).  Despite appearing on the BBC, chat shows and in  news papers, their presence is not being picked up by a large proportion of sex workers.  I was surprised that even an Internet savvy brothel owner who is facing prosecution had never heard of these groups. She does now and is very grateful for the support given to her by the ECP. Promoting these organisations to a largely migrant group of London sex workers who are working for agencies and brothels is also challenging.

There are positives, and when our livelihood or hobby is threatened by potential legislative changes as the Labour Government were thinking of, then many groups and people start to campaign, and the draconian laws the Labour Government were thinking of implementing were not proposed.  That was a success, though I see the Abolitionists consider their action a success also.  We have to build on our success and ensure that Scotland does not go down the Abolitionist route as Trish Godman would like, and that we can take the generally positive view sex work gets in this country and move for safer laws associated with sex work.

We have to be more supportive of the sex workers and advocates who put their head above the parapet.  Madam Becky Adams who has done much to bring prostitution to the news and provides course material to Teela Saunders students was heavily criticised by many sex workers and sex work supports for her Five News TV program, along with the escort Kat Lee who has appeared on many TV shows including the Becky program.  They are criticised for not following the total activist line, or for not being  lucid and well spoken.  Instead of criticism they should be welcomed into the activism fold.  They can and do so much good and could do so much more with support.

I am though optimistic, there are many sex workers in the UK who fit the Amanda Brookes invisible majority and they have become activists. They have joined as activists because of the antics of the abolitionists.  The more the abolitionists lie  and exaggerate their case, the more sex workers join the ranks of the sex worker activists.  The abolitionists are our best recruiting tool.



6 comments on “Do sex work activists exclude the majority?

  1. Amanda
    9 January, 2011

    I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

    I had a very small amount of interaction with street workers before becoming an activist, but quite a bit afterwards. It’s not hard to open one’s mind if one just listens. The invisible majority just needs a chance to listen and I think they will see that street workers are their colleagues as well. Remember, mainstream media does a great headjob on EVERYONE, regardless of whether or not they’re a sex worker. Sex workers who have not sat down and examined these stereotypes will believe them just like anyone else.

    The Craigslist issue affects sex workers in all parts of the globe, particularly places that don’t have a lot of other venues for online advertising. That’s not the UK or US, but it IS a lot of other countries and isolated cities. I know this decision has already affected lives.

    The invisible majority in the US is a HUGE amount of escorts. Tens of thousands. As a movement, we could certainly use those numbers — even if we only reach 1%. As far as I’m concerned, we cannot afford to let them slip away. (And they’re as spirited as your average activist too, once you get them going!)


  2. elrond
    9 January, 2011

    The media ‘headjob’ is a real problem, resulting in most mainstream escorts ignoring calls from the press for interviews. When ever the press do an interview with an indoor sex worker, there is always the same image of a street working leaning into a clients car, or the same image of a soho walk up. There are always the salacious comments. There though are some good jornalists who are onside, and ones who have allowed escorts to pretty well write their own article for national newspapers. This is rare, but an important step.

    Don’t get me wrong on Craigs list, they were an outlet for advertising in many parts of the world. Not so important in the UK with the mainstream local papers, escort advertising sites and sites like tradeit. I though feel a substantial amount of work goes through sites like adultwork.com these days. The fact they have gone is bad, there is less choice on where to advertise, and why should the rest of the world be governed by US views. Prostitution is legal in the UK and many other countries of the world.

    This so much smacks of American Imperialism where HIV workers were/are not allowed to work with groups who do not condemn prostitution.

    You are totally correct, that the 10’s of thousands must be included into the movement, without them any campaign would be so much less effective. They have to be included warts and all.

  3. Douglas Fox
    9 January, 2011

    I think it is brave of Amanda to raise this point. Speaking from a UK perspective we do not have a populist movement but rather small advocate groups. These groups (perhaps unfairly) are understood by many sex workers to be elitist organisations speaking a language they do not understand and representing values they have little sympathy with.

    I worry for example when activist refer to sex workers” clinging to the hierarchical nature of sex work and hating any association with street workers”. Being inclusive is important for the sex worker movement but for activists to ignore the diverse nature of sex work and to dismiss the market allegiances of sex workers is not going to win populist support among workers who are (very naturally) proud of “their” work in “their particular markets”.
    Human society is naturally hierarchical (even socialist/Marxist societies) and to ignore this reality and to dismiss the aspirations of potential supporters is to be seen to be arrogant. I know this is not the intention but it is the perception of many.

    Sex workers working indoors have a perception that their work and their lives are dismissed by the media (and to an extent by activists and projects) who for sensationalist/commercial reasons have traditionally focused on street workers.
    I remember how angry I used to feel when sex work was always represented in the media by a street worker who could hardly compose a legible sentence or in complete contrast by glamorous London call girls.
    The reality of my sex work experiences were never shown.

    By becoming involved in activism I now understand better how the media works and I also know more about the nature of activism groups ( a revelation in itself).

    So in conclusion I think Amanda and Elrond have raised important points but I wonder if they have also shyed away from some important reasons why the average sex worker prefers not to get involved in activism or even know little of the activist groups who speak for them.

    I will write my own response/opinions in an article because I think this subject is very important, especially in what potentially could be a very important year here in the UK with regard to issues around sex work.

  4. peter schevtschenko
    10 January, 2011

    sex workers need to become politicised to fight for their rights,i would say there is a certain amount of apathy that prevents sex workers from being more politically active especially bearing in mind that most sex workers are working class & working class people often have little interest in being politically active
    it’s no suprise that political pressure groups are often comprised of middle class people who are politically more aware

  5. Amanda
    10 January, 2011

    I can only speak from my experiences in the US, Douglas. The main reason the middle-of-the-road sex worker (both strippers and online providers) shy away from activism is because they do not find the movement relevant. It’s not full of people like them who would give them welcome. I know this because these women are my co-workers. Unfortunately for the movement in the US, it often seems to go out of its way to ignore the invisible majority. Who wants to join a club that obviously doesn’t want their participation?

    They feel excluded from the movement, which is a shame. They have exactly the same concerns as activists and a desire to do something about it — they just have no idea HOW. Nor have activists done a good job about defining what activism is: everyone worries they will have to talk to the media to be an activist.

    As for media…it’s a risk, especially in the US where prostitution is heavily criminalized. That’s the big factor here. Most of the sex workers we have talking to the media are either disguised (and everyone figures out who they are anyway) or former sex workers.


  6. Douglas Fox
    10 January, 2011

    The problem Amanda is that like myself LOL you are not what I refer to as the in crowd. Here in the UK to be one of the in crowd you must speak the same language and share the same politics and never ever question their status quo.

    Yes there is apathy because being an escort is not an offence and to be honest is fairly easy ie one agency/brothel closes then you just move to the next. The law mostly does not affect your life. The stigma does rather than the law.
    I reckon only a third of people involved in the industry could be motivated to become involved in activism and those people are often the very people who activism groups do not want involved. The people with long term interest in sex work legislation are agency/brothel owners, successful independent escorts and established agency/brothel sex workers. In other words successful business people who may perhaps challenge the established orthodoxy of often very politicised activist groups.

    Hi Peter. Yes I agree that activist groups are full of middle class types. Many have degrees or are doing research for PhD. It is a fact of life that activism/revolutions etc etc are always started/ run by middle class/educated types.
    You need the motivation of privilege sadly to have the courage to challenge your own class. Politics/media requires an aptitude with language and a confidence that comes with privilege, probably why I have failed :-(.

    I suppose many would think of sex workers as being predominantly from working class back grounds. I think however that the reason that most sex workers don’t get involved is because of apathy and because they feel ignored. I don’t think most activists even realise that they ignore those they speak for. Like all do gooder, liberal types (and most activists fall into this category) they don’t think that those they are saving/speaking for are able or trust worthy enough to be allowed a voice. Like those abolitionists who think that all sex workers are too damage to have an opinion. You would be amazed at the similarities that exist between established activist groups and abolitionist groups. Its quite scary sometimes 🙂

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This entry was posted on 8 January, 2011 by in Campaigns and Groups, IUSW and tagged .
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