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I would like to ask a question. “Would the real sex worker please stand up”. The reason I ask is because both for the enemies of sex worker rights and some on the left with in sex work activism this taxing question apparently requires a definite answer.
The arguments primarily revolve around sex worker unionisation, in particular the UK example.
The British GMB Trade Union recognises and supports a London sex worker branch that welcomes all who work in the sex industry, including sex work managers and even clients.
Criticism of the GMB sex worker branch have concentrated on the this wide membership base. Critics claim that allowing managers and clients membership of a trades union established to represent sex workers weakens the voices of sex workers. Arguing from an historical, nineteenth century understanding of trade unionisation they claim that the purpose of a trades union is to represent workers in dispute with owners and managers. Allowing managers and business owners especially equal membership they argue compromises sex worker solidarity in any potential disputes. They argue that allowing managers to join the branch and to potentially hold offices within the branch weakens the branch as a trade union representing real sex workers.
The reality however is that sex work is not a traditional industry with traditional employee and employer relations. It is an industry of the self employed that often has complicated working relationships that do not reflect the simplistic nineteenth century mindset reflected within the criticism. In truth I doubt with few exceptions this understanding of trade unionisation has much relevance in a modern world where the majority of workers are transient and few work in the world of traditional industries that trade unions and the labour movement in general once reflected.
The criticism revolves primarily around prostitution although the branch accepts membership from anyone within the adult entertainment industry including porn and erotic dance etc. Within prostitution however so called managements, escorts agency owners and brothel owners are like those they represent self employed and are employed to do a specific job by other self employed sex workers. There are no legally enforceable contracts with the result that managers are often at the mercy of those they represent rather than having any real, enforceable authority over those who pay them to represent them. Being married to an agency owner I know and understand the demands put upon him by successful escorts who have a wide variety of work options open to them.
Sex workers are perhaps the most transient of workers, moving from place to place and working as and when it suits them. Sex work is a peculiar industry in that it is populated by workers who genuinely reflect, perhaps more than any other industry, our diverse society and its social/economic make up.
There are sex workers who work to meet a specific want ie a new hand bag and others who work to feed a drug habit. There are workers who work full time and others who work once or twice a year. Sex workers can be very high earners and jet set around the world or they can be subsistence workers living literally hand to mouth. From high class to courtesans to migrant street workers the sex worker branch of the GMB welcomes and does its best to represent them all.
Managers within sex work often work sexually with clients themselves as well as manage or have at some time in the past worked. Sex workers within brothels and agencies often employ their own drivers and maids or work from their own premises which they also rent at a profit to to other workers. Often sex workers work from brothels and through agencies and also do independent work. There are few if any direct comparisons with traditional worker experiences within sex work. Criticism of the branch for representing the diverse experiences within sex work is more political ideology than a true representation of sex workers working experiences.
Those who use their bodies directly within the sex industry and those they employed to manage aspects of their work are equally the victims of prejudice and stigmatisation because of their labour and because of this they share a unity of purpose that is decriminalisation and recognition of their labour rights regardless of the form that labour takes within sex work.
My personal response to critics of unionisation and of the GMB branch is that this is our industry and our branch and we as sex workers will decide who can or cannot be recognised as a sex workers and not you. There is no argument or any need for debate but instead a need for absolute unity and support of a trade union brave enough to recognise justice and to support those who are persecuted unjustly by all UK governments.
The GMB branch may not be perfect but it exists and with a wide and diverse membership through out the UK it stands proudly as a symbol of the future for all sex workers regardless of how they choose to work or the role that they play in our industry. Our challenge as sex workers is to realise our common ground and to negotiate ways to make our sex worker branch more reflective of the diverse nature of our industry. We may be workers but our industry is unique and our branch should reflect that uniqueness.
The term sex worker was adopted as a generic term by sex worker organisations and activists to legitimise claims that sex work be treated as real work. As a term it has been very successful with media and governments increasingly using the term sex worker rather than prostitute. I argue that we should not weaken that meaning or that use of the term to please either our enemies or for political ideological rhetoric but rather celebrate sex worker as an inclusive term for all who work and make money within the sex industry.
And so I ask again. “Would the real sex worker please stand up”. Who legitimately can claim to be a real sex worker? Someone who works once or twice a month offering a massage with a happy ending or an escort who works three days a week and then rents her rooms at a profit to other escorts or a manager who works a ninety hour week to generate work for sex workers? Who legitimately is more in need of union representation? Who is the real worker in the sex industry that legitimately needs union representation more than another?