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At the heart of British sex worker rights there is a major problem. Sex workers lack representation. Structures that exists and which give the appearance of representing sex workers are manipulated by members who knowingly or not usurp the voices of sex workers for their own ideological or personal ambitions. This is an Achilles heel that our enemies exploit and which obstructs the positive development of the movement.
I was very naive when I became involved in sex worker rights. I imagined a group of sex workers and allies united in a common cause, the cause of justice. Instead I found myself embroiled in a Machiavellian world of political power struggles. The often bitter and acrimonious battle within the UK sex worker movement between the left and the liberals was and is bitter and bloody. It has harmed our movement and wasted the energies of individuals who could and should have worked to create a movement worthy of a just cause.
I have listened with a growing impatience to reasons why our movement is so small and so unrepresentative. I understand and accept the justifications and validity of some of those arguments. We all know or can imagine the excuses for why sex workers do not become involved in any substantial numbers within the sex worker rights movement. Sex work is transient and stigmatised and therefore secretive, even furtive. The fear for anyone who speaks publicly is very real. While individual sex workers are legal the industry in which they work is victimised by legislation that imposes increasingly harsh penalties. There exists a very real neurosis about publicity and association even for sex workers who are open about their work and their support for sex worker rights.
The rights groups that exist undoubtedly do find it difficult do attract the right type of supporter, especially supporters prepared to deal with the potential problems both social and legal that being out as a sex worker can bring. Despite these difficulties groups have been successful to a point in creating a dialogue with both the media and government. It is this success that has exposed these groups to exploitation by the few, the few who have created a divisive and bitter struggle to control that dialogue and access to influence. This success has also highlighted the hypocrisy behind the rhetoric of representation peddled by these few.
The sex worker rights movement has become a comfortable private club where leftists and liberals collude to deny membership to an industry of diverse political colours. To welcome the sex industry into the debate on their industry would challenge the prevailing political consensus which is the real obstacle to both recruitment and to inclusion. This exclusiveness must be challenged. The sex worker rights movement in the UK must become an inclusive and truly representative movement or it will continue to be mistrusted by the industry which it claims to represent.
The three main sex worker groups operating within the UK are the IUSW (International Union of Sex Workers), the IUSW GMB branch and the ECP (English collective of Prostitutes). These organisations are London based although claim support nation wide. The IUSW and the IUSW GMB sex worker branch were once indistinguishable but recently the GMB branch has forcefully asserted its independence from the IUSW. The ECP was a separate organisation and the oldest group operating in the UK.
The ECP has made no secret of its extreme left wing political sympathies. The policies of the ECP primarily revolve around street workers and migrants sex workers. It understands sex work as being mainly a women’s issue and in statements claim that poverty and lack of options for women are the primary reasons that women turn to sex work. They are often noted for condemning the UK benefits system for forcing women to choose sex work as a survival strategy. They want decriminalisation of sex work mainly on the grounds that decriminalising sex work would make sex work safer and give greater autonomy to women who work in the industry.
The IUSW also campaigns for decriminalisation. Representing men, women and transgender sex workers it has historically campaigned for sex work as work and as a labour choice like any other. It has recognised the diversity that exists within sex work. It has spoken about the many reasons why people choose sex work and understands the diversity of working practices that exist within the industry. It has been supportive in rhetoric at least of the role of managers within the industry as well as migrant and street sex workers and most importantly it has recognised the silent majority of indoor sex workers who are so often ignored by some activists and anti sex work campaigners alike who prefer talking about extremes within sex work rather than the mundane reality of sex work for the quiet majority.
The GMB sex worker branch was created because of a campaign by the IUSW to form a trade union branch that was recognised by a major UK trade union. The creation of the branch was very important politically and emotionally because it validated the primary demand of the sex worker rights movement which was recognition of sex work as legitimate labour. The branch however has focused attention on the divisions within sex worker rights and by doing so has become the battle ground between liberals and Leftists.
The trade union branch was contentious from its conception. The GMB although brave in adopting the branch fail to understand sex work or its diversity. The GMB has to be applauded for allowing the branch to exist and for welcoming all sex workers regardless of the role they play within the sex industry but it is cautious, because I suspect of the illegality of areas of the industry, to open national branches or support methods of mass recruitment within the sex industry. The inclusiveness of the branch has also brought criticism from the left within the sex worker rights movement who understand sex work as apart of their ideological political campaign against capitalism. Marxists and others on the left have fought an increasingly hostile internal battle for ownership of the branch. They argue that migrant and street sex workers especially and those sex workers who share an extreme leftist politics only should be welcomed in the branch to the exclusion of those whom they argue are not sex workers or who are not politically part of what they claim as ”their” labour movement. Liberals within the branch have increasingly become the target of those on the left who want to homogenise the UK sex worker movement behind one cohesive political ideology.
As an average UK sex worker you may think that this does any of this matter. These small groups however are important because over the years they have created a voice for sex a workers that has access to the media and which represents all UK sex workers at NGO and government level. This is why the left have been determined to control sex worker groups in the UK. Controlling legitimised groups and obtaining tittles buys access and authority. Recently the ECP, the GMB branch and their supportive smaller London based groups, X talk and SWOU (Sex worker Open University) have become indiscernible in membership and in political message. The only group that remains independent is the IUSW which has been attacked by some leftist sex workers for being among other things; a Tory funded group. This usurpation of sex worker voices by one political ideology that is openly disrespectful of another sex worker group is a worrying development but is the present reality.
The danger for sex workers in the UK is that they will be represented by an unelected and unrepresentative individual/s that will negotiate for them but on their terms. Here in the UK we have groups who claim representation but are led by academics, would be academics, political agitators and sex workers with a political agenda. The majority of sex workers are never consulted. We already have the emergence of leftist sex worker rights elites. “Thierry Schaffauser”, the president of the GMB sex worker branch for example, regularly speaks at conferences and events globally. He recently chaired a meeting at the harm reduction conference in Beirut earlier this year and has just returned form Stockholm where he attended with Pye Jacobsson from “Rose Alliance” (Swedish sex worker group) the pride parade. Thierry is very open about his extreme leftist ideology and has expressed publicly for example his pride in being a drug user and that in his political opinion all property is theft and that he hates those whom he classes as the bosses. He has also been very clear publicly that he is unhappy with the inclusiveness of the sex worker branch of which he is president and would change it.
Controversial private habits and opinions when expressed by a sex worker who enjoys the titles of a public representative exasperate divisions within the movement and dangerously pander to popular prejudices. They illustrate the gulf that exists between those who hold positions of authority within a non representative movement which prefers a liberal left illusion of sex work. They also emphasise very real issues about secrecy and lack of transparency within the sex worker rights movement. When I recently asked where the funding has come from for trips such as Thierry’s visit to Beirut I was very sternly told to mind my own business. When I asked how and why invitations are awarded I was told that I could have filled the appropriate forms out and asked to attend myself if I was that interested. I realised long ago that a pervasive closed shop defines the existing movement where who you know counts and playing the game buys rewards. When the left complain of privilege they forget, it seems to me, that privilege and access is very much a part of the movement they have created and are determined to control. An old boy’s net work that is equal to any city institution works to support those who fit a profile that masturbates the egos of liberal, left elites in the media and within the sex worker movement. Part of the problem with the sex worker rights movement is that pleasing that elite and enjoying the privileges is not conducive to inclusion or to democracy.
I am sure Thierry and others will claim that they are elected representatives but I would question that claim. I am a member of the GMB branch and I certainly was never asked to vote for Thierry. Branch elections have to take place by a show of hands at branch meetings. Few members outside of London are financially or practically able to attend such meetings and as the liberals in the branch discovered recently votes in the GMB branch can be very easily manipulated by an influx of supporters from other left wing groups. Democracy is being bastardised for power. The left unless challenged will control the voices of sex workers and fashion the sex worker debate as they choose. Unlike the liberal, free thinkers and libertarians within the sex worker movement, and sex industry the left are organised and muscular in their ability to mobilise and silence those whom they dislike.
So is there a future in which UK sex workers can support a representative group that will reflect the experiences and ambitions of the great silent majority of sex workers who are ignored within the sex worker debate. The IUSW in theory does represent sex workers. Individuals such as “Catherine Stephens” have spoken very eloquently and inclusively about British sex workers and the sex industry. She is the unelected and untitled leader of the IUSW and incongruously also branch secretary of the GMB branch which places her in a difficult position. The IUSW could become a focus for sex workers nationally if it chose to do so and if its leaders had the vision. I have urged the IUSW often to take paid membership and by doing so build s strong national coalition of sex workers who will feel a part of an organisation that reflects their experiences. I fear however that the IUSW would rather retreat from its unspoken battle with the left into a closed list of would be academics where it will try to remain a lobby group. Low on membership and with out adequate funding and rightly charged with being unrepresentative it will face an unequal struggle against the combined forces of the left. It will be frustrating if the IUSW does fade into a minor London lobby group because I genuinely believe that despite the discussed problems there is a constituency out there who are willing to support financially and in membership any group that spoke directly to them and which recognised their existence and their diversity. I once raised some not insubstantial sums for the IUSW and generated a real interest in the IUSW which was not followed up for reasons already discussed. I became disillusioned but I have to remain hopeful for the future.
Starting a new group is possible but difficult because of all the reasons mentioned and because as discussed on this and other blogs new voices are not welcomed by those established groups who for obvious reasons do not welcome any dilution of their authority.
Time will tell. In the meantime I cannot advise anyone to support financially any existing sex worker group. What I can urge sex workers to do is demand openness and demand to be included and demand changes. This is your movement not theirs. Remind them of that fact.