Harlots Parlour

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THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH..PART 2…the importance of connection….

The Importance of connection…

I discussed in my article “The uncomfortable truth” the problems within sex worker representation. I referred to the difficulties in organising an industry as stigmatised as sex work and which has to operate within a criminal justice system that denies basic human rights to sex workers. In my article however I raised awareness of the politicisation of the sex worker movement and the divisions that politicisation has caused as well as the gulf between the sex industry and those who claim to speak for it.

In this article I explore the silent censorship which preserves a movement increasingly isolated from those whom it claims to represent yet never the less presents itself to the media and to government as our voice. Sex worker organisations have become the preserve of politicised elites who perpetuate their influence through the silent censorship of access and privilege.

The unspoken truth is that when groups look to the sponsorship of NGO’s or governments they also invite censorship. Even if that censorship is not explicit it is there. To receive the majority of or worse all of your funding from other than those whom you wish to campaign for requires a degree of compliance to the ethos of those giving the money. This silent patronage preserves focused elites who quietly manipulate the sex worker movement to fit their political agenda. That political agenda is one that is acceptable to a distinctly orthodox and reactionary monotheist morality which they have accepted in order to promote their own fundability and place with the focussed elites. They may publicly wring their hands proclaiming their wish for a populist movement but privately they fear the intrusion of a politically divers industry. Instead they maintain a safe, cohesive movement that filters descent and dissipates attempts to become more inclusive in order to preserve their influence and their authority.

I have long argued that without the support of the industry for which we speak we are an easy target for our enemies and worse mistrusted by those for whom we speak. Like the rescue industry most of the sex worker rights movement is more comfortable assuming the voices of the minority of sex workers. They claim particular care for migrant sex workers and street workers. This is hardly surprising. These groups are easy money spinners for both sides. They easily fit the stereotype that ministers, media, outreach groups, anti sex work groups and leftist sex worker rights groups feel comfortable with. They are the least likely to offer dissent and the hardest groups to organise which provides the excuse exploited by the left for why rights groups cannot accept paid membership or become in their words more “populist”. They claim paid membership would exclude the most vulnerable sex workers but empower the privileged. This sounds a plausible argument except using marginalised sex workers to deny the majority a voice and inclusion, to exclude funding from the industry they speak for in reality is a clever ruse that preserves their privilege, their authority. It is a ruse that denies all sex workers from inclusion within a movement that campaigns on their behalf yet preserves their cosy political consensus.

It is also argued that no sex worker rights movement could be self funding. There is truth in this argument. The costs involved maintaining office space and paid staff can be phenomenal. I certainly am not suggesting that any sex worker group should not apply for grants and bursaries and whatever public or private monies they can source. The argument is that sex worker groups need to be accountable to those for whom they speak in order to be credible. With a sound support base of sex workers and allies donating the basic monies from their own pockets and in return being consulted and involved within the decision making processes; then that group can truly claim to be a sex worker representative group. Presently many independent sex worker activists on the fringes of the sex worker rights movement, those liberals, free thinkers and libertarian types who could offer alternative conversations are restricted by monies to the extent to which they can be involved in the movement nationally and internationally. This financial restraint conveniently reserves sex worker involvement to elites who preserve the political consensus and patronage through the quiet censorship I have discussed and who then become the unelected and unrepresentative international voice of sex workers. The sex worker rights industry has become as cosy and as self perpetuating and as hierarchical as the rescue industry, if on a smaller scale. Is this really what sex workers want?

I am not implying that what has been done in our name is bad or that the sex worker rights groups are necessarily dangerous to the industry. What I am arguing is that they must become more inclusive and less elitists. They must create an open movement where diverse industry voices are welcome and where diverse opinion is not dismissed, trashed and ignored. The chorus within the movement for decriminalisation for example may be what the industry wants but has anyone consulted sex workers on their opinion? Have the quiet majority of sex workers actually had decriminalisation explained to them and what the consequences would be. What would a decriminalised industry look like? Are there alternatives?

A true sex worker movement would not be afraid to consult the industry they campaign for or afraid to welcome the involvement of that industry both financially and politically. Such an organisation would be in a position to finance genuinely elected representatives to speak for them and to organise their own international events free of the influence of politicised elites who censor those who question their orthodoxy. Can you imagine an industry organisation of thousands paying from £3.50 per monthly membership, contributing in discussions and voting for elected members who are then able to negotiate on behalf of an industry involved in its own future? Can you imagine the influence such an organisation would be able to demand? This is a possibility but it takes imagination and courage to break the monopoly of the present structures. I don’t think that anyone in the established sex worker rights movement within the UK is yet prepared to break structures that preserve their comfortable orthodoxy. I don’t think anyone yet has that vision. What incentive is there for them to do this? They naturally fear the dissipation of their influence.

The incentive for change must come from the industry itself, but breaking the stranglehold of those in authority is not going to be easy unless one of the established organisations is brave enough to take that step into the unknown. It would be a brave decision to appeal to the industry for which you speak. It would take courage and determination but the rewards could be enormous.


About Douglas Fox

8 comments on “THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH..PART 2…the importance of connection….

  1. stephenpaterson
    3 September, 2011

    If one could flick a switch and suddenly achieve the membership and support of the nation’s sex workers in an all-singing, all dancing democratic sex workers’ rights movement, I’m sure this switch would have been flicked long ago.

    I think that you identify some difficulties in your piece, yet it seems to me these are not even the principle problems.

    With the best will in the world, through what mechanism does one become accountable to 80,000 persons – to take prostitutes alone – many of whose identities are understandably unclear, living in sub-cultures throughout the UK, the vast majority of which live in fear of exposure? This would seem to me an enormous problem, irrespective of the personnel at the helm.

    At least a major part of the problem, it seems to me, is structural. Too many eggs are placed in the basket of Lonthing-on-Whatsit, and far, far, far too much importance is attached to it. The sex workers’ rights movement is not a dozen or so people feuding in some back street pub in Covent Garden over who they can get rid of next in a balloon debate. It exists, or should exist, in the hearts and minds of anyone who, however fleetingly, questions the consequences of the senseless destruction of sex workers’ safe workspaces and the lives of those who provide them; who opposes the encouragement of protection rackets as a substitute for intelligent policing, such as has occurred with eg the Hannah Morris case; who wants access to effective drug therapy to be available to addicted street sex workers for its own sake to give them freedom of choice rather than as a tool of coercion to render their behaviour ‘normative’; who believes public health initiatives often costing many thousands of pounds, and years, to build trust with sex workers should not be destroyed overnight through the actions of cowboy police officers off on a kerb crawling or brothel-busting spree; and who believes in the freedom of the individual to do with their body what they so choose.

    In comparison with the very large proportion of people who share these views, it seems to me that the dozen or so in Covent Garden – and I don’t mean to belittle them – are an almost total irrelevance.

    All credit to Anna Lopez and the GMB for at least doing something somewhere, but I think it’s time to face the fact that the concept of a single national branch for sex workers has been not only unsuccessful, but that it could be viewed as a positive hindrance to the development of a national movement. And with all eggs in one basket, what happens when that branch goes wrong?

    Where I a sex worker, or indeed a client, rather than a mere ally, I would be very disappointed that local branches do not yet exist in at least all the major conurbations throughout the UK, with indeed several in Lonthing-on-Whatsit. How on earth one begins to create a democratic structure without them, I cannot think.

    I would take issue with you on the question of a self-funding sex workers’ rights movement. There are many viable unions of persons in occupations who are thinner on the ground than sex workers, even if you exclude street sex workers from the calculations. Especially if you include the porn and dance club industries. And costs become dramatically lower in direct proportion to distance from Lonthing, as many unions have discovered.

  2. Douglas Fox
    3 September, 2011

    Hi Stephen,

    I agree re self funding. I was simply answering one of the excuses I have heard several times for why sex worker groups cannot be self funding.

    No sex worker groups in the UK has ever tried to be a populist sex worker movement to my knowledge. The history of the sex worker movement in the UK has been of focused left of centre sex workers and academics creating focused lobby groups.

    No one is ever I suspect going to unite all sex workers and that is not really what I am asking for. What I would like to see is sex worker groups making the effort to involve those sex workers who want to be involved. I have always argued that only one third of sex workers have any real interest in joining, supporting and becoming involved within the sex worker rights movement. This is something I will discuss in my next piece.

    I am not convinced that the GMB is interested in creating a national union and nor am I convinced that a trade union is necessarily the right vehicle, especially I am afraid under the current leadership.

    I agree with you re the London centric nature of the sex work movement but I can’t honestly see that changing. We do need a strong London base but it has to recognise that sex workers exist outside; as you say Covent Garden. The problem however is not necessarily that the movement is London centric it is that it is elitist and discriminatory and dismissive of those who do not fit within their orthodoxy.

    Hope this clears some points up 🙂

  3. stephenpaterson
    4 September, 2011

    I share your reservations over the union mechanism. Perceptions of unions envisage them primarily as industrial bargaining units for negotiating with managements. As such, they may be perceived as appropriate in certain circumstances within the sex industry. However, I would have thought that a union, as a mechanism, could be perceived as inappropriate by many independent sex workers who self-identify as self-employed, and indeed that in any case they bring with them the baggage of having to persuade potential recruits that unions are ‘a good thing’. Personally I think they’re a very good thing, but that is, nontheless, an additional barrier to get over in a world with far too many barriers already.

    The sex industry has extensive networking, largely informal. I’m talking about, for example, adultwork profiles that refer to and even link with one another. In the off-street industry I would hope for safety’s sake that there are few persons that are truly isolated, though I’m sure they exist. Things, of course, are notoriously not WYSIWYG in the sex industry, but I think it’s safe to say that the practice of networking is extensive. It would seem to me that the development of a movement would seek to link and build upon such networks as already exist.

  4. Douglas Fox
    4 September, 2011

    I think trade unions have a place; especially in some forms of sex work. In prostitution (and probably most of sex work)however individuals are self employed and any trades union is going to have to recognise that fact and organise accordingly. This is not going to happen so long as the sex worker branch is being used as a political lever to propagate a particular political ideology.

    I remember for a brief time the IUSW was the big talking point and seemed to grab the attention of sex workers and supporters but instead of seizing that initiative the London group as usual argued and dissipated the moment.
    Of course; in my opinion, the left deliberately did not want the IUSW to become popular and we have seen the result.

    There has been a lot of politicking behind the scenes sad to say.

  5. stephenpaterson
    4 September, 2011

    We should guard against the view that the left is united in opposing the sex workers’ rights movement, any more than feminists. Those who bracket all feminists as of the Bindle/Elliott/Mactaggart ilk do both feminism and the rights movement a great disservice. Ditto ‘the left’. I don’t think the national executive of the GMB is against a sex workers’ rights movement. I just think it thinks that if it could find one, it would be a great thing.

  6. Douglas Fox
    4 September, 2011

    Hi Stephen,

    The left are very much a part of the sex worker rights movement. I have never, ever argued otherwise.

    The GMB, bless them, do not understand sex work and probably are sick to death of sex workers arguing over a tiny little branch. Why should they understand sex work and all its infinite variations etc. They are used to dealing with regular worker/management structures not an industry like the sex industry which even sex workers often don’t always understand 🙂

  7. Amanda
    17 September, 2011

    Very excited to finally see these pieces published! I look forward to the next installment.

    Have nothing else to add, though I liked the idea of self-funding. Sex workers tend to be self-sufficient anyway!

  8. Douglas Fox
    21 September, 2011

    Hi Amanda,

    Thank you. There is a lot more to write on this subject and thankfully people seem to be paying attention. These articles have certainly been among the most popular on harlots.

    Unfortunately I have been under the weather this week. Hoping it is not ME again which leaves me feeling exhausted.


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