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This interview of Laura Lee by Simon Gibbs has been crossposted from the Libertarian Home. Laura Lee gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Justice committee. Her treatment was despicable, especially considering the legislation proposed is meant to protect Laura Lee.
On 9th January 2014 the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Asembly met to consider a Human Trafficking Bill. Evidence was taken from Ruhama and Turn of the Red Light – charities that work to support or rescue sex workers in Ireland and Northern Ireland – and from one sex worker from the International Union of Sex Workers.
The meeting with Ms Lee of IUSW was minuted thusly:
Ms Lee outlined the key issues in the International Union of Sex Workers submission on
the clauses and schedule of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions
and Support for Victims) Bill.
A detailed question and answer session followed covering issues including: the membership of the International Union of Sex Workers including its Northern Ireland membership;the main supporters and funders of the Union; the extent of coercion in the sex industry; the number of deaths of sex workers in Amsterdam and Sweden; whether the sex trade would be driven underground as a result of the proposed new law; the possible implications if Clause 6 was introduced; how the reported £30 million profit from the sex trade in Northern Ireland is distributed; the extent of violence in the sex industry; the stigma associated with sex work and the reasons why it could increase under the proposed new legislation; the legal definition of trafficking and what it meant in practice; the Swedish model and its effect;the trade union organisations to which the International Union of Sex Workers is affiliated and their differing views on the proposed new law; the extent to which people with disabilities use prostitutes; and whether sex workers rights should be protected.
The briefing was recorded by Hansard
The Chairman thanked Ms Lee and she left the meeting.
Ms Lee is a part-time sex worker and an activist for the rights of prostitutes. After Ms Lee was entertained by a discussion about whether her rights should be protected by the law, she was, perhaps understandably, more than slightly annoyed. The dry minute fails to reflect the incandescent anger I might feel if the Justice Committee (no less) chose to have a conversation about whether my rights were worth protecting. Thank God I’m English because this was not the worst question – that brief exchange does not turn up in the minutes.
The resulting Twitter furore reminded one Twitter correspondent of the fictional notion of “Saxation” which we discussed here some time ago.
Sensing that there were examples here of real-world problems I’ve long been concerned with, I contacted Ms Lee to find out more:
Congratulations on your recent appearance before the Justice Committee. I think you got a bit of a poor treatment, but it must have taken a lot of hard work to even get there. How did you come to be invited?
I have been a sex worker now for twenty years, on and off. I first became interested in sex workers’ rights after the appalling behaviour I experienced at the hands of local people in a small highland town where I lived, once they had discovered I was a part time escort. I knew that something had to change and I began to work with the IUSW and SCOT-PEP as a campaigner. From there I began to do a lot of media, particularly in the North of Ireland. I asked that I be allowed in to give evidence to the Committee as I felt my experience should be heard, the voice of an active sex worker.
I agree that my treatment was bad, indeed, I was taken aback by just how rude some of the MLA’s were.
What are the Justice Committee trying to achieve and what was your position on it?
The Committee are trying to introduce the Swedish model in Northern Ireland which in effect would make it illegal to purchase sex but still legal for me to advertise and sell. At the base of the current efforts is a solid religious based hatred of sex work and an incorrect assumption that by reducing demand, sex work will simply disappear.
The Swedish model has been shown to be ineffective, it simply doesn’t work. Sex workers who are the ones purportedly being protected are the ones to suffer in the long run. They are far less likely to report attacks, they work further away from the police to avoid detection, thus placing them in greater danger and crucially, outreach services struggle to find those sex workers who require condoms, needle exchange and additional support.
In the Swedish Model, to be clear, people are arrested and jailed for the conduct which the authorities there decided should be illegal?
That’s correct. The purchase of sex is illegal and as such the buyer is subject to arrest. Abolitionists will tell you that the sex workers are protected and the buyers are targeted, but actually, that’s not the case. In order for the police to catch buyers, they will often ‘stake out’ a sex worker’s property and arrest the buyers as they are leaving. Aside from the immediate financial loss the sex worker will feel due to a downturn in trade, if she is working from home and the landlord gets to hear of police activity then she can be made homeless. This is no way to take care of someone who is deemed “vulnerable” by the authorities. You cannot legislate against a contract and hope that it will impact on one party only.
My position on it is simply this – a woman’s consent to sex is her own to give. Whether she is there by choice, because of circumstances or because of coercion, every woman should be entitled to the full protection of the law. At present, that’s not the case and will only happen through decriminalisation. (Please note, when I refer to ‘woman’. I am of course aware of male and trans* sex workers, but since the committee has chosen to focus it’s efforts on women, then I’ll respond in kind.)
In summary, what the committee are seeking to do is target the wrong group – those who pay for consensual sex. What we need to target are the traffickers, those who cause real harm and suffering and I would be very much in favour of a specialised police force set up to do just that.
You were asked many challenging questions some, which I’ll get to, seemed very unreasonable but you were asked how many sex workers you represented and were not immediately able to answer. To be honest, that did sound like a fair question to me. Did you get back to the committee with an answer?
Yes I did. The IUSW has never been a membership type organisation and in that way we differ from the GMB. We are a network of sex workers and allies who all strive towards a common goal, decriminalisation of the sex industry. It’s impossible to quantify how many of us there are, because people become involved as and when they can and when their skills are required. We also have a large network of friends who subscribe to our website and keep abreast of what we are doing.
What the committee failed to take on board is that I was also representing the very many sex workers who write to me on a regular basis and thank me for the work I do. Just because those sex workers have chosen not to become involved politically or join a group, doesn’t mean that their opinions don’t count and I that I can’t be said to represent them.
By the way, how is the Union constituted? Is it a branch of the GMB or an independent group?
It’s independent of the GMB although of course there is some cross over in that some members of the GMB are also supporters of the IUSW and vice versa.
The Committee seemed to believe, as I think Ruhama did, that prostitution and sex work are inherently violent by their nature. You said you enjoyed your work. Why the big gulf in opinion do you think? What kinds of violence are they speaking of?
The experience of sex work can mean different things for many people, but I don’t believe that it’s any more dangerous than a lot of other jobs available, such as working as an A & E nurse. My experiences have been very positive in the industry and indeed I know of many sex workers who have thrived in the industry.
From the point of view of Ruhama, for them it is essential that sex work continues to be viewed as a horrific infringement on the civil liberties of women, after all, if there is no horror, then there is no ‘rescue’ required and the need for their ‘services’ reduces. When there are massive salaries (reportedly in excess of 100k) and funding awards at stake, then little wonder that they portray sex work as a monstrous choice for any woman to make.
From my point of view as a sex worker, the only violence I have experienced is at the hands of antis and those opposed to sex work. So I have had eggs thrown at my car, dog excrement through my letter box, abuse screamed at me in the street, threats and intimidation, the list is endless. I have never experienced any of those from a client, just from those who believe my job to me morally wrong. Ironic, to say the least.
I wonder if any of the people throwing eggs were able to articulate reasons for what they do, beyond “god says no” or “it’s disgusting”. What’s on their mind do you think?
It was an act of pure hatred. They despised me because I am sex positive and not at all ashamed of my job and my ability to bring pleasure and joy to others. I made them take a long hard look at their own insecurities and they didn’t like what they saw. Combined with that was the “sheep” mentality, so while one or two members of the group may have had a begrudging admiration for my work and the stance I took, they couldn’t show it as to deviate from the crowd in a town so small only brings trouble.
It sounds as if you have paid a high price for your commitment to the job over decades. I can see the money is good, for sex work you are charging about four times what I do for software engineering. What is it about sex work that has kept you in the industry for such a long time? Why haven’t you cashed out, so to speak?
A good friend of mine once said, sex work isn’t a job, it’s a vocation and one that keeps calling you back. I love my job for many reasons. I’m a people person and so love to meet new people and hear their stories, find out what makes them tick. For me as a parent, sex work also allows me to choose my own hours and fit them in around my studies too. It’s a job which gives great satisfaction, in terms of the happiness I can bring to others and in exploring my own limits and boundaries. I’m not sure if I have paid a high price through sex work, I have through campaigning because it attracts a lot of nasty individuals. In the end though, it’s worth it.
Returning to the experience at the Justice Committee the chair said, I quote:
some of us do not need any research or any evidence. For some of us, the very principle of purchasing sex from a woman is sexual violence, full stop. Is it a form of violence?
Assuming the client doesn’t actually strike you, is his purchase a violent act? Is that how you feel?
Consensual sex may never be construed as an act of violence. Although payment has been made, I absolutely reserve the right to refuse any service or terminate the session as I so choose. The act of payment does not provide a buyer with a licence to do as he pleases, that’s a myth perpetuated by aboltionists to demonise sex work. I have too much respect for myself and my body to permit repeated acts of violence or any other form of degradation for that matter.
Returning to that quote “some of us do not need any research or any evidence”, that’s from the chair person. Is this a good process for the chair to follow?
That the chair person of a Justice Committee who’s purpose it is to collect evidence would then expressly state that his moral view outweighs the need for evidence is truly frightening. It is further indicative of the fact that although they allowed a sex worker to address the committee, there was never any intention to listen to me, or learn from my experiences. My treatment in Stormont was to serve as a warning to others who are contemplating speaking out against the Swedish model.
I’d like to get onto why we both felt you’d been asked some unreasonable questions and treated poorly.
The worst of these questions involved your work with the disabled, which involves providing sexual services to the disabled, is that right?
This is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Some of the guys I see are bed bound, they have no social life and very few friends, so meeting a potential partner is problematic. To be clear, we’re not talking about porn star style sex here, in some cases they just want to experience what it’s like to lie beside a woman, stroke her soft skin and to be cuddled. If anyone who ever had any doubts as to the morality of what I do could have seen the smiles and tears of gratitude that it’s been my privilege to see, morality just wouldn’t come into it. In my opinion it is more immoral to condemn those men to a life of loneliness and solitude.
This sounds like something that may work for some people in those circumstances but not for others?
I always make absolutely certain that the client has thoroughly thought his decision through and that it’s not something he feels pressured into by his peer group or a well meaning carer. Consent is essential. After that the chief concern is the setting and maintenance of boundaries. When you have an ongoing intimate relationship with someone, it’s important to set those boundaries quickly, lest lines be blurred. The very last thing I would want to do is lead someone on or give them the wrong impression.
So although I charge a reduced rate for the disabled, I do think it’s important that the charge is there as it keeps it as a business transaction. This is something which Paul Givan MLA couldn’t seem to grasp. He felt that I ought to work for free. I’m not sure anyone works for free no matter how passionate they are about their job and let’s not forget that working with the disabled can be very hard work in terms of lifting and moving too, so it’s real labour. In fact, several of my disabled clients wrote to me in the aftermath of the Justice Committee “hearing” to say how disgusted they were at Givan’s remark that I “target vulnerable disabled”. That’s as insulting to them as it is to me because it implies that they cannot think for themselves or do their research on the internet and come to an informed decision that this is something they’d like to do. I found his comments as the head of Justice Committee to be absolutely appalling.
It seems to me, and I appreciate how much guesswork is going on here but I’m trying to understand. It seems to me, that what you do for your clients – and the disabled clients in particular – requires not just physical labour but a great deal of psychological effort to keep your head straight and maintain those boundaries.
I can imagine that the fee you charge is a form of defence against getting too tangled up in the lives of your clients. The puritans seem to be arguing that your self, your personhood, is given up in payment for the fee, and this undermines you. I think perhaps that your ego, your love, your inner being is the thing that is protected the most by the fee; that the fee has the opposite role to what many people think? The payment of the fee ensures that you – on the inside – are not for sale.
That’s exactly it. The fee is to protect both parties to the transaction from emotional harm. After all, I’m not made of stone and can develop feelings too !
Recently I had the honour of visiting a man who is terminally ill and my heart literally went out to him, I really didn’t want to take the fee but I knew I had to be professional about it, especially when he handed me the envelope at the beginning of the session with a wink and a smile saying it was to “keep us right”. The person that I am is not for sale and never has been, but my nurturing and caring loving nature are for hire, and that”s a huge difference.
It takes a huge amount of inner strength to visit a man who knows he is dying, give him that final hug and walk away again, knowing I may never see him again, even as a friend for coffee. It goes against everything inside me, the person I am wants to fix it all and make it better. Sometimes, I can’t. The fee gives me that permission to leave again after a couple of hours and come back only on his terms, with what he is comfortable with.
And of course, in practical terms the fee allows you to be the person you are intellectually and with your family too?
I’m a completely different person at home, of course. Usually to be found studying or crashed on my sofa in a onesie, very possibly the mostunsexy thing you’ll ever set eyes on. The fee allows me to separate home and work life very effectively, which I think is important. I need time to recharge my batteries and take stock and be thankful for what I have – a very loving and supportive family.
Of course, the egalitarian thing to do, and the altruistic thing to do might be to sacrifice all of that (the income and all your protective boundaries) and work for free for the disabled. It might even “maximise utility” to borrow an economic term. Can you see there is a cold-hearted logic in what Paul said to you as well?
I can, but cold hearted is putting it mildly because it completely disregards the needs of both parties to establish and respect boundaries and opens both of us up to potential emotional hurt. I would like Mr. Givan to sit down and watch “The Sessions” starring Helen Hunt on repeat, until the message sinks in. The relationship between a disabled person and a sexual surrogate is very complex and must be treated as such. It’s not acceptable to just insist that both parties give up the protections that are in place for everyone’s benefit. By everyone I mean the other people around the disabled person and around me too, not just the immediate transaction.
So it seems the personal and political situation you face is poorly understood. The Justice Committee chair seems intent on making decisions that will inconvenience, impoverish, harm or imprison the various parties based only on his moral intuition – reason and evidence be damned. You strike a defiant pose on Twitter, but what is needed now to make this right? What are you, the union and SCOT-PEP planning to do?
I personally am lodging a complaint with the NIA as I think Mr. Givan in particular was exceptionally rude and intrusive. I know that some other members of the union and supporters have also written in complaint, so we’ll see where that goes. For the future, I won’t be dissuaded from my work with disabled clients but more importantly, I won’t be stopped from fighting for the rights of sex workers. The whole experience for me was a learning curve, I didn’t honestly think that someone at that level of government could behave in such an ungentlemanly and nasty fashion, but it’s noted for the future.
Obviously a lot of people will feel a bit shy taking an interest in this issue unless they are personally affected, but is there anything members of the public can do that we might not think of?
Certainly ! They can support the work I do through lobbying their own MLA’s and asking them what they intend to do about Lord Morrow’s bill which will endanger sex workers. They can keep up with my blog or Twitter to find out where I’m speaking and support me that way too. Thank you for asking me to do this interview, it’s been a pleasure.
Likewise, take care.