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Douglas asked me to publish his recent talk at Durham University. Comments welcome as always.
THE CENTRE FOR SEX GENDER AND SEXUALITIES
SEX GEN SEMINAR
SEX WORK IN THE NORTH
11-00 16.00 FEBRUARY 18th 2015
THE LINDISFARNE CONFERENCE CENTRE,
SAINT AIDEN’S COLLEGE.
I began the the presentation with explaining that I was going to talk about the blog Harlots Parlour, the creation of the collective and then move on to talk about perceptions of sex work. I explained that discussing such a wide ranging topic could take many forms and directions. I had made the decision therefore to discuss how we as activists, projects, academics and of course sex workers influence perceptions of sex work. I then explained that to prepare I had played a game with some dinner guests, people who were not sex workers or activists, but rather members of the general public. I explained that I had copied snippets from the twitter feeds, blogs and literature of a selection of activists on both sides of the debate. I had not referenced names of course, I simply had asked my guests to guess which quotes taken from social media were from sex worker activist and which were from sex work abolitionists. I explained that mostly my guests found it hard to tell clearly which quote was from which side of the argument.
I noticed that this comment raised a few eyebrows among some of the delegates which made me realise, if I did not already know, how blinkered some within activism are about how their words will be interpreted by a wider audience and will influence perceptions about sex work and sex workers.
I then moved onto the presentation itself.
My name is Douglas Fox. I have been a gay male sex worker for nearly 17 years. I’ve worked in Edinburgh, London and of course Newcastle. I became involved in activism about 11 years ago.
The Harlots Parlour blog began life in late summer 2008 and was the brain child of a friend of mine Caroline Shepherd who was based up in Hexham. She was not a sex worker, but shared similar political views to myself. which were broadly libertarian.
Caroline and I agreed that there was no space for independently minded sex workers to share and celebrate their experiences. We referred to them as the silent majority, sex workers who work discreetly and secretly, desperately trying not to attract media, police or political attention to themselves.
It seemed to Caroline and myself that sex workers rights here in the Uk and also in other parts of the word, were and indeed still are, dominated by a smallish but very vocal and vociferous group of activists who share a particular political understanding of sex work and of their own lives.
Caroline and I wanted to create a safe space where the politics was less important, was less divisive. We wanted to create a space where we could celebration sex work, its culture, its diversity and history, where we could recognise the positive contribution of sex work to society.
These then were the reason why Harlots was created and they remain the principles that guide Harlots.
At Harlots we never censor, bully, intimidate or discriminate against any sex worker no matter what their opinion, politics or role is within the industry.
We truly believe that the voices of sex workers are equal and that listening to diverse voices and experiences allows for a more nuanced understanding of sex work and how it relates to the societies in which it operates and which it serves.
Two years after Harlots was created, Caroline sadly had to retire for personal reasons and she asked me to become editor and I remained so until the beginning of last year.
The idea that Harlots should become a collective was first discussed over two years ago, but because of my ill health the idea did not become a reality until about five months ago.
We are a new group, in the sense of being a collective and because most of the members are also new to activism its all a bit of a learning curve for everyone involved.
Harlots has always been about representing the views of sex workers who would normally avoid activism, so it is going to be interesting to see how they cope when they are now activists themselves.
I have always been interested in the demographics of those who follow Harlots. On twitter for example, to which we are fairly late arrivals, we presently have just over 2500 followers, of which approximately 70% are sex workers, mainly from the UK. USA, Australia and Canada, which not surprisingly is reflected in the membership of the collective.
Here is the mission statement of the Harlots collective. Its fairly self explanatory, but if anyone would like to ask questions later, obviously please do.
THE MISSION STATEMENT OF HARLOTS COLLECTIVE.
The Harlots Collective welcomes all sex workers who share and celebrate a co-operative attitude towards the sex industry whilst dismissing the overt politicisation of our struggle. We work towards the full decriminalisation of sex work, of our human, civil and labour rights, for respect and the recognition of our consent to sex, our right to say no and for the full protection of the law for everyone involved in adult and consensual sex work without prejudice or discrimination.
We demand that the voice of sex workers and factual evidence, not ignorance, mis-information or prejudice, should inform all sex work policy. We celebrate the heritage, culture and diversity that exists within sex work and strive for a society that acknowledges adult consent, choice, rights and freedom, as being reflective of a mature, liberal and tolerant society.
TOO MANY SAD STORIES
We are probably well aware that the laws that target and punish sex workers reflect, here in the west, a Christian heritage which understands sex as being sinful and human sexual behaviour as potentially an evil and malevolent force which has to be controlled for the greater good of society.
Religion in the west , in theory at least, has lost some of its influence, but its legacy of mistrust of human sexuality prevails, especially within statist feminist discourse that references sex work as male violence against women.
Not dissimilar feminist ideology is also noted within some sex worker activism which references women, rarely men, as being specifically vulnerable victims of patriarchy, of capitalism, of neo-liberalism.
Indeed there is a new trend for “politically correct” sex worker activists to even identify with the ideals of “end demand” to describe themselves as “survivors of sex work,” to “hate” their male clients. Their justification being that you do not have to love your work and work anyway, peculiarly under capitalism, is always about repression, enslavement and exploitation.
Sex work is of course a diverse industry with diverse opinions and experiences.
THE UNTRUTHS AND MYTHOLOGIES THAT WE UNWITTINGLY CONFIRM
However if I were a politician, a journalist, even a member of the public, I would only know about sex work from what I had read, heard and from what is presented to me as evidence.
When politicians, the media, speak to groups of academics and so called experts on prostitution they turn to the people who are probably in this room. They speak to projects, they speak to academics, perhaps, if we are lucky, they may even speak to sex worker organisations.
When politicians speak to projects however, from Newcastle, Manchester, London, or wherever, do they learn about the experiences of the vast majority of sex workers, who probably like myself, never hear from or go near a project, or do they learn about the the often tragic social welfare issues faced by some women; (and men) who may coincidentally also be sex workers.
When the media, politicians read about, or hear directly from academics, is the research they prefer, about the silent majority of sex workers, or is it about specific areas of sex work that confirms their institutionalised prejudices about who sex workers are?
Indeed when searching for grants and choosing areas of research do academics themselves look for the boring or do they become more excited about sexy areas of research, migrant workers, drug users, destitute workers in deprived areas?
What I am suggesting is that instead of challenging the mythology and the stigma that portrays sex workers as victims who need government, project, academic, intervention, help and research, are we collectively as activists unwittingly confirming existing prejudices that sex workers are different and therefore need special attention from legislators for their own good and for the greater good of society.
WHAT AFTER ALL IS OUR MESSAGE
What really is our message as activists? The reason I became involved in activism was because my partner and I were arrested twice in 17 years for sex work related, so called, offences.
It was the injustice of being arrested, the cruel manipulation of facts in the press and the total waste of money and time involved in prosecuting a non crime that persuaded me to become involved in activism.
From the start however, I had a very clear message for the media and for legislators.
My message was that sex workers are very ordinary people who want to be left alone to get on with their very ordinary lives. Yes, we want the same rights and privileges enjoyed by everyone else, but we do not want or indeed need special treatment.
I have always presented a very clear message for decriminalisation and made it clear that I do not want to be saved by rescuers or projects, studies by academics or targeted by politicians posing as rights activists.
To be candid, I have always believed that sex worker rights should be less about challenging negative perceptions of sex work portrayed by abolitionists, but rather about marketing positive perceptions to the public and politicians about our lives and about our work.
The abolitionists understand the power of marketing. They understand that any successful marketing campaign has to be clear and simple in its message.
Can we, as activists, however, claim that this is true of our campaign?
We talk, for example, a lot about decriminalisation and we constantly reference New Zealand, but decriminalisation for the UK. How would that work, what would we copy from New Zealand and how would we adopt it for use here in the UK? I’m an activist and I don’t know. No one has every discussed decriminalisation collectively to create a prototype legislation for the UK as far as I am aware.
So I would ask everyone here, how can we sell decriminalisation to legislators and to sex workers when we are unclear ourselves about how it would impact on sex workers and the wider community here in the UK.
When we discuss challenging perceptions about sex work, we really have to begin by examining what we as activists are doing wrong.
There is after all, no use blaming our enemies for being more successful, if it is our failure as activists to promote a positive story about sex work that allows their success.
Whither we want to accept it or not, as sex worker activists, we undoubtedly hurt our own cause in many ways. The language used by some activists to politicise their message alienates many sex workers and possible allies.
We have to ask if projects, who experience primarily the problem areas of sex work, who’s contact with sex workers is actually very limited, if they are the best people to present a rounded, balanced picture of the huge diverse experiences of sex workers lives to legislators.
We also have to question academics, asking do you too easily conform to orthodox opinions about sex work and who sex workers are. Does your research challenge effectively the emotionalised fervour of abolitionist rhetoric.
Because this battle is not really about evidence, it is all about emotion.
We are trying to win an argument where our enemies tell tales of young women trafficked around Europe and forced to have sex with 120 men per night.
It is nonsense, but to a gullible media, politicians and celebrities, it offers a project that allows them to pretend to the world that they care. As activists we have to work out how we can beat them at their own game and that does not mean telling them sadder stories than the ones they can produce.
Collectively I believe we, as activists must challenge the story that sex work is purely a woman’s only issue. Because sex work is not just a woman’s issues. That it is presented as such illustrates how a certain brand of feminism has made it so by deliberately colonising and politicising what should be a battle about human and labour rights.
We should as activists be fighting propaganda that presents a corrupted form of feminism that wants to control the sexual freedom and choices of both men and women.
I remind everyone that the Swedish legislation behind the end demand ideology was about social engineering on a grand scale. It was born of a particular brand of feminist ideology that desired the re-education of not just men, but of women and indeed of all Swedish society.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO CHANGE PERCEPTIONS ABOUT SEX WORK
So what can we do to begin to challenge perceptions about our work?
I suspect that we have all, over the years, presented boatloads of evidence on too many instances that legislators have simply rejected. Look at Northern Ireland, France, Iceland, Canada and Norway. In the west it is a depressingly long list of failures.
The fact is that if simple reason and evidence alone was the answer then we would no longer have a problem.
I would suggest then that as activists we need to re-examine our strategies as a movement and simplify a more positive and marketable message.
THE ONLY REASON PEOPLE SELL SEX
AVERAGE UNSKILLED WAGE £7 AND HOUR X 8 HOURS A DAY X 5 DAYS A WEEK
= INCOME OF £280
SEX WORK £100 HOUR X 1 HOUR PER DAY X 5 DAYS = £500
We should not be ashamed to talk about the positives of sex work, to reference our rich and diverse cultural heritage. We need to make real political capital about why people choose sex work and what society would loose if sex work no longer existed.
Sex work, after all, is the only profession I can think of that is offers opportunities and financial rewards that anyone can access.
Why people sell sex is very easy to explain. Whatever your personal motivation to sell sex, it is the fact that you can do so without legal papers, or educational degrees. Sex work offers flexible hours and relatively good rates of pay.
Selling sex simply makes good financial sense for lots of people for lots of very good reasons.
Most importantly we need practical research from academics and statisticians that will tell us simple but surprisingly evasive information.
We need to know how many sex workers are really working here in the UK.
No one knows and yet we are bombarded with statistics which are based on complete guess work.
We then need to know how many sex workers are male, female, work independently, in brothels, through agencies, on the street.
We need to know how many work full time or part time.
We need to now how many are migrant and how may are UK nationals.
We need to know how many have welfare issues.
We need to know how many are gay, straight, trans etc
What we need are simple basic facts, which can be used to effectively create informed policy, but more importantly, can be used to confront and silence the emotionalised propaganda of abolitionists.
Sex work organisations also need to learn to work together. This will undoubtedly be difficult, but there is no point in talking about decriminalisation until we hammer out exactly what we, as sex workers and activists, really want.
We also have to stop politicising sex work. The battle for rights is in itself sufficiently political without our movement fracturing along personal political sympathies or no sympathies.
I personally only care about finding common ground and creating a message that X talk, ECP, IUSW, Harlots Collective and the others can agree upon and sell to policy makers and to British sex workers.
We must also stop emphasising internal divisions, segregating sex workers into privileged and presumably non privileged and then managers and workers and all the rest of the endless politicised terminology that is little more than hate speech. Sex workers should be striving collectively toward a common goal. which is the protection and support of the law rather than our persecution by the law
SEX WORKERS RIGHTS, IF THEY ARE ABOUT ANYTHIING, ARE ABOUT SAFETY AND RESPECT
When we share a positive message as activists we are at our strongest. The message that sex workers, whither you like them or hate them, deserve not to be killed because of bad law, sells well to sex workers, the public and most importantly politicians. Imagine if we were able to combine the positivity of the safety message with a positive image of sex work.
It is worth reminding ourselves of another group in society with a shared history, the gay community. Gay men historically have faced far more vicious persecution than sex workers and sadly still do in some countries.
The gay community managed however, despite negative attitudes and laws, to create positive imagery about their lives which slowly resulted in recognition and acceptance.
The arrival of gay marriage signified that gay and Lesbian men and women had truly become part of society rather than a peculiar, odd, dangerous sub group. Their adoption into the mainstream was, relatively speaking, fast, after the repeal of the laws that criminalised gay sex in the sixties.
Some gay men of course hate the adoption of gay culture into the mainstream, hate the existence of middle class, conservative gay families in suburbia. The suburban gay family threatens their politicalisation of gayness and their “queer politics.”
Acceptance and integration into mainstream society should however be the goal of sex worker activism. Some, I know will be horrified, they perhaps find it fun being out there, politically and socially radical and dangerous, but I’m guessing they probably have never been arrested.
And of course, the middle class suburban sex worker is already here, we are I guess that silent majority, we just don’t attract attention because we are actually noticeable only by their ordinariness. Its our ordinariness as people rather than our weirdness as sex workers that is our strength and activism has yet, in some quarters, failed to understand that.
If we stopped selling our oddness, stopped turning ourselves into a political freak show, perhaps we would begin to change perceptions about what and who we are. Because the boring truth is that sex work is no different from any other work, a mixture of good, bad, but mostly indifference.
As a footnote to to this presentation. It is doubtful if not impossible that those activists on the left will be interested in working together. It was however a welcome to note that some academics, projects and activists, namely the other guest speaker Raven Bowen from Canada are realising that the vast majority of sex workers are ignored and not represented in a debate that is sensationalised around victimhood of sex workers. So there is I hope a promise in the air that things are changing, if ever so slowly.
It was also thrown at me “what about the survival sex workers.” I wondered where I had mentioned that there had to be a “Judgement of Solomon” moment. Integrating sex workers into the mainstream, recognising the silent majority of sex workers, will allow resources currently wasted in criminalising and rescuing all sex workers, to instead, be effectively targeted to support sex workers (and others in society) who really need help.