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The Soho raids show us the real problem with sex work isn’t the sex – it’s low-waged work itself

The moral crusade against the sex trade, whether it is pursued by the police or by high-profile feminists who have never done sex work, serves the same function that it has always served, writes Laurie Penny.

Masked Indian sex workers participate in a protest in Bangalore after the alleged gang rape of a prostitute by policemen. Photo: Getty

On 4 December, hundreds of police, some in riot gear, raided more than 25 premises in central London. Under the guise of looking for stolen goods and tackling trafficking and drug dealing, they raided the flats of prostitutes and turned them out on to the street. They invited members of the press to witness them taking women into custody and confiscating their money and possessions, all in the name of “saving” them from a life of prostitution.

Britain is not the only European country taking a tougher line on sex work right now. France has just passed a bill making it illegal to pay for sex, despite protests from prostitutes who say that laws criminalising clients make their work more dangerous, driving it underground. Germany, which has had progressive prostitution laws since 2002, is considering reversing them after a national debate on the issue. At a time when millions of women and girls across the continent are being forced to make hard economic choices – including prostitution – why does the biggest public feminist conversation still revolve around whether or not it is moral to have sex for money and whether doing so should get you locked up and deported?

The public shaming of sex workers has been a feature of the recent years of austerity in Europe. For the press, it’s a spectacle that plays well with readers drawn to a bit of titillated outrage. If you can’t get mugshots of the women, you can illustrate stories with stock photos of disembodied legs in miniskirts and heels, informing readers that this item will make them angry, horny, or both.

The recent raids in Soho were not the first occasion on which journalists and photographers have been invited by the police to cover the story. “What more clear signal do we need that the police are more interested in exposing these women than ‘saving’ them?” asks Melissa Gira Grant, author of the forthcoming book Playing the Whore: the Work of Sex Work. “How is their safety compromised now by these images and their spread online, as well?”

The story that is not being told in pictures of riot police raiding brothels is that the same police are authorised to keep a percentage of the cash they take from prostitutes. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, money and valuables confiscated from sex workers – including anything set aside for rent, medicine and food for their children – get divvied up between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the HMRC.

Worse, sex workers who are also migrants often find themselves turned over to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) following these “compassionate” raids. The English Collective of Prostitutes states that, during the recent Soho raids, “Some immigrant women were taken into custody on the pretext that they may be victims of trafficking, despite their protestations that they were not being forced to work.”

If tackling human trafficking is a priority, arresting the alleged victims, taking their money and handing them over to the UKBA seems like an odd way to go about it. Elsewhere, the public shaming of sex workers has a more explicitly political agenda. In Greece in the spring of 2012, the right-wing press ran stories blaming sex workers for the spread of HIV. The infection rate had indeed risen by 60 per cent in just one year – but not because of prostitution. Rather, the surge in infection was a direct result of swingeing cuts to the health budget, including the removal of needle exchange programmes.

We have been here many times before. It was Emma Goldman who first noticed, in 1910, that: “Whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency.” The idea that the dangers and indignities of certain kinds of work can be separated from the economic circumstances of that work is a seductive one but, as Goldman reminds us, “What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women, as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labour, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution.”

Most of the public conversation about the rise in sex work in Europe, particularly among poor and migrant women, assumes that it’s a consequence of immoral laws, immoral women, or both. The notion that five years of austerity, rising unemployment and wage repression across the continent might have something to do with it rarely comes up.

Separating prostitution from all other work and driving it underground does not just harm sex workers. It also allows people to imagine that just because they might be serving chips or wiping bottoms rather than having sex for a living, they are somehow preserving their dignity – they may be exhausted, alienated and miserable, but at least they’re not selling sex. Women who work as prostitutes do sometimes face abuse on the job – and so do women who choose to work as night cleaners, contracted carers and waitresses. The truly appalling choice facing millions of women and migrant workers across Europe right now is between low-waged, back-breaking work, when work is available, and destitution.

Even if we accept the shoddily supported notion that most women who choose to work as prostitutes do so because they have been traumatised in childhood, it does not follow that they should be stripped of agency, denied privacy, robbed of their possessions and arrested.

The public shaming of sex workers is a global phenomenon and too much of the media is complicit. The moral crusade against the sex trade, whether it is pursued by the police or by high-profile feminists who have never done sex work, serves the same function that it has always served. The problem with sex work isn’t sex, but work.