If sex work is work, then sex workers are workers. Photo: Getty
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Sex work is work: exploding the “sex trafficking” myth

With the freedom to work, organise and fight, sex workers will end coercion in the trade.

I am lucky to have taken up my work as a dominatrix amid a revolution in our thinking about sex work. Writers like Laura Agustín and Melissa Gira Grant have taken apart our sexualised, othered image, and sex workers and allies proclaim loudly that sex work is work. Banal on its surface, that statement is profound in its implications. We all work for a multitude of reasons, good and bad, mundane and heart-wrenching. It is society that frames those reasons differently, based on gender, race, class, and nationality.

Like everyone, I’ve seen the reports of people from foreign lands, brought to the west and forced to do sex work. They are called trafficked women, and are often depicted at the point of a police raid, with flashing cameras shoved in their faces. At best, they’re shown as victims; at worst, as nuisances and criminals. I write today to stand with Agustin, Grant, and Maggie McNeill, who have so powerfully argued that this portrayal, and the very concept of “sex trafficking” that underpins it, is a myth. To say this is not to sideline the coerced; in dismantling this pernicious myth, we put their lived experiences front and centre. Coercion, force, and violence in sex work are very real, but they pertain generally to life as a member of the oppressed, not just to sex work. They must be fought across the world, and the concept of sex trafficking does not help in that fight. Instead, it obscures the fact that many types of workers, from carers to builders, suffer force, violence and exploitation. Insidiously, the trafficking myth also deprives sex workers of agency and identity, as it sexualises and fetishises our lives and bodies.

Our stories can look very different from sensationalised raid reports or racy tell-alls, even with familiar-sounding facts. Originally from Romania, Paula was sixteen when her boyfriend took her to London to work as a sex worker. It was not her idea, but she was in love, and as excited as any new immigrant. She was willing to give sex work, and England, a chance.  Her boyfriend became an abusive drunk and addict, and after nearly a year, she was done. He grounded her by snatching her passport. “I couldn’t go anywhere. . . if you don’t have papers, you don’t exist,” said Paula. She went back to work; when she befriended a pickpocket, he sent his confederates to recover her ID.

Having freed herself, Paula dumped her boyfriend and set up as an independent sex worker, choosing her own working flat and making it comfortable and secure. By 2012, she was well on her way to success, taking an English course and saving up to study nursing. She was a part of the neighbourhood; she had applied for a national insurance number. Then, on 3 September, she was raided.  “When the police came in, they started accusing me of being a pickpocket and a beggar, just because I am a Romanian,” she said. They barraged her with questions and upended her tidy flat in a search for drugs. Although she was entitled to be in the country as an EEA national, she was reported to immigration authorities, and ordered to present her proof at the police station.

On the same day Paula’s flat was raided, police stormed into a number of flats in Mayfair, tearing down notices and harassing sex workers, maids and receptionists. Women working legally were thrown out of their flats and threatened with arrest if they returned to work; no evidence of drugs, minors or trafficked sex workers was found. Paula operated for months under police suspicion, never knowing when police or immigration authorities would approach her – even at her home, where she kept her job a secret. Eventually, she was cleared, but the experience changed her; today, Paula supports and organises alongside her fellow sex workers at the English Collective of Prostitutes.

Her experience is typical. “We’ve always said that anti-trafficking legislation was aimed at stopping women crossing international borders,” says ECP spokeswoman Niki Adams. “Trafficking is used as an excuse and a justification for raids on premises and arrests of immigrant sex workers which are ultimately and actually just immigration raids. It’s a way of enforcing immigration controls in a very repressive and heavy-handed way, but with the veneer of an anti-trafficking initiative and the idea that you’re saving victims. It’s just a con,” she says.

If sex work is work, then sex workers are workers. We face – and fight – all of the intersecting, systemic oppressions faced by workers everywhere. While law enforcement and a well-funded rescue industry contribute to a worldwide attack on our rights, sex workers have long been in the forefront of militancy and organisation. Like workers everywhere, sex workers are best situated to improve safety and working standards. Around the millennium, as women disappeared in a Vancouver neighbourhood, activist Jamie Lee Hamilton established Grandma’s House, which provided food, condoms and safe rental rooms for sex workers. Women were still disappearing when Grandma’s House was raided and closed in August 2000, and Hamilton was charged with running a bawdy house. Serial killer Robert Pickton was not caught until 2002, and was convicted for the murders of 26 women; he told an undercover officer in prison that he had killed 49.

In the United States, authorities have recently closed and seized the assets of MyRedBook, an advertisement and forum site for sex workers and clients. Under the guise of fighting trafficking, prostitution and money laundering, they have shuttered a website with a long history of fostering sex worker solidarity. “It’s a huge loss from a community standpoint,” said Melissa Gira Grant, interviewed for a report published Tuesday. She recalled that the site, which started in the early 2000s, had had forums that were more active than the advertisements section. Much of the site was free to use; with its closure, sex workers with limited funds, arguably the most vulnerable, have lost an essential community resource. Law enforcement also regularly infiltrate and shut down online screening tools, routinely used in America, where clients upload proof of identity and sex workers can verify thems; dissuaded from using these tools, sex workers are left vulnerable to harm and arrest.

The raid on MyRedBook is part of a wider American crackdown on sex workers, whose result may, ironically, be more migration. “It’s almost like breast cancer awareness in its publicity right now,” says Kelly Michaels, an American specialist in tantric sex. Michaels tours to work when her children are with their father. For her, arrest could mean exposure and the loss of her children; touring can keep authorities from picking up the scent, but could equally put her at risk, as she is continually meeting new clients. “The main reason I tour is law enforcement. . .to keep myself a moving target. I would love to be able to book locally and not make myself vulnerable,” she says. For her, today’s media furore about trafficking has proved too much. After six years as a sex worker, and a bitter fight to wrest custody from a whore-shaming ex-husband, Michaels is retiring from sex work, and is making a documentary about her attempt to follow the advice of the rescue industry, supporting her family by other means.

Victor Hugo said that a writer is a world trapped in a person. The same is true of any of us. There is more to Paula’s story, or to Kelly’s, than a body and a job. Theirs are stories of personal success. They’re about the hope and apprehension of a new venture, the universality of domestic violence, and the ingenuity displayed in surviving it. They’re about the joy of building a business, and the fear of its destruction through causes outside of your control. They’re stories about finding your voice. Most of all, they are each a part of the broad, human story of uncertainty, change, and the sometimes bumpy road to building a new life. We may enter sex work out of optimism or out of desperation, and we may love our jobs or hate them. For most of us, our reasons, and our sentiments, fall somewhere in between, but all of us can fall prey to the state and the rescue industry. Capturing and labelling us, they decide our fates; they become the coercers, and can shatter lives. Let our society set them aside, together with the trafficking myth; let sex workers take the lead in debates about our lives and work. We are coming out of the shadows, and demanding our freedom to work, organise, and fight. With that freedom, sex workers ourselves will end coercion in our trade, and we will take our rightful place in the struggle to end it everywhere.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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MP after a moonlighting job? I've got the perfect opportunity

If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...

There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

 “When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned

But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.

What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.

But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.

Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.

Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?

But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.

I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.

Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.

It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.

The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.

Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.