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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The Nicholas Lezard guide to spending your book advance

It was quite wonderful, once again, to be able to do things such as go to restaurants, develop a fairly serious port habit and generally not scrounge.

Well, the good times had to end, as they always do, I suppose. I spent the last few months of 2016 experiencing the novel sensation of not being broke. You should try not being broke some time: it’s delightful. Then again, maybe you’re already not broke. We’ll come back to this later.

Anyway, the last time I had enough cash to be free of any kind of worry was back in, I think, 1989. I had an office job and was also getting regular work on the Sunday Correspondent. It wasn’t exactly two salaries but it was certainly at least one and a half.

One day, though, the good people at British Telecom – for that was where I was mostly employed – decided that I ought to be promoted. I didn’t like this idea, because it meant that I would have to start doing some actual work, rather than pottering around the place chatting to people and going for four-pint lunches. So I resigned. What could possibly go wrong? The Sunday Correspondent was a fine paper, and maybe one day I would be literary editor.

You may be wondering, if you are under 50, what the Sunday Correspondent is or was. Well, exactly. It was, as the keener among you will have worked out, a newspaper, a nice, liberal one, which appeared – the clue is in the name – on Sundays. And then one day it didn’t. So within a fairly short period of time I went from having two jobs to having none, and since then I have not troubled the bank by having more money than I know what to do with.

Oh, I get by. There are many, many others much, much worse off than I am. But it was quite wonderful, once again, to be able to do things such as go to restaurants, develop a fairly serious port habit and generally not scrounge.

My munificence to my children was lavish, for once. They’re not daft, though, and they knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t last, and when all those horrible bills that come at the beginning of the year came at the beginning of the year, the status quo ante reasserted itself, and I am going to have to rein things in once more. Rather fewer plates of eggs Benedict for breakfast at the posh eatery in Baker Street, and rather more bowls of Rice Krispies instead.

Or I could find a rich woman. This is the traditional lifeline for the indigent hack, or at least it used to be. Jeffrey Bernard, my sort-of predecessor, would just sit in the Coach and Horses, and sooner or later, after he had put out a distress call in his column, in would come another woman who saw romance in the life of the penniless barfly, and he would be OK again for a while. However, he was writing in the Spectator, which tends to circulate among people with money. I can’t pull the same trick off here, for obvious reasons.

I also wonder if something has changed in the nature of wealth. People who have the stuff these days generally don’t pass it on to people who don’t. The days of the patron are over. What they pass on instead is either impertinent and unwanted advice or simply a dirty look. (Naturally this does not include those kind souls who have been kind enough to help me out towards the end of awkward months in the past.)

But I had my time in the sun for a while, and very pleasant it was, too. I could have saved up the modest book advance for a rainy day but as far as I can see it’s always a rainy day around the Hovel, so what the heck, I thought. Also, it would be very much not in the spirit of the Prix Goncourt or the Jack Trevor Story Memorial Cup, the terms of which dictate that the prize money must be spent in two weeks with nothing to show for it.

I was awarded the Jack Trevor Story prize last year – or possibly the year before that, it’s all a bit hazy – and I like to think that I maintain a standard of fecklessness whether I’m being rewarded for it or not. And the sum involved, I should add, is not big, and two-thirds of it is being withheld until the book is written, and then published.

It’s a fair deal, though, and I’m not grumbling. I have made my bed, and I must lie in it, although I didn’t realise that it would have so many Rice Krispies in it. You try eating cereal in bed without spilling any. The only real problem with doing so, it occurs to me, is that I don’t think there are many women, rich or not, who would be attracted by the prospect of sharing a bed with me and my breakfast. And I can’t say I blame them.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge