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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad