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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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser