Members of Queer Strike showing their support for #pledgedecrim.
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How #pledgedecrim takes sex worker rights to the mainstream

Sex worker rights campaigners are hoping that the strategy that is working in the highest echelons of power will also work as well in the housing association meeting hall, or in the shouting grounds of Twitter.

Last week, the Safety First Coalition, a project that brings together sex worker rights campaigners, anti-rape groups, and health and legal professionals, launched a national pledge to decriminalise sex work. The pledge, which is being promoted in a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #pledgedecrim, highlights the most important and broadly accessible arguments in support of the decriminalisation of sex work - worker safety and worker rights.

“We want this demand for decriminalisation to register on the national stage,” says Niki Adams, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes. The pledge, which has been developed over the past several months in extensive consultation with sex workers and experts, is designed to reach those who have traditionally opposed decriminalisation or may not have thought about how decriminalisation is connected to the issues that they are concerned about. The goal of the pledge is to unite feminist and anti-austerity campaigns behind decriminalisation, and to break out of circular arguments. “What we know is that the public is in favour of decriminalisation on grounds of safety - the safety issue is the vehicle by which people have been able to put aside their feelings of morality or personal apprehension and come to support decriminalisation on the strength of the arguments that sex workers should not be forced to work in isolation, sex workers should not be deterred from reporting violence to the police. The pledge incorporates issues like safety, health, workers rights and policing, the targeting of immigrant women - the issues that people come to the issue of decriminalisation of sex work through. We have our eyes on the autumn and taking our fight to Parliament,” she says.

The pledge, which has already garnered support from luminaries including Grayson Perry (below), is a broad and innovative document. Hosted on a dedicated website, the pledge offers rarely considered arguments in support of decriminalisation, and included documentation offers short, clear real - life examples in support of each point. For example, criminalisation actually can keep people stuck in sex work. Workers who are arrested or convicted of a crime face barriers in seeking other employment. On the pledge site, an anonymous sex worker explains: "As the mother of a disabled child, I know a lot about caring. But I couldn’t apply for a caring job because I had convictions for loitering and soliciting."

According to Adams, the document’s approach has helped to convince politicians, bringing them in line with a public majority that she says supports decriminalisation on safety grounds. “One of the things we noticed is that MPs have studied the pledge background document, which flags up support of key organisations and gives examples for each pledge point. They’ve said, ‘This is helpful - I am going to use this example. This has changed my point of view,’” says Adams.

For sex workers, new approaches and changed minds can result in improved policy outcomes. Last year, when Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart introduced a measure into the Modern Slavery Bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, actor and Labour Party member Sarah Solemani had a series of meetings with shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Those meetings and the groundswell of opposition led to Cooper offering an alternative amendment, calling for a period of review and research - and this led, fortunately, to the failure of the MacTaggart amendment. “As soon as Cooper indicated that she would no longer support the blanket criminalisation of clients, other Labour MPs backed off from supporting the MacTaggart amendment,” says Adams.

But how mainstream are sex worker rights? As the Labour leadership race dominates the news, many sex worker rights activists are excited by Jeremy Corbyn’s frontrunner status. Corbyn has long supported decriminalisation. “We’ve been contacted by quite a lot of people asking where do the candidates stand on decriminalisation, and it’s fantastic to be able to say Jeremy Corbyn is completely on board,” says Adams. “But the fact that he stands against austerity is also a really crucial issue for sex workers. Prostitution is one of the things that women especially are going into, because more and more of us are struggling. Even those of us who have been working for years have to work harder, for lower rates, and take more risks - people feel in crisis, and to have a candidate who we feel could represent real change on austerity is a massive relief for sex workers,” says Adams. However, the progress made by campaigners over the past year means that sex workers need not pin their hopes wholly on Corbyn. “The relief that comes from that massive grassroots campaign in November and the widespread realisation that criminalisation undermines safety is that if someone like Cooper did prevail, that we would hopefully not be up against immediate legislation to criminalise clients or increase criminalisation of sex workers. You feel like the terrain has shifted - we’re in with a much better chance,” she says.

As austerity continues to bite, decriminalisation becomes ever more important. According to Adams, sex workers are reporting that benefit cuts and sanctions are increasing risks and lowering pay for existing sex workers and the many new sex workers driven by economic need. “They’re talking about cutting the support to the children of asylum seekers by thirty percent - money for mothers seeking asylum with children would go down from seven pounds a day to five pounds a day, which is a dramatic cut. Most mothers would get out there and do prostitution because there’s nothing worse than not being able to feed their kids. Women seeking asylum living in absolute poverty is likely to be behind the next big increase in prostitution. Already women who are destitute are working for tiny amounts of money and have to solicit for men in informal ways, because they can’t risk going to the established red light areas. They are in a very poor negotiating position and that makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Sex workers are increasingly describing themselves as precarious workers - in the category of people working in coffee bars, cleaning and doing care work. Prostitution has become one of those types of jobs, and people are not earning loads of money,” says Adams.

The Labour Party remains strongly divided on sex work and decriminalisation, but with its end run around traditional, polarising arguments, the pledge is making a headway that would once have been unthinkable. Apart from her conversation with Cooper, Solemani has had several successes reaching other senior politicians with the pledge. “I had a conversation with Harriet Harman, and she was very anti-decriminalisation - she is from the old school, I think she equated sex work with rape, she didn’t buy that there was any agency for sex workers. She said to me, ‘how would you feel if your daughter was a sex worker?’ That argument feels to me such a representation of the doublethink involved - the tangle of the issues. I said that the same argument, making it personal, was used before gay sex was decriminalised. One would argue, ‘would you want your father to have gay sex?’ Just because you do not like the idea of something doesn’t mean you can legislate against it. I don’t think I’ve yet persuaded her completely, but she said to me, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that,’” said Solemani.

In today’s overheated politics, a politician changing their mind can seem rare. Sex worker rights campaigners are hoping that the strategy that is working in the highest echelons of power will also work as well in the housing association meeting hall, or in the shouting grounds of Twitter. Time will tell whether sex worker rights will continue with their momentum, or will face a backlash; with last week’s confident launch, sex workers and supporters are betting that history is on our side.

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

Photo: Getty
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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue