“Sex has nothing to do with it”: What's it like for sex workers to fight for their rights?

Juno Mac and Molly Smith talk less about sex and more about work when discussing the new edition of their book, Revolting Prostitutes.

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When Juno Mac and Molly Smith, two 30-year-old friends who started out in the sex industry a decade ago, wrote a book, some readers of the first draft were “almost offended”. Not because the book was about sex, but because it wasn’t.

“There’s this real expectation that we would write some form of memoir,” says Smith, who I speak to remotely alongside Mac as co-authors of Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight For Sex Workers’ Rights. Mac smiles: “This is not a sexy book.”

The book is about work: all the painful battles and tedious legislative obstacles any fight for labour rights entails. Negotiating power, safety in the workplace, wages, respect.

These things are harder for prostitutes to attain in the UK because a lot of the work is criminalised. You can sell sex, but you can’t solicit it in a public place, and you essentially have to work alone because of laws against running brothels. The book describes a workplace in which police and immigration officers can dictate your rights.

This makes work harder for some than others. Those desperate for money, isolated and without a safe home are more likely to run the risk of breaking the law or accepting dangerous clients than those who can practise their business indoors, with the social and financial security to set boundaries.

“If you speak to a thousand different sex workers about their jobs, you’ll probably get a thousand different answers about job satisfaction,” says Mac, whose last job before sex work was as an intern for a year at a magazine where she was paid £30 a day. “I was having to do sex work to be able to afford that.”

Unable to pay her London rent, she moved before the shutdown in March to stay with a friend in Somerset. Wearing a yellow jumper among luscious pot plants and stacks of hardbacks, she jokes that the illustrious-looking bookcase in the background cannot be attributed to her.

“There’s absolutely no work, and I don’t have the energy to switch overnight to being an internet porn star,” she sighs, with a half-smile. “There are a lot of clients stuck at home at the moment with not much to do, but it’s surprisingly hard to separate them from their money…”

Casual in a plaid shirt and owlish round glasses, Smith lives in a UK city she asks me not to identify. (Unlike Mac, whose January 2016 TED talk on sex workers’ rights has had nearly three million views, she eschews a public persona.) She tried sex work after being exploited when working at a coffee shop. “Probably the conditions won’t be great, but maybe the money will be better,” she reasoned. “Which is the case at least for indoor sex workers, generally.”

While the women give nothing else away, these questions of the modern precariat are at the book’s heart. “On balance, it’s like other jobs that precarious working-class people do a lot of the time,” says Mac. “That’s not to exclude the fact that there are outlying examples of people raking in cash in extremely luxurious conditions – they are held up far too often and are misrepresentative, but unfortunately are much more romantic and capture people’s imaginations.”

Opponents of decriminalisation and the work of the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (an activist group of which the authors are members) are quoted in the book questioning the prosaic idea that prostitutes work to earn.

“People pathologise people’s reasons for entry into sex work, which enables them to totally exclude from the conversation the fact that they need money. And when you make it harder to get that money by criminalising their clients, then that has a cascading effect on the lives of people who sell sex,” warns Smith.

This is an argument against the “Nordic model”: a system now in place in Ireland, Canada, Norway, Sweden and other countries intended to criminalise buyers, not sellers. To feminists, it sounds appealing – punishing the (mostly) men who buy sex in this patriarchal world. But quoting women working under different systems, and striking stats (when the Nordic model came to Ireland in 2017, for example, there was a 61 per cent rise in concerns about abusive clients), Revolting Prostitutes argues that it further endangers prostitutes.

Nevertheless, the authors also tell hard truths to those who give a blanket “sex positive” sheen to prostitution. “There’s this caricature – that I don’t think many sex workers subscribe to anymore – of the empowered ‘happy hooker’,” says Smith, who puts it in her characteristically blunt way: “I don’t have to be rescued by some fucking dickhead cops, and I also don’t have to be like, ‘Oh, I’m drowning in champagne, because I love men!’ It’s ok to be like, ‘Fuck clients, fuck cops.’”

It was Mac’s experience of an exploitative manager that led her to develop “political analysis and some rage” around sex work, which was when she met Smith at an activists’ event in Glasgow seven years to the date we speak (they remember because it was the day Margaret Thatcher died).

Still, the “sex” in “sex work” has a way of derailing the discourse. “People have had sexual experiences, including sexual trauma, or just neuroses about sex, which really obstruct their ability to interact with the idea of another person performing sex as labour,” says Mac.

“There’s something really potent and hard to shake about the idea of prostitute as metaphor for all women,” adds Smith. “Sex is not the important thing. In a sense, the sex has nothing to do with it.”

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight For Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac is published by Verso.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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