Along with my fellow sex workers across the UK and the organisations that help support and protect us, I was inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s courageous statement of support for the decriminalisation of sex work in his remarks on Thursday night at a Goldsmiths University campaign stop, his first public confirmation of this view since he was elected Labour Party leader. He said:
“I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don’t want people to be criminalised. I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more [of a] civilised way.”
It’s not news that Corbyn supports sex worker rights. He always has; his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has, too, with a history of participation in marches and demonstrations around 17 December, the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. McDonnell even chaired the pro-decriminalisation November evidence gathering symposium at the House of Commons, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes. Two things make Corbyn’s statement so groundbreaking – first, that he made it after being elected Labour leader, and, second, that his brief response to an audience question so incisively went to the heart of the matter.
When Corbyn was riding a surge of public support to power, sex workers cheered, but we did so quietly. The issue of the decriminalisation of sex work deeply divides the Labour Party, and many women Labour MPs support the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services, popularly called the Nordic Model. Sex worker organisations didn’t necessarily want Corbyn to lead with decriminalisation because of the risks that could come to him as a candidate. Despite the fact that their claims have been repeatedly debunked, prohibitionists are still able to persuade some media that their conflation of sex work and trafficking is an accurate one. Sex workers have always known that sex work is an austerity issue, because so many of us have come into sex work when zero hours contracts, benefits sanctions, and family care needs have meant that we can’t make ends meet. Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, and to Tory bills that would decimate trade unions and ravage social housing, were the main reason that we supported him; his support for decriminalisation was the icing on the cake.
By speaking out about the decriminalisation of sex work as Labour leader, Corbyn has demonstrated his courage, his consistent personal values, and his compassion. He knew he’d get stick for it, and he has; Jess Phillips, Harriet Harman, and many others have excoriated him. The New Statesman’s deputy editor Helen Lewis even asked him on Twitter if he would be interested in paying for sex himself.
The feminism of people like Harman and writer Julie Bindel calls sex work violence against women, and it is all too easy for the media and some of the the public to accept this view uncritically, even though a recent poll by SCOT-PEP shows that a majority of the public support decriminalisation. What so often gets missed is that feminism is not a monolith. Feminism is currently experiencing a massive upsurge, but it is an intersectional feminism, not Bindel’s sort; a feminism that understands that issues of race, class, and nationality affect and inform the ways that women are oppressed by patriarchy. Intersectional feminists support sex workers’ rights, understanding that sex workers, like other workers, enter into their work for a complex variety of reasons and deserve rights and safety no matter what those reasons are. Although voices like Bindel’s are loud, the vast majority of feminists, and particularly younger feminists, support the decriminalisation of sex work. Feminist activist Kate Hardy said,
“Supporting sex workers rights is a feminist position because it means listening to women and supporting them for their own self-determination. More than anything though, it is often about supporting some of the most vulnerable – migrants, people in contexts of homelessness and people living in poverty – to make them safer and improve their working and living conditions. Sex workers are a vital part of a broad movement against austerity and for social transformation. This is what my feminism looks like.”
In voicing his support for decriminalisation Corbyn has become the latest football in the match for the soul of feminism, and those feminists who support sex workers should speak out in his support.
What was so important about Corbyn’s statement is that he spoke not about rights or choices, not about the morality of selling sex or buying it, but about whether our society should be one that criminalises people. In this choice of words, Corbyn aligned himself with the leading scholars of sex work, the world’s major public health bodies, human rights groups like Amnesty International, and the majority of sex workers ourselves: what makes our work unsafe is not its nature but its criminalisation – whether the selling or the buying of sexual services is criminalised.
Corbyn did not make a special case out of sex work, as so many prohibitionists do. His remarks, brief as they were, supported decriminalisation because a criminalising society is not one that he wants to live in. He supports the decriminalisation of sex work for the same reason that he went to visit the refugees huddled at the Jungle, the Calais migrant camp whose southern half has been dismantled by tear gas wielding riot police. Criminalising migrants may keep them out of sight, but not out of mind, and criminalising sex workers does not stop us from plying our trade but merely pushes us further into the margins. He doesn’t need to have experienced the harrowing crossings of the refugees to support them, and he doesn’t need to want to pay for sex to support us.
Niki Adams, spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes, also linked Corbyn’s statement to broader issues:
“Jeremy Corbyn’s support for decriminalisation puts sex workers of a par with others who have been unjustly criminalised – young people, people of colour, immigrant people. And that is right. Women picked up for soliciting have long said that the prostitution laws are to women what the sus laws are to young Black men – a tool for the police to persecute and harass, with Black and other women of colour being their first target. Corbyn and John McDonnell support decriminalisation because they support working class people’s struggle against being criminalised for refusing poverty. They take their lead from sex workers who, like other workers, are striving to improve our working conditions in the face of austerity cuts, 75 per cent of which (as McDonnell said recently) have hit women hardest. If the Labour party wants an anti-prostitution strategy they should get behind Corbyn and McDonnell’s determined campaign against benefit cuts, sanctions and an end to zero hour contracts.”
Corbyn does not want to be a part of a criminalising society, which sanctions jobseekers, makes asylum seekers destitute and throws sex workers into jail for working together. His refreshing approach is in direct opposition to that of the home affairs committee, which, in its ongoing examination of sex work, considers only whether the buying or selling of sex should be criminalised. Even though the committee’s enquiry was convened months after Amnesty International’s report in favour of the full decriminalisation of sex work, as has been in operation in New Zealand since 2003, and months after a pro-decriminalisation evidence gathering symposium within Parliament itself, the enquiry doesn’t even explore decriminalisation as an option. Perhaps the Committee doesn’t want to listen; it is telling that the English Collective of Prostitutes, Britain’s oldest and largest sex worker organisation, has not yet been invited to give oral evidence.
The Home Office is closely watching the Northern Ireland “experiment” in the criminalisation of clients, although sex workers there already report that the new law has compromised their safety by making it more difficult for them to screen clients. Laura Lee, a sex worker based in Glasgow who works frequently in Northern Ireland, is challenging the law. She reported its dangerous effects in a recent Guardian article:
“People are not willing to use online booking forms, not willing to divulge their details. Everyone suddenly became ‘John.’ There hasn’t been a reduction in demand, but it is far more difficult to keep myself safe…We have a number of online screening processes, but clients [in Northern Ireland] are point-blank refusing to use those systems. They are paranoid about anyone coming across their activities online. It is hugely problematic…So my choice is to go with my gut instinct or to turn them down, and just not make any money…I had a guy call a number of months ago. He was perfectly polite – a little curt, maybe, but I put that down to nerves. When he got to my place, he was very clearly disturbed. He started with hideous verbal abuse, based on sectarianism, and his hatred of sex workers, a hatred of Catholics, just a hatred of who we are and what we do. I kept him as calm as I could, I used every soothing method I knew, I didn’t attempt to argue back. My primary purpose was to get him out of the room, which I did eventually…I was left badly shaken by the experience and the knowledge that I had no way of tracing this man to warn other sex workers about him.”
In the last few weeks, three sex-working friends of mine have reached out, racked with anxiety because they fear losing their safety and livelihoods if the criminalisation of clients were to become Briths law. One woman, an escort for nearly twenty years, was unable to sleep for days as she worked on her written evidence to the home affairs committee. Another woman, whose disabilities mean that sex work is one of the ways that she can make a living with dignity and security, is suffering a brutal flare-up of her symptoms, exacerbated by the fear that she will lose her livelihood and will be forced into benefits or into low paid work that she literally cannot do. For these women, I am glad that Corbyn has kindled debate and pulled the issue of sex work into every newspaper, every radio station, every television studio. The home affairs committee has been working to criminalise clients in relative obscurity, and now the nation watches its deliberations. For this I thank Corbyn, and I raise my voice to support him. Let us all do the same.