Feminists for decriminalisation: Feminism needs sex workers and sex workers need feminism.
As anti-capitalist feminists, we welcome Corbyn’s comments on the decriminalisation of sex work.
The feminist case for the decriminalisation of sex work has never been stronger, demonstrating just how wrong Julie Bindel is in her latest attempt to discredit us by arguing that Corbyn’s view is simply that of the patriarchal, male left.
The English Collective of Prostitutes, the x:talk project, and Sex Worker Open University insist on decriminalisation as seen in New Zealand. The reasons are simple. Criminalisation of sex workers or clients pushes sex work further underground and creates or exacerbates hardship, violence, and exploitation of workers. Amnesty International, having heard this message being voiced globally by sex workers, is now drafting a policy on decriminalisation. But these sex worker led groups insist that decriminalisation is not enough; it must happen alongside worker organisation, an end to repressive border regimes, and redistribution of wealth.
Class inequality, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism are the structural dangers facing sex workers. As anti-capitalist feminists we know that decriminalisation will not magically bring an end to capitalist or patriarchal interests or racism in the sex industry. But we also know that criminalisation not only fails to demolish these oppressions; it exacerbates them. We want to be clear that supporting workers in their struggle, including decriminalisation, does not mean we support those who extort or exploit sex workers. It means that we support workers in the removal of laws that encourage violence and exploitation and limit their ability to self-organise.
But many who call themselves ‘feminists’ in the Labour Party, and radical feminists such as Bindel, insist that ‘prostitution’ is simply a result of male demand and have championed further criminalisation of sex work. These feminists say that the criminal justice system is a benevolent source of protection for women. This position is in direct opposition to the strong consensus that now exists among grassroots activists and academics, demonstrating the need for decriminalisation to protect those who work in the sex industry by removing unnecessary police oversight and allowing workers to work together collectively.
‘Feminists’ in the Labour party have been silent about – or worse, instrumental in creating – the dire economic conditions in which sex work is the least bad option for many women. There are numerous examples. Harriet Harman, who has spoken out against Corbyn’s support for the decriminalisation of sex work, was the MP who instructed her party to vote in favour of the Welfare Bill last year. The Welfare Act will push many women, who are already bearing the brunt of austerity, into greater poverty and will increase the number of women entering precarious forms of work, including sex work. A lack of welfare will also worsen working conditions within sex work by reducing a woman’s ability to walk away from poor conditions.
And in 2004, both Harman and Fiona McTaggart – who has consistently proposed measures to criminalise the purchase of sex – voted to raise university tuition fees. The effect of raised tuitions fees has been widely shown to increase the entry of students into the sex industry. These so-called ‘feminists’ regularly vote for measures that indebt women, take away state support, and create immigration conditions that push migrant women into dangerous workplaces.
We hope Corbyn’s comments will lead to a broader debate within the Labour Party about why decriminalisation is an essential part of improving conditions in the sex industry and that it will start to open up a conversation on a policy on how best to approach the sex industry in the interests of those involved in it. Feminist Fightback is committed to continuing the debate on women, sex work and feminism, and to act in solidarity with sex workers’ efforts to gain equal treatment and representation as workers. Fightback supports sex workers’ rights to unionization and self-organisation as the only way for sex workers to gain power and fight against all forms of compulsion, coercion, and exploitation. This entails, at the very least, complete decriminalisation of sex work.