Having been mentioned several times in Cath Elliot’s “The Great IUSW Con”, Feminist Fightback would like to reply to the accusations levelled at both the IUSW and Fightback’s support for sex workers’ rights. We have been saddened to read yet another abolitionist article which, rather than engage in thoughtful and honest debate, seeks to obscure the issues through factual inaccuracies and faulty logic.
Feminist Fightback supports the right of sex workers to organise amongst themselves to fight exploitation in the sex industry and transform the conditions under which they work. The International Union of Sex Workers is the only such organisation in the UK, as a result Fightback has supported this union and worked alongside it, just as it has a number of other trade unions on various different issues. Some of us have attended London IUSW meetings that are open to allies, while a few other Fightback members are themselves sex workers and members of the IUSW. Cath Elliot’s supposed ‘exposé’ hardly strikes us, then, as a piece of biting investigative journalism. We have no need of her advice to be careful of who we make alliances with for we are perfectly capable of investigating, analysing and making judgements about the political issues on which Feminist Fightback campaigns.
It is no secret that Douglas Fox, a male escort who also runs an agency, is a member of the IUSW. But Cath Elliot seems to think that by ‘uncovering’ this single fact she has discredited not only the entire union but also all arguments in favour of sex workers’ self organisation and decriminalisation. Through an absurd leap in logic Elliot moves from a discussion of Fox to conclude that the IUSW is ‘populated with pimps, agency owners and punters’. Unfortunately no other evidence for this is offered. Nor does Elliot offer any further arguments against sex workers’ right to unionise. In the absence of more sophisticated debate, we’d like to address Elliot’s accusations one by one.
It bears re-stating that because one member of the union runs an escort agency this does not mean that all members are ‘pimps’ and punters. In working with the IUSW we have met members in a variety of jobs in the sex industry including strippers, maids and men and women selling sex in brothels and working independently. Unlike other trade unions the IUSW finds itself in the position of seeking to organise workers who are effectively illegal, denied the right to work by laws which criminalise the conditions under which sex is sold. Decrimalisation is deemed a pre-condition to transforming working conditions and challenging the exploitation which takes place within the sex industry. For this reason union membership is open to others working for decriminalisation, including academics and researchers in this field.
Moreover, the GMB membership ensures confidentiality, for how else could a union seek to recruit illegal workers? It also seeks to challenge the fetishisation of ‘prostitution’ by actively recruiting from a variety of jobs within the sex industry, including, for example, security staff in strip clubs or receptionists in brothels. This is a common trade union approach – to organise all workers in a particular industry collectively rather than pick out a particular trade or role in isolation. (A comparison is the RMT union whose members include drivers, platform staff and cleaners on the London Underground.) We ask Cath Eliott what she would like the union to do? Demand that each individual out themselves? Specify exactly how much cock they suck, whether they do or do not do penetration in order to confirm for her whether they can truly be considered ‘authentic’ sex workers?
This concern for so-called authenticity is worrying. By implication it equates suffering with legitimacy. Does a woman who sells sex have to be addicted to drugs, working on the street and regularly beaten and raped in order to qualify to speak on behalf of sex workers? Can we not accept that a variety of experience exists in the sex industry? Can we not recognise that trade unionism is often about better off workers working alongside those experiencing the worst conditions, in order to improve the lives of all? In fact, we suggest that for Cath Elliot and other opponents of sex workers’ rights, the only ‘authentic’ sex worker is the sex worker who agrees with them.
Since Cath Elliot raised the issue of who, as feminists, we make alliances with, we would like to question the company she keeps by supporting the proposed government legislation to further criminalise sex work. The Policing and Crime Bill proposes to convict clients buying sex from anyone who is ‘controlled for gain’, strengthens police and local government powers to close down brothels, and further criminalises women working on the streets. (See the Safety First Coalition website for why this will make conditions more dangerous for sex workers). This legislation has been vocally supported by Cabinet ministers Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith, politicians who Feminist Fightback would likewise urge Cath Elliot to think twice about allying herself with. Among the numerous attacks on working-class women that these supposed champions of women’s rights have voted through include Harman’s drastic cuts to single parent benefit in 1997 and Jacqui Smith’s support for a draconian immigration system which regularly deports women who have been the victims of sexual violence back to the very countries from which they have fled. If Cath Elliot wants to purge the feminist movement of women’s real enemies then she might do well to start with Smith and Harman.
Finally, we would like to raise the wider question of why so many wish to block open debate on the subject of sex work – be this through refusing to speak on platforms where the voices of those they disagree with will be heard, through misinformed smear campaigns against sex workers’ organisations, or through mythologising and false claims regarding trafficking (for the government’s almost total lack of actual information on sex trafficking see here). Why does such a fundamentalist attitude persist around feminist responses to sex work? Why can we not think through the complex issues? Why can we not try to deal with the messy reality of the situation rather than resort to myth-making and scare mongering?
Those who want to decide whether they support the IUSW can find out what this union is and stands for for themselves – by reading IUSW materials and website, talking to the GMB or listening to IUSW representatives when they speak at events. We in Feminist Fightback continue to discuss and debate with each other what we think about the multifaceted issue of sex work, We do not claim to agree with every individual member of the IUSW, any more than we agree with all the policies of the other trade unions whose members we work with. We do, however, believe that anyone who is serious about fighting violence and exploitation in the sex industry needs to side with the workers organising within it, rather than seeking to criminalise or deny such workers a voice.