Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sex Workers' and self organisation

In this next installment of the ABC of feminism we have a guest post from Jane Watkinson who takes a look at some of the history of how sex workers have collectively organised to protect their rights.

The sex workers’ movement really took off in the 1970s as sex workers’ within Lyon, France occupied churches in protest against police corruption and treatment against sex workers. The direct action received international coverage, propelled the French Collective of Prostitutes and the English Collective of Prostitutes to form, as well as assisting with the development of many other sex workers’ organisations and collectives around the world.

Whilst sex workers’ organisation has existed for many years, the ‘prostitutes’ right movement’ came into its own in the 1970s; as the fight for sex workers’ rights to be considered with respect and seriousness became more prominent. The 1980s AIDS’ crisis was a double edged sword, as governments provided sex workers and health officials money to help sex workers gain access to preventative treatment and services such as condoms – but it also came with a reinforcement of the negative stigma associated with sex work through legitimising the view that sex workers are the ones who require mandatory testing and health surveillance, not the clients (most likely male).

Furthermore, AIDS funding for sex workers’ organisations has often been associated with an ‘exiting’ strategy. The USA only now provide funding for these organisations on the condition that they advocate for sex workers to exit the industry. This puts a strain on resources, especially given the legal situations of countries such as France where the possession of condoms can be attributed as evidence for ‘passive soliciting’. ‘Passive soliciting’ was introduced in the Domestic Security Bill in 2003 by Sarkozy and has been seen as a human rights attack, as the police often arrest sex workers based on their attitude or dress (even though dress was removed from the legal text after an amendment).

Nevertheless, not all community health organisations have suffered from these conditions. In France, the community health organisations posed in direct conflict with the social workers who took an abolitionist line. Furthermore, in Sonagachi, Kolkata, the sex workers’ AIDS organisation has over 60,000 members, with the Durbah Mahila Samanwaya Committee that runs the project even setting up a civic bank for the sex workers.

Gregory Gall documents sex workers’ organisation. He refers to the development and sophisticated progression of the movement, as the collectives and heath organisations were later complemented by the formation of trade unions for/by sex workers. Whilst Gall refers to the disappointment of sex workers’ unionisation across the world, he states that there have been relative success stories such as in the USA where Lusty Lady’s was unionised and turned into a sex workers’ cooperative. Within the UK, we have the International Union of Sex Workers; however, whilst the union has had relative success affiliated to the GMB specifically in the context of assisting lap dancers rights, it has various controversies surrounding their membership criterion that supposedly allows related groups such as pimps to join. Furthermore, there are concessions that their level of organisation has been limited – reasons for this however are hardly uncommon in regards to the sex workers’ movement at large.

There are problems with sex workers feeling ashamed because of the strong stigma attached to their work meaning they often feel unable to show their faces at protests, covering them up with masks. The laws surrounding sex work do not help with this; our own laws in the UK are a testament to this. Whilst it is legal to have commercial sexual services, there are numerous laws surrounding the industry that make it very dangerous for the sex workers involved to work. This is largely shaped by a ‘moral’ concern for keeping the ‘public’ areas ‘safe’; in consequence sex workers are given ASBOs, pushed into dark unsafe areas and prohibited to work together outside or indoors.

Internationally there are largely calls for decriminalisation of sex work where sex work would be recognised as legitimate work to be considered under existing work laws. There is a strong movements in countries such as France against state legislated brothels, especially given France’s history re brothels and the mandatory health tests that undermine sex workers’ movement and freedom. Regardless, some sex workers’ want brothels, others want designated areas so they can work on the street (managed zones, as designed by Liverpool and as ignored by the Labour government); illustrating the diversity amongst sex workers and the need to provide them space to air their views and arguments in public.

Labour were central to moving the UK closer to a prohibitionist stance. Nevertheless, there are countries such as New Zealand who have adopted a decriminalisation position (influenced by sex workers’ organisation). However, the UK have taken their influence from Sweden and its prohibitionist legal context, as women are treated as vulnerable ‘victims’ said to be in a false consciousness unaware of their experienced ‘coercion’. Sex workers’ organisation is often isolated from the feminist movement as it is polarised by these debates surrounding choice and coercion. Regardless, most feminists and researchers into sex work come to the sensible conclusion that sex workers’ are neither forced or freely choosing sex work – there is a complex mixture of both.

Whilst the sex workers’ movement has come a long way since the Lyon sex workers’ strikes, there are still many obstacles for sex workers to be given the rightful legal, cultural, social and economic recognition they deserve. There are strong moralist forces within countries such as France and the UK that dictate their policies around sex work, making it harder for sex workers to make a living.

However, sex workers’ organisation has illustrated profound resilience. The movement has developed in sophistication and whilst unionisation may not have been as successful as hoped with many unions rejecting sex work as ‘work’; there are real building blocks that sex workers can hold on to and work in correspondence to progressive forces to counteract the negative and moralistic constructions of sex workers that undermine their rights to public space and consideration.

3 comments:

Clem the Gem said...

I am reminded of George orwell and Homage to Catalonia, in which he describes the Brothels as being Co-Operatively run by the sex workers themselves...

Clem the Gem said...

By the way, I have added you to my links on my site,
http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/

Keep it up, hope to see you on a few Demos soon...

Clem

harpymarx said...

"However, the UK have taken their influence from Sweden and its prohibitionist legal context, as women are treated as vulnerable ‘victims’ said to be in a false consciousness unaware of their experienced ‘coercion’. Sex workers’ organisation is often isolated from the feminist movement as it is polarised by these debates surrounding choice and coercion. Regardless, most feminists and researchers into sex work come to the sensible conclusion that sex workers’ are neither forced or freely choosing sex work – there is a complex mixture of both."

I agree with the above (and the post overall). New Labour went for the moralistic and indeed prohibitionist stance of Sweden over sex work as opposed looking at New Zealand. My own view is for decriminalisation and unionisation of sex work.