Freedom News

Sex work: A guide for activism

Anarchists through history have often been at the margins of society, associated with criminality and other unacceptable categories. So, it should be no surprise to know some anarchists are also sex workers, or have been close to sex workers. We fought Mussolini and Franco, we continue fighting today.

Emma Goldman wrote in 1910 about trafficking hysteria, then called “white slavery,” which hasn’t changed much in over a century. Her approach to the causes of sex work is just as valid today as it was then:

“Nowhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex. It is therefore almost inevitable that she should pay for her right to exist, to keep a position in whatever line, with sex favors. Thus it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution*.”

While some otherwise privileged women have been able to “break the glass ceiling” in the last century, many of us continue to be underpaid, overworked or considered unsuitable for the capitalist interests. Ironically, sex worker activists are often accused of being the privileged ones when we speak up for ourselves. What is really privileged is to believe it is acceptable to force someone to give up their livelihood because it is offensive to you and instead condemn them to a life of low-waged work, unemployment and extreme poverty.

Many sex workers are unable to access “normal” jobs because of disabilities, unpaid care commitments, being too queer — or just appreciate having some more time for other things in life, like activism, studies or art. In the current neoliberal state of zero-hours contracts and benefit cuts, sex work provides a respite for many people who were otherwise be unable to access any income.

The reactionary forces against us, who would have us scrubbing their floors for a pittance, are the same that wish to silence trans people. This was made very clear at the London Porn Film Festival, which was attacked by so-called feminists “against the sex trade, surrogacy and transgenderism.”

In fact, the London festival is the most DIY, queer, feminist, body-positive one around. These attempts to silence sex worker and queer voices is part of a wider reactionary attack, funded by the extreme right, to divide feminist and working-class movements. This is not our feminism. I pity the people who have been seduced into this hateful ideology.

On a more positive note, sex workers led this year’s Women’s Strike** on March 8th in many places across the world, from Buenos Aires to London. This year we marched in the rain around central London with around 5,000 people on our side.

Sex workers in Britain are also unionising! We have the wonderfully radical United Voices of the World trade union representing us in England and a new attempt at a branch with union GMB Scotland. So far, we have made a lot of progress unionising strip clubs, being legal workplaces, where dancers are forced to pay house fees to work a shift, amongst other things. In case they didn’t have enough problems with club bosses, strippers have also had to deal with the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) sending men to covertly film them at work without their consent. This is another way carceral feminists*** try to attack our livelihoods, by inciting councils to remove licensing and close down workplaces. We don’t need “concerned” rich women trying to take our work away, we need unions to fight for ourselves.

For many of us, sex work is a criminalised enterprise. The current laws in Britain allow selling sex, but working together is illegal. As an anarchist, I would love to be able to set up a co-operative worker-run brothel, thus curbing ridiculous London property prices as well as taking care of each other against dodgy clients and bosses.

When I work in a brothel now, the house takes a third of my earnings per client, and we’re under the constant threat of police and immigration raids. In addition to laws which prevent us from working together safely, “anti-trafficking” legislation is often used as an excuse to detain and deport migrant sex workers trying to make ends meet. That’s why we campaign under Decrim Now!

In conclusion, if you are against borders, against police, against prisons, against bosses, against state surveillance, you must also be for sex worker rights. We don’t need you to be comfortable with what we do, just don’t make our lives more difficult.

If you are a sex worker reading this and you haven’t joined the union yet, go sign up to UVW now!


*Some of Emma Goldman’s words would be considered old-fashioned, if not offensive, to many sex workers today. We have done a lot of work to shift the language used, but many of those who would have us die in the gutter still use harmful words to deny our relative agency in the face of our economic conditions. Don’t be one of those people.

** An annual refusal of work held on international Women’s Day, highlighting the enormous amounts of labour undertaken by women both paid and unpaid.

*** Carceral feminism argues that State intervention — criminalisation of sex work, more prisons, heavier policing — should be the primary method used to reduce violence against women.

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Picture: Slutwalk 2011

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