Sex workers are under attack– feminists everywhere need to support us

It was the day after International Women’s Day and I was tired, obviously, but also feeling good about pulling off another strike for the 3rd year in a row in London.

I went on twitter looking for photos of our actions, and found something heart-breaking instead:

In the Spanish state, my sex working combabes had had a difficult weekend. I saw a video of sex workers and trans people in Madrid being attacked for existing. I received a DM from a friend in Barcelona saying she had been too scared to go out.

I knew the so-called sex work abolitionists had been emboldened in the Spanish state lately, much like the TERFs in Britain. While here they receive support from the media, in Spain they also have the support of the central government cabinet and many local councils. They say they are radical feminists, but they are the most institutional misogynists around.

Abolitionism isn’t a bad word, in itself. When we talk about abolition in anarchist circles, we talk about abolishing prisons, the state, capitalism… all those good things. The idea that it is possible to abolish sex work or the whole sex industry without removing the conditions which lead people to this line of work isn’t just naïve, it’s plain dangerous. Time and time again sex workers have campaigned, lobbied, cried out that any measures which seek to criminalise and drive our work underground make our lives more difficult – and there is a body count to match. In France, where the sex-buyer law (aka Nordic Model) is in place, over 10 sex workers have died in the last 6 months.

But this article isn’t going to be another “this why decrim is the only good option”. There are enough of those around. This is about the insidious, violent atmosphere created by so-called feminists against us on the 8th March in some parts of the Spanish state, and every other day of the year if they can. They say they care about us, that they want to rescue us, but they don’t believe we can speak for ourselves. When we don’t speak up for ourselves we’re slaves that need to be rescued from never-ending rape, when we do we’re the pimp lobby. Meanwhile our bosses get away with, well, being shit as bosses do.

Sex workers are amongst the most resourceful workers out there – we have been for millennia. We are unionising, here in Britain with UVW, and in Spain with Sindicato OTRAS. The Spanish government tried to shut down OTRAS after they received their trade union license, even though all their paperwork to become a trade union was correct, because they don’t believe sex work is work.

To understand more about what happened on IWD in the Spanish state, I contacted the OTRAS branch in Madrid and asked them a few questions. This is what they had to say:

Q: What happened in Madrid on the 8th March?

To understand what happened the day of the demonstration we need to know first what had been going on in the months leading up to March as well as last year. The most fundamentalist side of the abolitionists has been pressuring the 8M commission for two years to take a stance on the issue of prostitution. Until now there hasn’t been a consensus on the matter and therefore it was decided that it was a red line that couldn’t be debated or mentioned because there was no agreement reached.

Abolitionist groups have forced, pressured, ruined assemblies, heckled and insulted and many other abuses. The culmination of this happened in the months leading up to the 8th March. An elevated number of abolitionists joined the working groups (especially Borders and Bodies) with the aim to ruin the group, force actions and discourses of a clearly abolitionist and transphobic line. The tensions have been insufferable, the abuse received uncountable.

Obviously, this position of the 8th March commission in Madrid (it hasn’t been the same in all places) is an aberration for us who are sex workers, as to not “alter”, not break the consensus, for us to “behave” we have been silenced in all spaces and manifestos. Personally, I think this position of silencing us so the others “don’t get mad” has been cowardice. Also, only our side has abided to this as the others haven’t missed a chance to talk about it from their position in any space they felt like it.

So, with all this on the table and with this level of tension in the environment, a few days before the demonstration the abolitionist group launched an ultimatum: we go with our banners at the front or something will happen. Obviously, they were told no, that the distribution of the demonstration was as follows: the group of diversely abled women first, next the banners with the main message for this year, after the commission of neighbourhoods and villages, the rest of commissions and working groups for March 8th, at the end the other non-mixed feminist collectives of Madrid (whichever order they prefer), and at the very end is the batukada (similar to a samba band) and after them the mixed gender bloc.

The abolitionists announced in networks that they were meeting at 4pm on Sunday 8th (the demonstration started at 5pm) in Callao, which is close to the end of the demonstration and the stage ready to read the manifesto. It was clear they were intending to ruin the demonstration, put themselves in front of the main banner and appear in the photo with their banners and abolitionist messages. And that is what happened, but various groups (including the main 8M organisers and autonomous collectives supporting March 8th) arrived to avoid them getting to the front and leave space for the authentic head of the march to get to the stage. During that clash there were insults, assaults, hits, all sorts. And after that they reported the comrades and recorded them on video.

Q: Why does the 8M manifesto only mention “prostitutes” twice and doesn’t talk about our unionisation, supporting us, etc?

As I explained above, as there is no explicit consensus, not only one position on sex work, it was decided not to talk or touch the subject at all, which results in a complete invisibilisation of us. It was established as a red line that couldn’t be crossed.

Q: What’s the relationship between the abolitionists and the government?

Most of the visible heads of abolitionism in the Spanish state are linked to el PSOE (currently ruling party), UGT and CCOO (both mainstream trade unions). There’s also abolitionist positions in communist parties and collectives, and the worst part is that the most extreme manifestations of abolitionism are present in the new generations of members and supporters of these organisations (the Student Union, for example).
Right now, there is a big power struggle to take control of the feminist movement, as it has experienced a growth without precedent in the last three or four years and everyone wants a piece of it.

On another side, now that the PSOE is in power, they think it will be a good time and a big media hit to force the enactment of abolitionist legislation.
Another sector where there is a big abolitionist link is in academia. At the end of 2019 they managed to censor a series of events on sex work in the University of A Coruña. The events were organised by a student of the university who is also a sex worker. It was something unheard of.

Q: How are you all feeling with all that’s going on in feminist circles?

Well, over all, we’re feeling rage, powerlessness, frustration and sadness. Here in Madrid there aren’t many of us sex workers who are politicised and organised, so it’s difficult to put pressure and participate in all spaces. We don’t only have to put up with the stigma that we have as whores, but also that our so-called comrades in the feminist struggle silence us and ban us from spaces. That, in addition to the violence that we receive from abolitionists. It’s very hard sometimes and most of us suffer from anxiety, pain and rage.

The positive side is that after all that happened this last year in the 8M many feminists (allies and non-allies) have realised all the barbarities that we have to put up with (because they have also experienced it in the flesh for the first time) and this is making people listen to us and reassess that it’s impossible to continue like this.

To give you an example, one of the activities pre-March 8th was a picket outside Congress that had as its main aim to denounce the Immigration Act. One of the collectives involved in organising got in touch with one of our members, a street sex worker who is also a migrant trans woman. The same day that the event was taking place others from the 8M Commission found out and said that we couldn’t participate because then prostitution would be mentioned and that was going to result in a row, that many comrades would get upset because there is no consensus over that subject. How can they ban the participation of a migrant trans woman? 90% of sex workers in Madrid are migrants. How are they not allowed to speak about Immigration Law when they live it every day in their own skin? In short, a lot of rage.

Q: How can we support you from abroad?

I think the most important thing for us is to create alliances and networks of support with collectives like yours [Womens Strike Assembly UK] to echo what has happened here and, most of all, what is happening in other geographical areas involved in the 8M. To make visible that it is possible to share struggle and space and be present even if there are different positions [on sex work].

But most of all at our level as a collective. We’re very few but in the last four years we’ve made big steps and we’ve generated many alliances that we didn’t have before. It burns us out and sometimes it’s exasperating because managing activism with work and everyday life isn’t easy. Sharing experiences with one another, and hopefully someday participate in events together, etc. In sum, unionising and spreading to be able to expose these people or this movement in order to try to stop them somehow. They’re organising an abolitionist demonstration in Madrid on May 9th, let’s see how many they can mobilise.


Thank you to Sindicato OTRAS in Madrid for agreeing to this interview. Hopefully this article will help spread the word on what is going on within feminism in some parts of Spain.

In related news, The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), launched the campaign Feminists For Sex Workers on March 8th 2020. Your collective can sign their femifesto here.

Being a sex worker ally is more than following SWARM on social media or even turning up to one of our demos. It means standing up and challenging those who wish to silence us every day, telling others why decriminalisation and unionisation in the sex industry are essential, sharing information on our projects, donating towards our organisations and campaigns, showing up to our union actions, listening to us in public and in private without judgement. It also means not thinking of our existence as titillating or gross – we’re workers trying to survive in this capitalist hellhole, just like everyone else.

~Anarcharlot


Anarcharlot [twitter @behemothsfork] is a migrant sex worker, activist with Women’s Strike Assembly and UVW union member.

Photo: Sindicato OTRAS