Sex workers need support – but not from the ‘hands off my whore’ brigade

Nov 1, 2013
Sex Work News
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The 343 French intellectual men who signed a statement – “Hands off my whore” – defending their right to buy sexual services has infuriated women and caused wide controversy. Not only does it tell us what they think of sex workers, but of women generally and particularly what they think they can get away with saying publicly at this moment in time.

 

A protest in Soho by sex-workers

I have just signed a feminist statement opposing France’s attempt to criminalize clients. The proposed law would impose a €1,500 fine on those paying for sex, double for a second offense. My motive for opposing it is entirely different from that of these men – not men’s sexual freedom but women’s ability to make a living without being criminalized and deprived of safety and protection. Driven further underground, women would be at the mercy of both those clients who are violent and those police who are sexist, racist and corrupt and like nothing better than to persecute and take advantage of “bad girls”. For this is the inevitable consequence of such laws. Sex workers are the first to suffer from any proposals that make it more difficult, and therefore more dangerous, to contact clients.

The fact is that sex workers have not been able to count on prominent feminists to support their long struggle for decriminalization. Instead, establishment feminists have spearheaded attempts by governments to make it harder for women to work. Their stated aim is to abolish prostitution, not to abolish women’s poverty. That is an old story and it is painful that it is now enhanced with feminist rhetoric: disguising its anti-woman content by proposing the criminalization of men.

The need to work in prostitution is exploding with the austerity that has hit women hardest. When the welfare reform bill and the policing and crime bill were before parliament in 2009, we asked feminist MPs to oppose them, on the grounds that many single mothers on benefits made to “progress towards work”, would progress towards the street corner, the only available option. We had no takers.

One result of the absence of voices of influential and powerful feminists defending women’s right to work and in safety, is that the field is left open to men. The men, in the usual self-referential terms, defend their own rights as clients, not women’s rights as workers. Nevertheless it’s about time men admitted to being clients (intellectuals as that). But next time they should first check with the workers they are claiming to support, what they are proposing to say.

I was in France in 1975 just after the famous prostitutes’ strike that launched the modern sex workers’ movement in the west: women had occupied churches first in Lyon and then all over France to protest police arresting and fining them while doing nothing to stop murders and rapes. They formed the French Prostitute Collective and proclaimed: “Our children don’t want their mothers in jail.” Their actions inspired sex workers here to form the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). I was the first spokeswoman – none of the women could be public then, so they asked this respectably married housewife and women’s activist, to speak for them. I was happy to learn and take direction from censored sisters.

Their first statement was For prostitutes, against prostitution, as so many in the women’s liberation movement were hostile to sex workers and seemed to confuse the work with the worker – much as the housewife was confused with housework. We kept repeating (on both scores): we are not our work!

Nearly 40 years later, sex workers still face persecution and prosecution across the world. The French attempt to criminalize clients follows the Swedish model, which also inspired the UK’s Policing and Crime Act (2009). Opposition spearheaded by the ECP succeeded in limiting the criminalization of clients to those deemed to “have sex with a prostitute forced or coerced”. But raids and arrests of sex workers have escalated, and so has violence against the women.

A 24-year-old was murdered on Monday night in Ilford. Her tragic death comes in the wake of Operation Clearlight, a major police crackdown on street prostitution. Over 200 women have received “prostitute cautions” (where, unlike standard police cautions, there is no requirement to admit guilt and no right to appeal) in the last year and many have been arrested for loitering and soliciting and/or for breaching anti-social behaviour orders.

The murdered woman was Romanian. An increase in racism against Romanian people in particular, fueled by the government’s anti-migrant witch-hunt, may also have contributed to her targeting. Another Romanian commented: “When the police raided the premises where I work, they were rude and bullying, calling me names and accusing me of being a beggar and a criminal. They tried to get me deported even though I have the right to be in the UK. They claim they are saving victims of trafficking but it is immigrant women like me who are targeted. How can we report threats and violence if we are scared that we will be arrested or deported?”

French sex workers must have the last word. Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of Strass (Syndicat du Travail Sexuel), which campaigns for decriminalization, told the men claiming to defend them: “We are nobody’s whores, especially not yours … If we fight for our rights it is largely to have more power against you, so we can dictate our terms … ”

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Michael Whiteacre
Michael Whiteacre
6 years ago

This article is essential reading, if only because, despite the many excellent points made herein, it illustrates one of the biggest reasons sex worker rights movements have been getting their asses handed to them the world over: the dogged determination to place ideology, and debates about who is the ideal/correct advocate, over making political, social and legislative strides. Demands by political minority groups for ideological purity among their allies rarely, if ever, lead to success. Publicly attacking one’s allies is idiotic, but, sadly, it’s par for the course among SW rights movements, virtually all of which are more obsessed with… Read more »

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