Not Such an Ugly Mug

On my real name Facebook account I have a group of friends I have never met, men and women from all over the world who have connected with me because of a shared interest in sex workers’ rights. I really value these connection s with these people who are a mix of sex workers and activists, sometimes both. They are all deeply committed and fiercely intelligent, a number of them prominent in the struggle. I am honoured that they wanted to connect with me. I want to talk briefly about one of them.

Alex Feis-Bryce announced this week that he is standing down as Chief Executive of Ugly Mugs after five years in the job. Ugly Mugs (the name comes from an Australian term for a rogue punter) is a project launched with Home Office funding and with the support of the police,   to promote sex workers’ safety. Sex workers can sign up and receive e-mail warnings of potentially violent punters, make reports, anonymously if they prefer, and also report incidents to the police. There are links too to the Merseyside Model under which offences against sex workers are prosecuted as hate crimes.  Fundamental to the success of this is sex workers feeling that they can trust the police.

The biggest threat to this comes from the strident and seemingly tireless advocates of the “Nordic Model” under which the purchase of sex would be criminalised (as it has been in Sweden since 1999). Advocates claim that it involves the decriminalisation of the sex workers themselves although, in practice, the introduction of criminalisation of clients in both parts of Ireland has NOT involved the lifting of legal prohibitions on, for example, working together  for safety. These advocates, including many MPs (Jess Phillips, Harriet Harman, Carolinse Flint and Gavin Shuker to name but four) believe that sex work is “violence against women” although they seem oddly uninterested in actual violence against sex workers. Indeed some police officers in Sweden have said on record that they believe it to be acceptable collateral damage that will discourage others from going into sex work. But it is clear to me that by driving a wedge between police and sex workers it will make them less safe. This is why the struggle for sex workers’ rights, and the battle for decriminalisation are inseparable from the wider work of Ugly Mugs.   As Ugly Mugs has grown under Alex’s leadership he has become an effective and articulate advocate.

What has this to do with BDSM? The answer is that professional providers of domination (or submission) are also sex workers. Indeed the term covers a very wide range of service providers. including men. Some pro- dommes that I engage with online actively support the struggle even if there are others who, disappointingly, reject the label.  But I think there is a further point, which is that political attacks on sex workers are part of a wider backlash against the free expression of sexuality.

Alex is moving on but leaves a strong legacy.  I would like to thank him for all he has done and wish him all the best for the future.  And, dear reader, I hope that you will too..

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