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..
The debate on sex work, particularly the debate in feminist circles is a minefield for te unwary, a place where ideology trumps reason and one which may be leading to the implementation of policies that are not supported by any serious evidence, and may be harmful to many vulnerable people, mainly women. Jeremy Corbyn merely said what most informed observers think, that the best way to protect sex workers from violence and exploitation is to decriminalise prostitution. This was a courageous step and one think for which he is now being pillories.
I don’t want to go into the detailed arguments again but just say that decriminalisation of sex work is advocated by such well-known pimping organisations as the World Health Organisation, by charities working to help vulnerable sex workers such as National Ugly Mugs, and by pretty much every serious academic expert on the subject (many of whom are women). I have read widely on the subject in the last three years and find the arguments against criminalisation of clients, against “End Demand” and against the so-called Nordic Model cogent and well supported by evidence. Many of these making them are either sex workers, women or feminists, frequently all three. Jeremy Corbyn is saying nothing remarkable, in fact he is taking a rational and considered position.
Yet he has stirred up a hornets nest with many senior Labour women (none of whom, to my knowledge, has any specialist knowledge of the area) rushing to condemn him and repeating the tired mantras about the pimping lobby, about the need to rescue “prostituted women” and so on. These women are remarkably intolerant of anyone daring to disagree with them. Caroline Flint, for example, has blocked on Twitter a number of sex workers who had the temerity to ask her to provide evidence to substantiate her claims. She even blocked National Ugly Mugs. This refusal of elected representatives to engage in discussion is rather depressing.
I accept that some people are trafficked into prostitution although there is no reason to believe that they are other than a small minority. I accept too that many sex workers may not particularly enjoy their work and would rather be doing something else. If they are to exit sex work , however, they will still need to earn a living and the crusaders have not provided much in the way of serious proposals for how they might do this. Criminalisation will actually make the plight of those who are trafficked worse. The Police Service of Northern Ireland opposed the bill to criminalise purchase of sex in the province precisely because it would divert resources away from the investigation of trafficking and because they know (which the likes of Harriet Harman seem not to) that sex workers and clients are often a valuable source of intelligence about trafficking victims.
Anyone who thinks that criminalisation will reduce trafficking has evidently not looked at the history of the criminalisation of drug use over the last 50 years, or indeed the story of the prohibition of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1934. The story of prostitution abolitionism bears certain similarities. As in the case of narcotics and alcohol, many of the advocates are genuinely high minded and idealistic people who have a genuine moral aversion to the things they are trying to ban. I do not doubt their sincerity. But if they are not stopped, they do will cause a lot of harm to a lot of vulnerable people.