Sex Work

I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic, because I know it is so sensitive and I am, quite frankly, afraid of putting a foot wrong just to speak my mind.

It is something I am undecided on, and that I find it so difficult to be decided on. I figure it’s partly a good thing, as it maybe means I’m more open to listening than on topics where I have vehement opinions.

Feminism in London (2015) took a stance on the issue by giving a platform to women who support the Nordic model, including ex-sex workers, and women who have been trafficked. When I saw this, although I didn’t agree with 100% of the methods, I was completely convinced.

At Women of the World this year, they showed both sides through performance, but didn’t try to have a panel on it (due to past occurrences I think). In turn, this meant it didn’t take a position on the issue. And I got the impression that Founder and Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, didn’t really know where she stood on this matter either.

I recently watched this video below and I couldn’t recommend it more.

It runs through the following options when thinking about sex work and legality:

-Full criminalisation: seller, buyer, third parties.

-Partial crimination: selling and buying legal, but other activities (e.g. selling on streets, in brothels) banned.

-Nordic model: criminalising buyer, not the seller.

-Legalisation: all legal!

And what do sex workers want? Decriminalisation. 

One of the issues FiL picked on with this, was how it differs to legalisation, and they argued that it doesn’t (but have a read of this). Whilst I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for people trafficked into sex work – including one speaking at this event – Toni Mac makes a good point that people are trafficked into other industries and nobody calls for a ban on the entire industry itself. But then again, I read that 95% of victims of trafficking are forced into sex work. Needless to say that most of these people are women. So, it shows that this is to do with women’s position in society; the fact that it’s a gendered issue is obviously going to provoke ideas that all sex work is a form of violence against women. But some women do choose it, so where do they fit in? Often people point out the issue with capitalism and that sex work is simply another form of exploitation. It begs the question of whether it matters whether its sex work or not.

What I find difficult may be a process of unlearning. As much as I don’t want to add to the stigma against sex workers, I am uncomfortable with what I have heard  about legalisation in Germany, where sex has been marketed within a deal where you also get a beer and a hot dog, dehumanising the women involved. That this advertising will be seen with young children, that on family tours these children will see themselves reflected differently. I really hope that decriminalisation won’t mean the same thing happening. As someone who works with young people, I can’t see myself promoting sex work as a viable career choice to those that I work with, especially when wanting to encourage young women not to limit themselves or see themselves as objects. Women are already objects in advertising for tech job recruitment and more, so how, in an unequal society, with women making up a majority of sex workers, can we make progress so that fewer women are exploited for their bodies?

For me, sex work is like no other work, which is what makes it so difficult to get my head around. However, if this is to do my relationship with sex as an act that is uniquely intimate, then perhaps what is needed is better understanding, more voices from sex workers, about the work they do and how they negotiate it with other aspects of their lives. At FiL I heard statistics about the mental processes of sex work, the disassociation, that it takes 3-7 years for sex workers to see themselves as being exploited, that many will tell themselves they enjoy their job etc. It is also where I heard the term “prostituted women” and thought I understood the phrase, only then to read something that argued that by saying that of all sex workers, you take away their agency.

Part of what I’m uneasy about is the idea that if we decriminalise sex work, that we are accepting that we can’t do anything about its existence. FiL argued “we don’t want a reform, we want a revolution.” But when that revolution appears to be impossible, it seems to make sense to do whatever it takes to protect those most in danger of suffering at the hands of these four failed models. After all, Toni Mac states that “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things, but it makes a huge difference as to whether they’re safe when they do them.”

She goes on to say that “you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence.” You simply can’t disagree with this statement because so much of this is cultural, and changing attitudes is massively challenging. I can see everyday with my work with children how ingrained sexism and misogyny (as well as so much more) is on this young people. Again, Toni Mac makes a very powerful point about the question “Would you want your daughter doing it?” which has been my thoughts, not necessarily in terms of my daughter, who doesn’t yet exist, but more about the young women with whom I work. But Toni Mac turns it around and gets you to imagine that she’s already doing it, asking “How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?”

New Zealand is the only place that has decriminalisation in place, written in collaboration with sex workers, and I guess all we can do is see what happens and hope we finally have a solution. So far, things seem to be working well. I admit, I have been guilty of seeing sex workers as either victim or privileged, and this post itself definitely isn’t perfect. But I’m trying to understand, and where I can, to learn about sex work from all voices who have the experience to speak; I will listen and try to be a better ally.

“If you care about gender equality, or poverty or migration or public health, then sex workers’ rights matter to you.” 

WOW (trigger warning: rape)


100_3584I have been very busy these past few months, but on Saturday 9th March I went to something that meant I had to get back to typing at these keys: WOW Festival. For those that don’t know about this, WOW stands for ‘Women of the World’ and is a series of events and discussions at Southbank, in London. But first, a quick catch up. 

I went to Barcelona during my half term holiday. I stayed with my friend, Laura who is working there at the moment. I also saw my cousin (who was on an exchange) and paternal grandfather (who is Spanish and lives there) and ate out with my parents who holidayed there too.

100_3528It was really relaxing and enjoyable, with the rain holding off and excitement at a glimpse of sunshine.

In other news, I have had a poem accepted into Brittle Star magazine. I’m pretty sure I have been rejected from there before, which makes my achievement even more special somehow.

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I went to see Tim Walker’s exhibition at Somerset House, after the V&A exhibition of ‘Hollywood Costumes.’ The latter was interesting, but honestly, too crowded to enjoy properly. It was like being on a conveyor belt, rather than walking around a gallery. And I was disappointed to see that the red shoes and pinafore from the Wizard of Oz were both replicas. On the other hand, Tim Walker’s free exhibition was fascinating. Showing that fashion is not an inferior art form through his photography, amazing pictures lined the walls of rooms where large objects brought them to life.

Photo0464In the world of poetry, I have been notified of my acceptance to perform at a festival, but I cannot reveal just yet which festival that is, so watch this space!I’ve also been busy organising my latest project: Poetry&Paint. I’m so pleased with the responses I’ve had and excited to launch the anthology at Craft Central’s space, ‘The Showcase’ on Saturday 30th March. There will be performance and discussion from Selina NwuluDaniel Lehan, Greta Healy, Robyn Comfort and Bill Vine. The exhibition is from 3pm and the evening event starts from 7pm.

I have also been working where I am employed, very hard.

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Yet, I have also been organising Photo0467 something else. On Thursday 7th March, myself and Emily Prichard kicked off the International Women’s Day celebrations with the first ‘She Grrrowls’ Feminist Group meeting. We made some promotional hearts out of card and have scattered them around London.

I must also add that I treated my Mum to seeing Bridget Christie at the Purcell Room in Southbank on Friday. I felt very privileged to be attending her biggest show thus far, and both my Mum and I enjoyed her Feminist comedic commentary on our society, including a hilarious physical display demonstrating why we females should be so thankful for the Bic pen ‘For Her’.

The great shame for my Saturday activities at WOW was that I had no company. Not because I didn’t want to be on my own, but because none of my female friends were their for their own interest.

I have managed to visual document the presence of Ruby Wax, one half of Feminist men duo who co-wrote ‘The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, and Bidisha with Lisa Appignanesi. There were such a range of amazing events, but alas, I could only be at one place at a time.

The introduction to Saturday’s WOW was called ‘The Keys to the Castle. One of the most interesting speakers for this section was space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, and I immediately thought how great it would be for her to talk to the students at my work (I work at a school). It was really inspiring and I even learnt things that I didn’t really know about space. Well, 96% of space is undiscovered, so there’s a lot of work to be done in that field!

Next, I went to Michael Kaufman’s talk on The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. He read extracts from the book he co-wrote with Michael Kimmer, and commented on these extracts in an interesting and amusing way. Part of this intention must have been to promote the book – an easy-to-read A-Z of Feminism for the male reader – and it certainly made me want to get it for any male friends and the boyfriend! I highly recommend it, and I haven’t even read it yet.

The next talk that I went to was so powerful and emotive that nothing to follow could be more important to attend. This talk had the simple title: Rape. Chaired by Southbank’s artistic director, Jude Kelly, it began with Joanna Bourke’s revelation of shocking facts and statistics surrounding the subject matter. These things included:

1/ Marital rape was only made illegal in Scotland in 1989 (the year I was born).

2/  The rest of the UK followed suit in 1992.

3/ 1 in 3 films contains rape.

4/ Also reported by The Guardian: “one in three people believes that women who behave flirtatiously are at least partially responsible if they are raped.” (2005)

5/ There are more convictions of rape nowadays but 85% of rape cases go unreported.

6/ 1 in 5 females will be raped in their lifetime. If you know over 5 females, you do the maths.

7/ Some myths about rape: ‘no’ can mean ‘yes’, you can’t rape a resisting woman, some rapes aren’t serious, women ‘ask for it’ and women lie. Do not believe these things.

8/Research into false accusations shows a risk of just 3%, which is in line with all other crimes. 

9/ We need to talk about rape and educate young people about it.

10/ A woman’s biggest risk of rape has little to do with stranger danger. Most rapists know their victim; they are either friends, boyfriends, family or work colleges. This is why men need to speak out about things like rape jokes, and casual misogyny. If you don’t, you just placate those that do and normalise rape, deeming it acceptable. If you are male, you can make a pledge to fight against violence towards women through the White Ribbon Campaign.

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The audience then listened to the stories of real victims of rape (although none of them like to think of themselves as victims). One woman sent her story by email because after nine years she did not feel ready to tell it. I was shocked not just by the horrific atrocities these women had suffered, but the poor state of the legal system, where visible physical injury, and an eyewitness lead to a judge telling the jury to consider if they wanted “to ruin this young, talented man’s life” before making their decision, then to be acquitted of the charge. It also pained me to hear journeys they had been through to come to this stage and their determination not to let this incident define them.

One major point to come out of this discussion was the need to talk about rape and to educate young people about it.

After this harrowing topic, I contemplated a talk with teenagers about the term ‘Feminist’ but then decided to go to ‘Aint I A Woman’ which saw a panel of women discussing black women and popular culture. Speakers included Hannah Pool (chair), Kieran Yates, Angelique Kidjo, Miki Turner and Shirley Tate. It was really interesting, and I found Kieran Yates to be particularly on point throughout. The statement that sparked off the talk stood strong to the end: the struggle to end racism and the struggle to end sexism are intertwined. Although this is something I like to aim for in my brand of Feminism, I feel that, as a white women, the involvement of other races is necessary for Feminism to truly reflect the experiences and problems of all women.

The penultimate event I attended was Ruby Wax’s ‘Out of Her Mind’ which was the perfect blend of tragedy and comedy, about a topic that interests me: mental illness. The importance of communication was expressed again. Wax concluded that now at her dinner parties, when asked how she is, she explains ‘the same as you: dealing with heartache, death and loneliness… Hors d’œuvre?’

Lastly, I listened to women such as Bidisha and Lisa Appignanesi read extracts from ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’ (another must-have read). I then rushed home for a nice big dinner and discussed the day with my Dad, who talked to me about all the topics, giving me some historical background (being a history teacher) and revealing that he is a Feminist… though not in those exact words, the conversation still had me beaming with pride to have such amazing parents. I then re-told and re-discussed with my Mum on Mother’s Day over a game of Scrabble.

xxx