Interview: International Union of Sex Workers

Positive outcomes can come from the most horrible of circumstances.  So while the headline-grabbing murders of five women in Ipswich in 2006 shocked the nation, it also led to a heightened public debate about prostitution – the industry all five women were working in at the time of their death.  The views of academics, the police and third sector groups were all sought in an attempt to find out how to ensure the safety of women selling sex – which isn’t actually illegal in the UK, although many of the activities associated with it are.  Strangely though, sex workers themselves and the organisations that profess to represent them have been largely excluded from the debate.


In an attempt to redress the balance, I have come to a quiet pub in north London to speak to Catherine, a prostitute, dominatrix and activist with the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). 


As we sip our drinks, Catherine tells me the IUSW was formed in 2000 by Ana Lopes, a migrant sex worker from Portugal, who had come to the conclusion "that a lot of the problems in the sex industry were not actually related to the work itself" but were "about the conditions in which the work was done and the amount of power the worker had."


Affiliated to the GMB since 2002, the IUSW has just under 100 members in the UK, and an international email list of 200 sex workers, where issues ranging from "political discussions to how to keep a wig on during an orgy" can be aired.


So what are the IUSWs main aims?  "Our aim is for people who work in the sex industry to enjoy a full range human, civil and labour rights", she says.  "We want to be treated like the rest of you.  We want equality.  And that means enjoying the same rights as people in other industries and people in other occupations."


Getting to the nub of their position on prostitution, the IUSWs website argues that "there is nothing inherently exploitative or degrading about consensual sexual behaviour regardless of its motivation."  This isnt to say they ignore the darker side of prostitution.  "There is abuse and exploitation and rape and coercion.  It would be obscene to say that doesnt happen", Catherine admits.  But, she argues "the history of the left shows, we didnt go out and rescue the miners, take them away and give them a wash, and say ‘come and do this you will be much happier.  We gave them rights, we gave them bargaining power.  And that is the solution to exploitation – to give them rights and resources, not to rescue and redeem them."


Along with the Green Party, the Royal College of Nursing, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Communications Workers Union and the English Collective of Prostitutes, the IUSW supports the decriminalisation of the sex industry.


"Decriminalisation will not solve all the problems associated with the sex industry", Catherine  explains.  "Its not going to wave a magic wand and mean an end to stigma and violence and exploitation." However, she does believe it is "an essential first step to letting the light of day shine in upon the industry", and would provide a better level of legal protection for sex workers.


Despite the unions best efforts, the Government is currently leaning towards the prostitution policy currently enforced in Sweden, where the banning of the purchase of sex in 1999 has seen the number of sex workers fall by 40 per cent, according to government figures.  "All those statistics are greatly contested", Catherine counters.  Due to the very nature of the sex industry "there are no statistics that are authentic, particularly in a situation where the more underground something is pushed the less likely it will be we can generate reliable statistics."  Moreover, she points out that "sex workers were explicitly excluded from the consultation about passing the law."


Those who support the ‘Swedish model’ in the UK – who can loosely be described as the ‘abolitionist movement - may well be "very well intentioned and really mean what they are saying" but Catherine believes their stance on this issue is "crazy".  "One of the oldest feminist slogans was ‘no means no.  But perversely to certain feminists ‘yes does not mean yes", she says.  "For me, the only moral and social bottom line is consent."


Catherine says her experience of selling sex for eight years has been "uniformly positive."  "I go to conferences with academics and I receive far more abuse than I would ever tolerate from someone who has attempting to become a client of mine", she notes humorously.  She tells me she has felt exploited in a range of other work, but not working as a prostitute:  "If a guy is on his knees, and he is kissing my feet, and giving me a foot massage and I am drinking champagne that he has bought me, how far up my leg does his mouth have to get before I feel exploited?"


But she is keen to point out that her experience does not invalidate the experience of other people in the industry, which may be very negative.  "I accept there are people, probably a lot of people, who are doing this job and dont want to do it", she answers when I ask what she makes of polls that show the majority of women would like to leave prostitution.  "But I’d ask if the survey distinguished between wanting to leave because they were sick of doing a job which is stigmatised, marginalised and derided – or if their problem was with the actual having sex for money part.  In Australia, a survey showed women able to work legally had similar job satisfaction to women in the rest of the population."


Once again Catherine returns to the wide spectrum of experience that she believes people have working in prostitution.  "Lets acknowledge all of these things, and lets try and separate the bad from the good and target the bad."


Rarely seen in the mainstream media and contested by many feminists, the arguments put forward by Catherine on behalf of the IUSW are both challenging and persuasive.  They deserve to be heard.



Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England.  [email protected]

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