In which I respond to the response
Posted on January 23, 2009
I thought long and hard about whether or not to respond to Feminist Fightback’s post on my piece about Douglas Fox and the IUSW, because to be honest I’m not convinced that this debate is getting any of us anywhere; but then the more I read it the more bizare and straw womany it becomes, so I just want to clarify a couple of points:
Feminist Fightback supports the right of sex workers to organise amongst themselves to fight exploitation in the sex industry and transform the conditions under which they work. The International Union of Sex Workers is the only such organisation in the UK, as a result Fightback has supported this union and worked alongside it, just as it has a number of other trade unions on various different issues. Some of us have attended London IUSW meetings that are open to allies, while a few other Fightback members are themselves sex workers and members of the IUSW. Cath Elliot’s supposed ‘exposé’ hardly strikes us, then, as a piece of biting investigative journalism. We have no need of her advice to be careful of who we make alliances with for we are perfectly capable of investigating, analysing and making judgements about the political issues on which Feminist Fightback campaigns.
Lol. Ok, first off I never claimed this was a piece of biting investigative journalism, in fact I think I made it pretty clear that most of the issues I raised came out of comments on the F Word thread where this whole debate first kicked off.
As for “Feminist Fightback supports the right of sex workers to organise amongst themselves to fight exploitation in the sex industry and transform the conditions under which they work.” I have to question how Feminist Fightback think that’s possible when sex workers are being represented in the IUSW by the owners of the agencies that employ them? How is it possible for workers to change their working conditions when their union rep and other union colleagues are the ones setting those conditions?
This is precisely the point I was trying to raise in the original piece: that if sex workers are to have a voice, that voice must be their own, not that of their employers, their pimps, or their clients. That’s exactly what trade unionism is about, and that’s what the IUSW, by its own admission and by its very nature is not.
It is no secret that Douglas Fox, a male escort who also runs an agency, is a member of the IUSW. But Cath Elliot seems to think that by ‘uncovering’ this single fact she has discredited not only the entire union but also all arguments in favour of sex workers’ self organisation and decriminalisation. Through an absurd leap in logic Elliot moves from a discussion of Fox to conclude that the IUSW is ‘populated with pimps, agency owners and punters’. Unfortunately no other evidence for this is offered. Nor does Elliot offer any further arguments against sex workers’ right to unionise. In the absence of more sophisticated debate, we’d like to address Elliot’s accusations one by one.
“But Cath Elliot seems to think that by ‘uncovering’ this single fact she has discredited not only the entire union but also all arguments in favour of sex workers’ self organisation and decriminalisation.”
Where have I made any such claim? If you read the original piece you’ll see that I acknowledge that in theory there’s nothing wrong with sex workers organising amongst themselves and electing spokespeople to represent them, but the point is that this isn’t what’s been happening in the IUSW. As others have mentioned, it has a membership of about 100 people, several of whom are agency owners and punters, who claim to represent the voices of some 80,000+ sex workers.
And no one has still managed to answer the question that’s been posed throughout this debate, which is: bearing in mind how vocal the IUSW has been about new legislation specifically designed to help those most in need of it, which everyone agrees is street prostitutes, how many street prostitutes does the IUSW actually have in its membership?
It bears re-stating that because one member of the union runs an escort agency this does not mean that all members are ‘pimps’ and punters. In working with the IUSW we have met members in a variety of jobs in the sex industry including strippers, maids and men and women selling sex in brothels and working independently. Unlike other trade unions the IUSW finds itself in the position of seeking to organise workers who are effectively illegal, denied the right to work by laws which criminalise the conditions under which sex is sold. Decrimalisation is deemed a pre-condition to transforming working conditions and challenging the exploitation which takes place within the sex industry. For this reason union membership is open to others working for decriminalisation, including academics and researchers in this field.
In which case it’s not a trade union, it’s an interest/lobby group or a trade association, which is why I continue to question the GMB’s involvement with the IUSW.
Incidentally, I was talking to a GMB rep the other day who has represented several sex workers, and who told me that none of the workers they represented were members of the IUSW. They were GMB members by dint of their day jobs, and were more comfortable with that form of representation than they were with IUSW representation, precisely because of the issues of confidentiality that FF raise here.
Moreover, the GMB membership ensures confidentiality, for how else could a union seek to recruit illegal workers? It also seeks to challenge the fetishisation of ‘prostitution’ by actively recruiting from a variety of jobs within the sex industry, including, for example, security staff in strip clubs or receptionists in brothels. This is a common trade union approach – to organise all workers in a particular industry collectively rather than pick out a particular trade or role in isolation. (A comparison is the RMT union whose members include drivers, platform staff and cleaners on the London Underground.) We ask Cath Eliott what she would like the union to do? Demand that each individual out themselves? Specify exactly how much cock they suck, whether the do or do not do penetration in order to confirm for her whether they can truly be considered ‘authentic’ sex workers?
I don’t dispute it’s a common trade union approach to organise all workers in an industry, but the key word again here is workers, not employers, not customers, not self-elected spokespeople whose only interest is in preserving the status quo for their own monetary gain, but workers.
And the RMT is a crap comparison. The RMT union does not include the likes of Virgin boss Richard Branson, and nor does it include the likes of me, a customer of the service, and nor should it. If as a train user I want to be involved in lobbying for improved standards and conditions on the UK rail network, I would have to join a rail user group like Passenger Focus: my interest in the rail industry does not give me any right to join the RMT, just as a punter’s interest in the sex industry should not give him a right to join the IUSW and appropriate the voices of those who do “suck cock.”
This concern for so-called authenticity is worrying. By implication it equates suffering with legitimacy. Does a woman who sells sex have to be addicted to drugs, working on the street and regularly beaten and raped in order to qualify to speak on behalf of sex workers? Can we not accept that a variety of experience exists in the sex industry? Can we not recognise that trade unionism is often about better off workers working alongside those experiencing the worst conditions, in order to improve the lives of all? In fact, we suggest that for Cath Elliot and other opponents of sex workers’ rights, the only ‘authentic’ sex worker is the sex worker who agrees with them.
Straw woman alert! No, the only authentic sex worker is someone who is actually a sex worker, in whatever part of the industry that happens to be. A sex worker is not an agency owner, and a sex worker is most definitely not someone who buys sex.
Finally, we would like to raise the wider question of why so many wish to block open debate on the subject of sex work – be this through refusing to speak on platforms where the voices of those they disagree with will be heard, through misinformed smear campaigns against sex workers’ organisations, or through mythologising and false claims regarding trafficking (for the government’s almost total lack of actual information on sex trafficking see here). Why does such a fundamentalist attitude persist around feminist responses to sex work? Why can we not think through the complex issues? Why can we not try to deal with the messy reality of the situation rather than resort to myth-making and scare mongering?
I think the fact that I posted the article on a blog where everyone from all sides of this debate has been able to comment and debate openly says more about my willingness to engage in discussion on this subject than does FF’s bizarre and somewhat hypocritical decision to post a bland statement on a site where all comments have been disabled.
Those who want to decide whether they support the IUSW can find out what this union is and stands for for themselves – by reading IUSW materials and website, talking to the GMB or listening to IUSW representatives when they speak at events. We in Feminist Fightback continue to discuss and debate with each other what we think about the multifaceted issue of sex work, We do not claim to agree with every individual member of the IUSW, any more than we agree with all the policies of the other trade unions whose members we work with. We do, however, believe that anyone who is serious about fighting violence and exploitation in the sex industry needs to side with the workers organising within it, rather than seeking to criminalise or deny such workers a voice.
I fully support the decriminalisation of those working in the sex industry, and I support their right to a voice in this debate. I simply question whether the IUSW can be that voice, or that the interests of sex workers can be fairly represented by an organisation that purports to be a trade union, but that accepts into membership both customers and employers.