I’ve spent the last few days at the TUC Women’s Conference in sunny Scarborough as part of the UNISON delegation.

And today was the big day. The day we debated prostitution.

On the agenda were two motions on this issue, motion 39 from the Communication Workers Union (CWU) calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution, and motion 40 from the University and College Union (UCU) calling for the criminalisation of men who purchase sex:

39        Decriminalisation of Prostitution

Conference calls on the Government to decriminalise prostitution.  While the activities of women who work as prostitutes are subject to criminal prosecution then they are less able to access support and help from agencies when they need this.  The criminalisation of those who work in the sex industry also creates a division between working class women who are all combating poverty and sexism.  We believe women who work as prostitutes are entitled to the support of women trade unionists not our collusion in their repression.  We support the unionisation of the sex industry.

Conference also strongly agrees that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and associated agencies must rigorously enforce laws against rape and other violence – including sexual assault, GBH, false imprisonment, extortion, racist sexual assault -regardless of the victim’s status as a sex worker.

Women who have been trafficked must have confidence in the system to report violence without risk of deportation.  The Government should consider the reallocation of money currently spent on prosecuting prostitute women, towards resources and services independent of the criminal justice system to ensure that sex workers’ rights are respected and to enable those who want to leave prostitution to do so.

Conference calls on the incoming TUC Women’s Committee to make this issue one of their main priorities and to also prepare and issue a report on any progress made to the next Women’s Conference in 2010.

Communication Workers’ Union

40     The Commodification of Sex

In the last two decades legalisation has been promoted as the solution to the problems that accompany prostitution in many countries.  Governments in South East Asia are encouraged, in an important International Labor Organisation report, to officially recognise the “sex sector” and the contribution it makes to gross national income (1998).  In Britain the debate continues over ‘decriminalisation’, with some women claiming that legally regulated brothels are the only way to protect trafficked women and street prostitutes.  The experience of legalization in other countries has solved none of these problems and has led to many more, including an expansion of an industry in which men who would once have been classified as procurers and pimps are now seen as a newly respectable class of sex ‘businessmen’.

Conference demands that campaigning begins to:

i) expose the social causes of prostitution including women’s poverty;

ii) review the residency status of trafficked women;

iii) criminalise men’s purchase of sex rather than its sale; and

iv) ensure that the commodification of sex and the objectification of women’s bodies is shown to be a contributory factor in violence against women.

University and College Union

I’m pleased to say that UNISON, the UK’s biggest women’s trade union, opposed motion 39 and supported motion 40. I was delegated to speak against motion 39 on UNISON’s behalf.

Here’s the speech I wrote for it, and that I delivered earlier on today:

“Conference, women working in prostitution are among the most abused and vulnerable women in society. In the Government’s 2004 consultation into prostitution, ‘Paying the Price’ for example, they discovered that:

70% of those working in street prostitution began as children or teenagers
85% reported physical abuse in their family
45% reported sexual abuse in their family
and 70% spent time in Local Authority care while children

As the law stands at the moment in the UK, and even with the changes contained in the new Policing and crime bill, women working in prostitution are criminalised for selling sex. But when you take into account the vulnerability and abuse that has forced so many into the sex industry in the first place, it’s clear that criminalising these women serves no effective purpose other than to isolate and stigmatise them even further.

However, while UNISON agrees with the authors of this motion that prosecuting prostitutes is at best unhelpful, and at worst, an extension of the abuse they’ve already suffered, we do not agree that complete, across the board decriminalisation of the sex industry is the answer.

UNISON instead believes that rather than criminalising prostitutes, we should be targeting the pimps and the clients; the men making obscene profits out of the misery and exploitation of the vulnerable; and those who, even now in the 21st century, continue to see women as commodities to be bought and abused purely for their own sexual gratification.

And while we also agree that laws against rape and other forms of violence must be rigorously enforced for all women, regardless of their status as sex workers, we do not agree that such basic human rights should be dependent on the legitimisation of an industry that perpetuates abuses against women, and that promotes and feeds into patriarchal and sexist notions of all women as sex objects, existing solely to service men’s sexual needs.

Conference, all women should have the right to live lives free from violence; we should all have the right to bring the full force of the law down on those who rape and abuse us; we should also have the right to housing, health, sexual health, free contraception, benefits, training, careers advice, all of this regardless of who we are or what we do to earn money. But women should be able to enjoy those rights without society having to legalise a criminal industry that is predicated on the buying and selling of women’s bodies.

Instead of attempting to legitimise this vile industry, we should be looking at ways to eradicate it. Instead of calling for the unionisation of sex workers, a strategy that has been tried and found wanting already, with the IUSW and similar organisations populated as they are with agency owners, pimps and punters, appropriating the voices of those who most need to be heard, and protecting their own interests rather than the interests of those they employ, we should instead recognise that as trade unionists our role is to stand against those who oppress and exploit others, not to defend them and advocate on their behalf.

Conference, decriminalisation is a backwards step for women’s rights and for women’s progress towards equality. For as long as we legitimise prostitution, lap dancing, massage parlours and so on, there will always be a trade in trafficking, there will always be sex slavery, and there will always be women working the streets and putting their lives at risk.

Therefore I urge you, please oppose this motion, and vote instead for motion 40, the commodification of sex.”

As you can imagine it was a nail-biting, tense debate, with some impassioned speeches from both sides, but I’m delighted to be able to report that in the end conference voted in favour of motion 40 and against motion 39.