London’s annual radical feminist-led demonstration against sexual and domestic violence, Reclaim the Night, which took place in London on 28 November, is under fire for its sex worker-exclusive approach to feminism.
Reclaim the Night have a long history of making sex workers who continue to work in the industry and sex worker blocs very unwelcome. This year, the coalition which organised London RTN publicly condemned Amnesty International’s decision to support the full decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution.
They argue that prostitution is a form of violence against women and call for the implementation of the “Nordic Model” in the UK, referring to legislation first adopted in Sweden in 1999 (sexköpslagen) which criminalises the purchase of sex and, on paper, decriminalises the selling of sex.
In practice, however, the activity of sex workers remains criminalised under the Nordic model, and their working conditions become considerably more dangerous. Under sexköpslagen sex workers have noted increasingly hurried negotiations with clients, especially among those who work on the street, as clients are unwilling to negotiate for long periods when they are at risk of arrest.
The sex purchase law and drop in clients willing to buy sex publicly (not overall) has meant that competition has increased, prices have gone down and sex workers are often pressured to offer less safe sex and services. It remains illegal to provide premises for prostitution in Sweden meaning that landlords are obliged to evict sex workers or face prosecution themselves. Police are known to inform landlords that their tenants work in the industry, forcing evictions.
Sex workers working in groups or cohabiting for safety face penalties under anti-pimping laws, laws prohibiting brothel-keeping, and laws against sharing the income of prostitution. Sex workers have also reported losing custody over their children; harassment and abuse by the police; and migrant sex workers are detained and deported under the auspices of the prevention of trafficking.
Sex workers need to reclaim the night and the streets for themselves more than most. As Feminist Fightback writes, “Feminism needs sex workers and sex workers need feminism. There is an important role for sex workers organising within the feminist movement, and a particularly strong argument for their presence on the Reclaim the Night march as a group of women who face routine violence from the state and the police, as well as from other sources.”
It is tragic then, to say the least, that Reclaim the Night doesn't welcome sex workers onto their demonstrations. Reclaim the Night's anti-sex work approach is very much anti-feminist in its approach to consent and agency. It follows the perspective of radical feminism where sex workers are stripped of their agency, and painted as disempowered, always-vulnerable, passive victims of violence and histories of abuse. Their ability to consent to sex for money is rejected. All transactions in the sex industry are considered violence against women.
A cornerstone of feminism is that people have the absolute right to say “no” to sex. But, importantly, this is a right that comes hand-in-hand with that to say “yes”. If we’re telling sex workers that they cannot say yes, then what are the implications when they tell their friends, family, health care professionals or the police that they said no and that they were raped? A woman’s right to choose. A woman’s right to have control over her own body. These are principles at the heart of feminism.
Rather than calling for the implementation of the Swedish model here in the UK then, as socialists and feminists we must argue for the self-organisation of workers against their exploitation. Sex workers, just like the rest of the working class, are exploited by their bosses under capitalism for profit. Unlike most workers, however, sex workers very often don't have the protection of trade unions, health and safety law, employment law. When state authorities, like police and immigration authorities, penalise, imprison and deport sex workers, they are bolstering, rather than challenging their exploitation. They are dividing workers, both within the sex industry and between workers in different industries, and making it harder for us to organise in solidarity with one another.
We must understand that poverty is for considerable numbers of people (not all), the reason they enter the industry. As austerity hits, more and more mothers are resorting to sex work to feed their children. As tuition fees have gone up, students are in increasing numbers becoming sex workers. Migrant women who often have very little opportunity for other work and are faced with precarity, engage in sex work.
We must support sex workers by arguing for the decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work; a re-thinking of borders so that migrants have all of the rights that native citizens have; a dramatic increase in the powers of trade unions and the enshrinement of the rights of sex workers to organise. Also, policies aimed at promoting economic equality between classes and genders: a decent, guaranteed minimum income; an end to the part-time gender pay gap; free 24-hour child care; secure and affordable housing for all.
We must also recognise that consent is complicated, and there is no “normal” sexual relationship. Someone might have regular casual sex with strangers. A long-term couple might particularly enjoy having threesomes, and mutually negotiate who they might approach. People might have long-term polyamorous relationships with multiple people, who they might love or might not. A woman who calls themselves feminist may still like to be submissive in the bedroom because they’re assertive and politically “right on” every other moment of their lives. A sex worker might choose to be paid to have sex because, for them, sex isn’t a precious, fragile thing that needs to be guarded jealously, but an act which they are willing to do in return for money, for the opportunity to manage one’s own working life, or because they find the act of providing intimacy and pleasure rewarding.
Sex is one of the ways that we operate within a complicated world, where people embody manifold gender and sexual identities, and have volatile, complex relationships with the people around them. It is not our job to police people’s sexual lives, and we must oppose attempts by radical feminists, such as those organising Reclaim the Night, to do so. Rather, we must be struggling against capitalism, against our bosses, against political perspectives that divide us, and for the empowerment of all so that we can organise collectively against our exploitation.