Smoke and mirrors at TUC Congress fringe meeting on decriminalising “sex work”

Prostitution is the glue that keeps women in their place in the capitalist system; the place of the lesser ‘worker’ upon whose unpaid or lower paid labour the system wholly relies. The ‘slave of the slave’ as James Connolly put it. Agitating for rights within prostitution is agitating for rights within slavery.” – Lynda Murphy

We posted recently about the motion to “decriminalise sex work” brought by ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, to the 2017 TUC Congress. We explained that at first sight the motion might appear to be in the interests of the women involved in prostitution, but that simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact the approach the motion recommends would implicitly decriminalise pimps, punters and brothel keepers, and contradict binding human rights obligations.

Activists were in Brighton from the start of the conference handing out our flyers and talking to delegates, asking them to respect the democratic mandate of the TUC Women’s Committee to support the Nordic Model.

When the motion came up for debate in the main conference hall, the speakers against it were powerful and persuasive, and it was in fact overwhelmingly defeated. We are grateful to all the delegates who saw through the smoke and mirrors and voted against the motion.

Earlier in the week, ASLEF held a fringe meeting on the motion. Activists from Nordic Model Now! went along. Below we deconstruct some of the arguments they made, showing that they do not stand up to scrutiny and are in fact misleading and sometimes downright dishonest.

What they didn’t tell us about Catherine Stephens

The fringe meeting was chaired by Deborah Reay, a driver on the London Underground, and the panel members were Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), and Catherine  (Cat) Stephens, who was described as a “sex worker and GMB activist.” GMB, which joined ASLEF in supporting the motion, describes itself as a “general union – which means that anyone can join us.”

No mention was made of the fact that at a previous event Catherine admitted “she ran an escort agency and worked as a dominatrix.” In other words by her own admission, she is or has been a pimp.

Rachel Moran explained in her ground-breaking book, Paid For, that as a dominatrix you have significantly more control than most women in a prostitution encounter.

Therefore to present Catherine as a “sex worker” as if she were representative of the vast majority of women in prostitution is misleading at best.

When is a pimp not a pimp?

Catherine insisted that the motion was not calling for pimps to be decriminalised or for the removal of laws against pimps, and she defined pimps as people who use violence against “sex workers.”

However, violence is not key to the definition of a pimp. The key part of the definition is living off the earnings of prostitutes. And pimps are decriminalised under the New Zealand model, which she, along with ASLEF and the GMB, are promoting.

Am I the only one who thinks that this misrepresentation of the facts could have something to do with her apparent conflict of interests? And that not declaring that conflict of interests was improper?

Why would ASLEF and the GMB, trade unions who are mandated to represent workers – not profiteers or managers – obscure and cover up this important reality?

Why was the Nordic Model not on the list of alternatives?

Later in the meeting, Catherine listed the possible legislative approaches to prostitution as: “legalisation, decriminalisation, and criminalisation.”

She made no mention of the Nordic Model, which decriminalises individuals involved in prostitution and provides them with genuine routes out, while criminalising the purchase of sex and cracking down on pimps and traffickers.

This means that anyone who was not already well-informed would have got the impression that the alternative to what ASLEF was proposing was for those involved in prostitution to be criminalised. But no other union is calling for that and the TUC Women’s Conference backs the Nordic Model. So why didn’t they mention the Nordic Model and explain why they think that full decriminalisation is better?

Why did they present the choices as between full decriminalisation and criminalisation?

Arguing against something your opponent is not in fact arguing for is known as a straw man argument, and is usually the sign of a poor argument or ulterior motive.

Catherine also failed to mention that in reality no country has introduced a totally decriminalised system – where all laws regarding the sale and purchase of sex are removed, as Deborah Reay claimed they were fighting for. Even in New Zealand, larger brothels must be licensed and local authorities have powers over where they are sited. In practice legalisation and decriminalisation are more similar than different.

Do you “sell your arms” at work? Really?

Laura Watson, from the ECP, said that “sex workers” are workers and are part of the trade union movement. She then performed some mental and verbal gymnastics, claiming that many workers “sell their arms” in their jobs and this isn’t really any different from what “sex workers” do. She said it’s a “value judgement” to suggest there’s a difference between using your arms or “different parts” of the body, presumably meaning the vagina, rectum and mouth, which are used in prostitution.

Let’s think about this.

Does a worker in a factory really sell their arms? Are they not paid for what they can do and create with those arms? Are they not paid for the labour of their whole body and mind?

Compare this with the reality of prostitution, where the punter pays to use her body. Andrea Dworkin, who was herself in prostitution, describes it like this:

“I want to bring us back to basics. Prostitution: what is it? It is the use of a woman’s body for sex by a man, he pays money, he does what he wants. The minute you move away from what it really is, you move away from prostitution into the world of ideas. You will feel better; you will have a better time; it is more fun; there is plenty to discuss, but you will be discussing ideas, not prostitution. Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another. That’s what it is.”

The essence of prostitution is not labour. The essence of prostitution is a man renting the use of an individual’s body for his own satisfaction. To reduce this fundamental distinction to the pejorative “value judgement” is unbecoming.

Major human rights declarations and UN resolutions include the concept of decent work:

“Productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for productive work, delivers a fair income, guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all, provides security in the workplace and protection for workers and their families, offers better prospects for personal development and social inclusion, and gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

Now tell me, how could having your mouth, vagina, and/or rectum penetrated by man after man EVER be compatible with this definition of decent work. Is it productive? Where is the human dignity? Where is the personal development? Where are the equal opportunities and equal treatment, when it is overwhelmingly men who are the punters and women and girls who are the prostituted?

Surely then, the response to prostitution should be an approach that seeks to discourage men from prostitution-buying, and to provide real alternatives for the women and girls involved, so that the institution of prostitution withers and dies? This is exactly what the Nordic Model aims to achieve.

So why did they not discuss the Nordic Model in the meeting?

As unions, should ASLEF and the GMB not be fighting for the adoption and implementation of decent work for all, rather than promoting an approach that has been demonstrated to increase the amount of prostitution that takes place and the amount of pimping and trafficking of women and girls in order to satisfy that increased demand?

“We want to get out whenever we want”

Laura said that prostitution is a job that people choose for a variety of reasons – including that it pays “double the minimum wage” and provides flexible hours for those with childcare responsibilities. She said that if you are concerned about reducing prostitution, you need to address austerity and poverty.

We agree wholeheartedly that low wages, austerity and poverty need to be addressed and also that flexible hours should be available to everyone with caring responsibilities. However, this is not what the motion called for. It called for an approach that would inevitably lead to an explosion in the sex industry, with large commercial brothels being set up in every town, and an increase in sex trafficking, just like in Germany.

Laura went on to say, “We want to get out whenever we want.”

Again we wholeheartedly agree that women should be able to get out of prostitution and in surveys of women in prostitution, help with exiting is usually the most common response when asked what they need. Because the reality is that typically women struggle to get out.

But when prostitution is fully decriminalised as in New Zealand, it is implicitly defined as unproblematic and there is therefore no political will to provide public money for exit services.

High quality, holistic, compassionate, non-judgemental exit services are an intrinsic part of the Nordic Model. And so is decriminalising those who are involved in prostitution. We are also campaigning for the wiping of criminal records for soliciting to sell sex.

Is it any wonder then that so many women’s organisations support the Nordic Model?

“We want workers’ rights”

Laura also said, “We’re not saying it’s a job like any other but that we want workers’ rights.”

So she appears to recognise that prostitution is intrinsically different from other jobs. But she doesn’t follow the implications of this through. To have “workers’ rights” would require prostitution to be recognised as regular employment.

Let’s just remind ourselves of Andrea Dworkin’s definition.

“Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another.”

It is clear from what punters say on forums such as UK Punting, that they also like to ejaculate on women’s faces and often prefer to not use condoms.

Enshrining all of this reality in an employment contract would have profound implications for all workers. If men can ejaculate on a woman’s face or chest, what would that mean for workplace rules about protection from bodily fluids? And if we allowed prostitution to be exempt from the rules about hats, masks, gloves and full protective clothing, what would be the impact on workers in other jobs? Would it not set a dangerous precedent?

If women are required to give blow jobs and endure sexual penetration as part of a job in prostitution, what would stop other employers writing that into a secretary’s job description?

For a discussion of these and some of the other consequences of legitimising prostitution as work, see Why Sex Work Isn’t Work.

“It’s a crap job” – ECP spokesperson

Laura also said, “It’s a crap job.”

We agree. We don’t want anyone to have to be in prostitution for any reason. We don’t want girls and young women being groomed and lured into it by people who stand to make huge profits from their prostitution. We don’t want anyone to be trapped in prostitution.

And we don’t believe that men should think that prostitution-buying is acceptable. We want to change the social norms around prostitution.

That is why we are calling for the Nordic Model – and for a fairer and more equal society.


What is the IUSW?

The organisers of the fringe meeting handed out a flyer that contained information credited to the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). The following articles provide some background to this organisation.


Our flyer about the motion

As mentioned earlier, we handed out a flyer calling on delegates to vote against the motion and to listen to the TUC Women’s committee, together with our flyer about the Nordic Model.

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