This is the text of a talk that ‘Rebecca’ gave to a group of Unison women when Unison’s prostitution policy was up for discussion. Unison is one of the largest trade unions in the UK, with a majority female membership.
Thank you, Anna, and Sophie for your talk and of course Unison for having me here today to talk to you about a topic that is incredibly important to me as a survivor of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and prostitution. I’m going to begin by explaining my background and then why I believe a Nordic Model framework to be the way forward rather than the New Zealand model which I believe has been suggested as an alternative.
I was initially trafficked into prostitution as a young woman just out of my teens, experiencing homelessness and fleeing a domestically abusive relationship. I grew up in poverty and am from the Travelling community. Although I didn’t know this at the time, statistically women experiencing these areas of marginalisation are at much higher risk of being exploited within prostitution and other forms of the sex industry.
I was not trafficked with a gun to my head or by being smuggled across borders. I answered an advert in the back pages of my local paper, which to my naïve mind seemed innocent enough, for ‘paid dating.’ I honestly believed I wouldn’t be expected to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with. The fact that the advert was placed perfectly legally in the press seemed to me to indicate that it must be above board. In fact, my ‘interview’ consisted of being raped by the man who would become my trafficker, and then driven to my first ‘client.’ I was in a state of shock and severe trauma the whole time.
I was advertised as a ‘high-class escort’ and I believe a lot of money was made from my sexual exploitation. This continued for some months, until I felt the only way I could possibly escape the situation was to go back to my abusive previous partner, thus beginning a new cycle of violence and exploitation.
This was in 2002, and over the next decade I was in and out of prostitution and related areas such as porn and webcamming. I experienced rape, violence, stalking, coercion, financial exploitation and was again trafficked during my time in the porn industry. It’s worth mentioning here that the porn industry is completely decriminalised and yet it was no less dangerous or exploitative. I was trafficked and coerced within mainstream areas of the porn industry and sadly this was the norm among the women and people I ‘worked’ with. My story is in no way unique or rare.
Since exiting, I have worked and volunteered with women in other areas of prostitution including street-based prostitution in my local area, where coercion, poverty and homelessness are the overwhelming factors. I am involved in the sex trade survivor community and have good links with grassroots groups who also work to make the public more aware of these issues.
One group I would like to draw your attention to is Wahine Toa Rising, which is a group of indigenous Maori women in New Zealand who are prostitution survivors and who campaign against the New Zealand decriminalisation model due to their experiences being exploited under it.
Indeed, the 2008 Parliamentary Review of the New Zealand law, which is often held up by supporters as being evidence of best practice, admits that the most marginalised voices are not heard within the report. The evidence in the report was collected both from brothel owners themselves and people in prostitution who were in contact with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) who were instrumental in designing the law. And yet the report admits that as many as 40% of the women interviewed experienced being made to service a sex buyer that they expressed not wanting to. That is rape.
So, the best evidence for the New Zealand model openly admits to an incredibly high degree of violence and sexual assault, comparable to rates in both legalised and fully criminalised countries.
I therefore, as a survivor, am extremely concerned that this model is being pushed as ‘harm reduction,’ as progressive, indeed, as socialist. I would suggest instead that the commodification of sexual consent is the height of the neo-liberal capitalist model, and I stand with the Maori women of Wahine Toa Rising in their call to recognise prostitution as the exploitation of often society’s most marginalised.
To come back to the UK, I believe that for us to enshrine prostitution in law as ‘sex work’ when it is in fact sexual exploitation is to throw marginalised women and people exploited within the system of prostitution, entirely under the bus.
The term ‘sex work’ is used in the UK to refer to many roles within the sex industry and indeed, many activists identify as ‘sex workers’ when they are involved in areas of the industry that are already fully decriminalised, such as erotic dancing, porn, webcamming, etc.
Of course I respect everyone’s right to identify as they please, but it is important that we clarify exactly what we would be decriminalising if we were to turn to the New Zealand model.
Selling sex is already decriminalised in the UK, including within a brothel. The only law around selling sex, which would also be abolished as the very first tier of a ‘Nordic Model’ inspired framework, is that of selling sex in a public place as in street-based prostitution. Other than that, what would be decriminalised is the running of brothels and the facilitation of prostitution, which would be known in my community as pimping.
I would like to ask Unison how a trade union can possibly stand for the legitimisation of exploitative and violent ‘bosses’ because that is what we are in fact talking about here.
The Nordic model is the only framework, as Sophie outlined so well, that recognises the inherent exploitation in prostitution, and I think there can be few things more exploitative than making profits from selling someone else’s sexual services, or, in fact, sexual consent.
I think if we are to be honest about what is happening in prostitution it is indeed sexual consent that is being sold. We cannot talk about #metoo, and teach our youth about mutual sexual consent, while at the same time saying that very same mutual consent doesn’t matter once money is put in its place. How can we teach our young men to respect and ensure the sexual consent of their partners, and at the same time tell them none of that is important if they have money instead?
I have never heard an argument that can effectively counter this truth, and to illustrate what I mean I’m going to use a personal anecdote, which you may find uncomfortable.
I was once asked by a sex buyer for anal sex, which I refused as a service I didn’t offer. He then told me, and I have never forgotten these words, precisely because in my experience they are so typical of the average sex buyer, ‘I’m paying you not to say no.’ He then raped me, and complained to the escort agency that I hadn’t ‘done my job properly’. I was then fined and assaulted by my ‘manager’ as well.
This is the daily reality of prostitution, and to attempt to normalise this as ‘work’ is no labour movement, this a movement that legitimises the sexual entitlement of the most privileged to the most vulnerable.
I see on the website of Unison women that you stand against sexual harassment and exploitation in the workplace, which is of course fantastic. I would like to ask then how, under the New Zealand model, you propose to prevent that happening in a decriminalised brothel?
Some of these brothels openly offer ‘all-inclusives’ as again evidenced in the 2008 report which is available online. This means that the sex buyer pays a flat-fee, after which he is then entitled to have sex with as many people, usually women, as he wants, and to do whatever he wants. So how do we possibly protect these women from sexual assault and harassment in the workplace?
There is simply no way to make prostitution compatible with employment standards. Simply ensuring condom use does not protect against violence, coercion, rape, trauma or the after-effects of these. Under this model, would I be entitled to compensation for the PTSD and gynaecological problems I still suffer with a decade later? Given the statistical prevalence of these things among prostitution survivors, I suspect not.
Before I finish, I want to make a few clarifications about my support for the Nordic Model. I would also like to make the point that an argument I often hear from supporters of New Zealand, that sex trafficking and sex work are entirely separate phenomena is completely false. My experiences, and that of the majority of survivors, show that coercion and choice happen on a continuum. They occur side-by-side and to the same person at different periods. Prostitution simply could not continue without coercion, sexual violence and exploitation.
The Nordic Model then is the only proposed framework which recognises these realities, and so this is why, as a survivor, a feminist, a socialist and a working-class Traveller woman, I support it.
Sadly, I am aware that many straw man arguments are made against it, and I would like to address a few of these. Just as there is in fact no actual evidence that decriminalising brothel owning and pimping makes people in prostitution somehow safer, there is no causal evidence that the Nordic Model increases violence.
In fact, in many countries there have been decreases, although we should be wary of making any blanket statements about causation. The only way to ensure the safety of people in prostitution is to get them out, which only the Nordic Model aims to provide.
There is also the argument that the Nordic Model ignores marginalised voices. This is completely false. There are many, many grassroot groups of people in prostitution, current and former, who support the framework, yet their/our voices are of course not welcome in ‘sex work’ circles, which are largely in the UK made up of those with a great deal more privilege.
Some examples of groups you may like to research include #Intedinhora in Sweden, SPACE International which is made up predominantly of working-class women and women of colour, NIWRC which is made up of Native American women, and Af3irm in America which is led by indigenous queer and trans prostitution survivors.
In the UK we have working class survivors such as Fiona Broadfoot and Sam Walshe who have campaigned hard for solicitation prosecutions of prostituted women to be struck from criminal records.
Yet our voices are so often erased and ignored, and I would like to ask why? Who does this serve?
The final criticism of the Nordic model I would like to address is that it is a ‘carceral’ solution. This is of course a concern to many socialists who are also police and prison abolitionists or reformists. However, I believe this to be largely another straw man. The Nordic Model is not static, it is a framework that can and has been applied differently in different countries, some in my opinion more effectively than in others.
In most places sex buyers are prosecuted with fines or community service, not incarceration. Af3irm, who I mentioned before are led by trans and queer women, propose that we look at transformative and restorative justice models.
I believe then that the Nordic Model can be both flexible and holistic and can offer a platform for new ways of thinking about solutions.
We need to start having these conversations, but we cannot even begin to have them when we are backed into a corner and forced to address straw man positions that we do not in fact hold. Quite frankly, to be a prostitution survivor talking about these things and attempting to be heard above the din of ‘sex work is work’ is exhausting.
The Nordic model is not an easy solution. To provide holistic exit solutions we need to tackle housing, unemployment, addiction, childcare, misogyny and rape culture. I’m aware how difficult this is under our current government.
Is this a reason to give up? I suspect that the proud history of trade unions and socialists is not one of taking the easy solution.
I am therefore asking the women of Unison to not give up on us. We need your support.