Solidarity with all survivors: domestic violence and sex work
Saturday, May 28, 2016
At Sisters Uncut, we have been working to develop our organisational position on sex work. After a lot of thinking and discussion, we have concluded that it is a vital issue of safety and justice to support sex workers in their call for the full decriminalisation of sex work. This blog seeks to highlight why this topic is of relevance to us, as an organisation that is focused on domestic violence, and to explain our thinking.
If you’re wondering why we are not supporting the Nordic model or ‘sex buyer law’, the short answer is that we don’t believe that pushing already precarious women (and people of other genders) further into poverty makes them safer. You can read in more detail about our stance here.
Sex work policy is a fraught issue within the women’s movement. However, this conversation is relevant to Sisters Uncut because criminalisation and stigma create additional barriers to help for sex working women (or people of any gender) who are experiencing domestic violence. As it stands, the police may dismiss reports of domestic violence from sex workers, or even threaten to arrest those making reports of violence for soliciting or loitering. Indoor sex workers are also routinely targeted for arrest and prosecution on the basis that two sex workers sharing a flat for safety are ‘brothel-keeping’, and they can both be charged as such. This criminalisation means sex workers are fearful of drawing police attention to themselves for any reason, and are therefore less able to contact the police if they are also experiencing domestic violence.
Furthermore, many sex workers fear that leaving their abusive partner will mean losing contact with their children, as child custody battles are a documented way for abusers to continue to exert power over former partners. Sex workers going into the family courts system have little faith that their line of work will not be used against them the perpetrator, and held against them by the courts.
Finally, sex workers in the UK often have limited access to housing, as laws around “living on the avails” can criminalise any landlord who knowingly takes rental income from a sex worker. Although prosecutions are rare, many letting agents and landlords refuse to rent to sex workers, pushing sex workers into potentially exploitative relationships with less regulated landlords. Even access to social housing can be blocked – for instance, the 2014 Housing (Scotland) Act contains clauses which de-prioritise anyone with a prostitution-related conviction, including for soliciting, as well as a broader ‘immorality clause’ that again de-prioritises sex workers.
All of the above issues are clear examples of ways in which sex working domestic violence survivors have their rights to safety and justice blocked, and as such campaigning for change here falls well within our organisational remit as a group concerned with safety and justice for people experiencing domestic violence. The problems that we have outlined are compounded for many people who sell sex: for instance, if in addition to selling sex they are undocumented, drug-using, women of colour, disabled, or LGBTQ they may have even greater fear that they will be disbelieved, or criminalised, should they seek help.
Sex worker-led organisations in the UK have an analysis that takes seriously questions of criminalisation, safety, and poverty. Sisters Uncut support the sex worker movement in their self-organisation, and in their demands, which include full decriminalisation, as well as labour rights, migrants’ rights, drug policy based on evidence and in harm reduction, and an end to benefit cuts, poverty and austerity. In particular, we back the sex worker movement in their calls for:
- The repeal of soliciting and loitering laws which directly criminalise street-based sex workers, and the end of ASBOs and ‘prostitute cautions’;
- The repeal of laws against kerb-crawling, which endanger street-based sex workers – where a client is jumpy and stressed, the worker has less time to assess him, discuss services, or note down his car number-plate before getting into his car;
- The repeal of brothel-keeping laws so that sex workers can work together indoors in small groups for safety without fearing arrest, and so where sex workers work for a manager, that manager is subject to labour laws that have been set by sex workers;
- The repeal of laws that criminalise sex workers’ partners, housemates, and even the maids or drivers that they might employ for their safety. While relatively rarely used, these laws mean sex workers are fearful of taking the security measures they might wish to use, and of drawing police attention to themselves;
- The ability for sex workers to meaningfully unionise and organise in their workplaces in order to improve their working conditions; a right that is currently out of reach in any real sense as it is not possible to organise for better conditions in a criminalised workplace;
- An end to benefit cuts and sanctions, an end to austerity, and serious and sustained anti-poverty measures to ensure that no one is pushed into sex work through financial need; and
- A paradigm shift in anti-trafficking. Currently, the criminalisation of migration pushes migrants into exploitative relationships with third parties from whom they seek help to cross borders, and the state’s response is further policing and crackdowns, sometimes in the name of “rescue”. We support migrant sex workers – and all migrants – in their right to cross borders and to work, and we join the sex worker rights movement in calling for legal rights and labour rights – not criminalisation – as the key to tackling exploitation of migrant workers in all industries.