Four-day Sex Worker Festival of Resistance held to claim sex worker rights
The Sex Worker Open University, in partnership with SCOT PEP, Umbrella Lane and ARIKA, organised the event
The sex workers’ movement is coming to grips with the full extent of the challenges it faces. The subject of sex work itself is a topic of both controversy and debate, encapsulating fundamental social narratives around gender, race and sexuality. In a climate where the struggles of sex workers do not receive adequate attention in the various social movements that intersect with sex work (e.g. the LGBT and feminist movements), sex work functions as a broken mirror, reflecting the deeper social structures and inequalities on which society turns its back.
The development of an intersectional perspective on the rights of sex workers is crucial. There is a need to raise awareness of what sex workers have to say regarding their ongoing fight for decriminalization and recognition of their rights.
Sex workers and allies were invited to a festival held from 20 to 22 April, where they could attend for free or donate what they could afford. The Sex Workers Festival of Resistance was organised by Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), previously known as Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), in partnership with SCOT PEP, Umbrella Lane and ARIKA, and was designed to allow attendees to discuss, show support, dance and share strategies for protecting and supporting the rights of sex workers. A number of workshops for sex workers, public events, a film festival, and a party night were included in the program. In addition, there were also exclusive events where sex workers could strategize amongst themselves in a safe environment.
The public seminar took place on 20 April at the University of Strathclyde and, according to their website, featured three panels offering a chance to discuss how to face an increasingly punitive system and effective ways of building stronger alliances.
These issues were discussed by a number of panelists including Catriona O’Brien, sex worker and activist with Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI); Hannah Pearson, abortion and LGBTQI rights activist and member of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, Chamindra Weerawardhana, Research Fellow at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics (HAPP) at Queen’s University Belfast; and Sabrina Sánchez, secretary of Aprosex (Barcelona) and trans and sex worker rights activist.
The program concluded with an open community discussion regarding the LGBTQI People & Sex Worker’s Rights which was hosted by LGBT Health and Wellbeing at Terrence Higgins Trust, Breckenridge House, at Sauchiehall Street.
The seminar started grappling with matters such as whiteness – an ongoing issue within the sex workers’ community, considering that white sex workers often work in a higher paid, safer and more comfortable environment. As Jo Doezema elaborates in her book, whiteness constantly represents the hegemonic ideal of physical and sexual desirability and attractiveness, making white sexual labor most valued within the global sex industry.
The discussion also covered accessibility in health services. Catriona O’Brien said that, In a Dublin clinic, for example, some gynecologists are profoundly against sex workers. But Ireland’s health system overall is generally more supportive of transgender sex workers, said Hannah Pearson. According to Chamindra Weerawardhana, services for sex workers should be led by sex workers themselves and drew attention to the inadequate nature of sex work public health provision in the UK. Rosie, a feminist activist and domestic and sexual violence advocate, said that often health care can be quite expensive and another issue is that gynecologists can become suspicious, asking: “Why are you coming here all the time?”
The UK Network of Sex Work Projects elaborates: “The social and legal status of sex work can create situations in which sex workers have little control over the conditions in which they work, and presents barriers to the use of health and social welfare services.” In addition, the report presents, some of the main barriers that sex workers face when trying to access services are criminalisation, “whore stigma”, prejudice, and lack of knowledge about free and confidential services. In some cases, sex workers are controlled, coerced, trafficked or experience domestic abuse which means they may be prevented from accessing services.
Thierry Schaffauser, a sex worker activist from France, said that as the situation worsens and stricter legislation is imposed, sex workers often rely on third parties, or decide to take the risk to accept clients they normally wouldn’t, thereby potentially exposing themselves to violence. He also said that paradoxically, sex workers are told that violence is part of their job, hence legal provisions state that violence has to happen at least three times before the police can do anything. Some panelists suggested that going to the press and anonymously reporting it or attempting to discuss it with a local MP might be the only solution.
Paulina Nicol, of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), said that migrant sex workers are the most stigmatised and the most oppressed by prejudice. Their precarity and vulnerability can even lead to them receiving deportation letters. Transgender sex workers and sex workers with children are often seriously impacted as well – their children become front-line victims. In addition, there is the ongoing issue of having a criminal record of prostitution. Laura Watson, of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) referred to an example of a part-time sex worker who was forced to go full-time after not being able to leave prostitution and find another job.
SCOT-PEP highlights that: “It is marginalised groups who are affected most by structural oppression, benefit cuts, anti-immigration bills and other forms of administrative violence… the purchase of sex is defined as violence against women and the Scottish Government has sanctioned the view that sex workers dissenting voices do not have the right to be heard. However, the sex workers’ movement does not accept this view, since they believe that sex work can be a choice, a positive one.”
Gracie Mae Bradley, Project Manager at the Migrants’ Rights Network, referred to the issue of anti-trafficking rhetoric and how it works to legitimate actions against migrants. Anti-trafficking law is used by police to target migrants, and the number of migrants being arrested and receiving deportation letters is steadily increasing.
Label reinforcement in turn reinforces exploitation, instead of fighting the issue of trafficking. Taking this into account, the role of the press is crucial, on the grounds that the creation and circulation of stereotypes in the media can function to maintain the discrimination and stigmatisation towards a particular group, gender or race of people. In my personal judgment, it doesn’t seem quite shocking that the anti-trafficking narrative is the most common and serious argument used against sex workers as they fight for their rights. Sex work is not the same with trafficking, thus decriminalisation for sex work does not equal decriminalising trafficking on the contrary, this legal change would give voice to those who have been exploited.
According to the Screaming Violets website, a socialist feminist magazine: “Most anti-sex work activism is animated by two main panics. One is the fear that sex work (when women do it) is essentially and inherently sexist and violent and so reinforces patriarchal ideas that harm All Women Everywhere. The second is the trope of the poor oppressed voiceless disempowered victim who needs to be rescued. Both these panics conveniently neglect to grapple with the material realities that sex workers face.”
Screaming Violets also states that violence against sex workers does not only come from clients, but from state agencies like the police, border agents and detention center officials. Hence, choosing to judge sex work done by women through the perspective of such violence can be viewed as an act of privilege in a number of intersected ways. It’s also an ignorant action that doesn’t take into consideration the way those same intersecting powers influence deeply the arenas of gender, gentrification, racial prejudice, border control, class discrimination and economic injustices.
However, it is important to not forget to keep in mind the other side of the matter as well, as it is elaborated by Professor Julie O’ Connell Davidson, in her book Prostitution, Power and Freedom.
“Entry into prostitution is conditioned by and predicated upon a particular set of social relations rather than being a specific expression of their individual selves,” she wrote. “They become prostitutes because the economic, political and social circumstances in which they live make it either the best or the only means of subsisting, or they are people who are forced into prostitution by a thirds party.
Therefore, our target should be to fight the stigma and criminalization of sex work, on the ground it can only create insecurity, danger and exploitation. Policies that increase violence against marginalised women will not end patriarchy. Despite the debate and controversies regarding these issues, the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement event left no doubt that the sex workers movement’s appeal for decriminalisation is crucial exactly because, by empowering a strong, organised resistance movement, you prepare the ground to tackle other types of injustice.
Several hours after the event had ended, I enjoyed a thoroughly engaging conversation with Sabrina Sánchez over a few pints in a nearby pub. We hit it off, and subsequently arranged to conduct the following Skype interview upon her return to her native Barcelona:
Interview with Sabrina Sánchez:
Photo Credits: Bryony McIntyre