Becoming a Sex Work Abolitionist

If you go back 18 months, I was an abolitionist. I was angry at myself, my situation, upset at the circumstances of myself and friends, disillusioned by the dire consequences of sex work and overall, I had had enough. I decided that prostitution is not a good option for anyone, and it really fucks with your mind, body and soul. I had few sex worker friends at the time because I would try to not be seen when working street by both women and support services. Also at this time, I had no idea about decriminalisation and in fact, I didn’t even know the legal status of sex work in the UK. I didn’t care because I just needed to get by. I also knew nothing about feminism and was an angry soul.

It was a long time before I got to know about decriminalisation, and especially feminism. I began very reluctantly talking about sex work on Twitter and started talking to sex workers who were earning well and happy in their jobs. This made me even angrier because I couldn’t fathom why someone would become a sex worker, and be happy about it, because I was pushed by socioeconomic circumstances. Even now, I sometimes struggle to understand sex workers who become sex workers without financial duress because it is something I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. That is not to say they don’t deserve the same laws, rights and safety and nor is their work any less, but it boggled me for ages. It’s my own attitudes and experiences that are the problem however. I no longer think this, but just more angry at the whorearchy, not so much the sex workers.

I wasn’t a Nordic Model supporter, I was an outright abolitionist. I wanted prostitution to end entirely and never be allowed. However, I also knew criminalising something doesn’t stop things from happening because after all, my brother was a drug dealer…

The feminist abolitionist

If you want to know what a Nordic Model supporter really wants, it’s not the NM, they want to get rid of sex work entirely. They know by cutting demand, it should (hopefully) starve the supply. Although, sex workers are not a market commodity, it is people’s lives you’re playing with and not the stock market. You’re ignoring the supply is caused by poverty, austerity, a poor job market, drug addiction, and whatever else. It is not driven by demand for sex. The difference between an abolitionist and a Nordic Model supporter is what comes out of their mouth. They say similar things and unite together – the radical feminists are quick to jump into bed with right-wing christians who are anti-porn because it suits their mutual wants, even if their ideologies elsewhere are in conflict.

The reason why a feminist would not declare themselves an abolitionist is because that means criminalising the woman. A feminist could not be seen to be doing such. This isn’t because they’re not carceral feminists – quite the opposite – but they don’t want someone they see as a victim being arrested. History has shown time and time again that arresting, slapping sex workers with fines or throwing away the key doesn’t work. All this does is perpetuate the cycle of poverty, criminality and barriers to leaving sex work, making them further dependent on sex work. However, we should also know that throughout history, sex work has survived every economic crisis, war, humanitarian crisis, pandemic and whatever disaster. It has done so because you can not and will not stop it, providing the conditions are there and two consenting adults are happy to facilitate it. I imagine disasters actually result in a rise in sex work due to the poverty and scarcity of resources.

Ironically, the Nordic Model is not feminist. If it was feminist, you would listen to the sex workers who know what is best for them, know the first hand impact of it and champion their voices. It removes the financial freedom of another woman and forces her to rely on the forced hand of charity, or the forced hand of an abuser. You leave the sex worker with fewer choices, and push them further into poverty and therefore, even less able to leave sex work. NM supporters haven’t thought of anything new either. They talk about exit programmes which include counselling, drug services, accommodation and good jobs but these things already exist. If it was that easy, sex workers would be exiting and re-entering their jobs week in, week out. It has taken me years just to get to this point. Also, these services exclude and discriminate against sex workers – especially counselling services. What are you solving here?

Like I said in a previous post, unless you are going to personally hire a homeless heroin addict in your rescue charity then don’t cut off their income.

Sex workers create Nordic Model supporters

This sub-heading sounds shocking but it is something I have heard time and time again from sex workers who have left the industry, largely due to awful experiences and then had sex workers shout at them. I have had it happen to me before; people told me to be quiet about the bad stuff about sex work in fear of retaliation of the radical feminists. I’ve been told to cheer up, just quit if I’m unhappy or whatever else. When I write a blog post, my DMs are silently filled with sex workers telling me they read it, relate to it, scared to talk about it and would never do so publicly in fear of backlash. My response is usually that I understand, but never apologise or defend your experiences, and particularly how you felt or thought. Nobody can take those away from you, and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise about them otherwise – they are yours.

When I first started talking about sex work online, it was in January. I was street working, had recently been assaulted and was really down on my luck. I was angry, pissed off, and when I tried to speak about it, people didn’t want to listen and even blocked me. Although I think sex workers are becoming (slowly) more tolerant about discussing bad clients, I do not feel we have quite broken past the stigma of accepting the violence in sex work, the mental health impact, times when we have been raped, robbed or whatever else. I tell myself this is not from a place of malice because I am sure few sex workers would intentionally be like piss off, shut up and you’re wrong but they feel they need to be quiet to defend the collective.

I can understand this reaction and it is my knee jerk reaction when I see Julie Bindel going off on one about the Managed Zone, and I find myself being like shut up, I’m sick of you pedalling the same shitty stories and stereotypes!! However, I have had people email me from this blog who were extremely upset and angry at sex work and together, we hashed out all the anger, hurt and I agreed with them. I used to rage at ex sex workers online about the Nordic Model but I found myself fuelling their fire, because the more I shouted, the more they said that sex workers hate them. The truth is, we have more in common than we would perhaps like to admit and are both angry at sex work, but our paths took a different route. I think glorifying clients and not having room to slag them off is an issue in sex work because that really is not the reality for many sex workers. They are clients, not knights in shining armour.

Ex sex workers becoming Nordic Model supporters is never something I like, but I can understand why. Although I feel the anger is misdirected, the anger is still very much real and hurtful. I don’t dislike these exited sex workers because they use their experiences as an excuse to support it, but simply because they support the NM. I can not tell them how to feel, or how sex work felt to them and if it was awful, then they have every right to talk about that. However, the more we shout at them, the further we push them into a radical feminist’s arms who lovebombs them, tells them their experiences are valid and then promises them the world, and to rid it of evil. They then drag them around to hash out their traumatic experiences under the premise of doing good.

Above all, I also feel like an ex sex worker advocating for laws that they will not be impacted by, or campaigning against laws that once benefitted them is oozing with privilege, and is very much a stab in the back. This goes deeper due to the intense mutual aid support within the sex work community and solidarity – it is a fracture.

Changing direction

I often tell my support worker that I am a radical feminist conference speaker’s wet dream; I hate sex work, often talk about the bad sides of it and have experienced the awfulness first hand. Like I said, I have much more in common with a Nordic Model supporter than differences. However, it’s exactly that – MY experiences, that are unique to ME. They are not a reflection of the lives of everyone else and just because I had bad times, it doesn’t mean I wish to remove the choice for other sex workers. In fact, it pushes me more towards decriminalisation than ever before because we deserve safety, support, equal access to services and ridding of the awful stigma. Any form of criminalisation maintains stigma, and the Nordic Model is just that. However, NM supporters thrive off such stigma because it’s what they shame you with to stop you sex working anymore. If there’s no stigma, what’s stopping you doing it freely and you wouldn’t feel shame by doing so.

Throughout sex work, I have found myself swinging wildly between decriminalisation and abolition and this is largely down to how I feel at the time. My heart says abolition but my mind says decrim and then my heart follows. Abolition isn’t a rational response, and neither is the NM. I am fed up of people talking about NM from a theoretical perspective when really, they should be listening to the sex workers who work in a country that has it. Twitter is full of theorists, but never lived experience and that suits NM supporters because they know sex workers will fear coming forward, in fear of being kicked out by their landlords, their education courses or being subject to violence themselves. As a result, theory plugs the gap and not sex worker voices – perfect conditions for a radical feminist.

I did not become a support of decriminalisation the moment I exchanged sex for money. I became a supporter when I got angry and experienced discrimination, stigma and listened in solidarity to the hardships of other sex workers. I wanted better for us all, I was fed up of the fear of reporting to the police, of the internalised shame of being a sex worker, the dispersal of sex work due to criminalisation and seeing people arrested for getting by or for safety – e.g. brothel laws. I had many difficult and rage filled conversations with sex workers, support workers and anyone who would listen to me if I’m honest. I appreciate all of these conversations because it allowed me to put my anger towards the conditions that result in survival sex work, and not sex work itself. I thank the sex workers who reminded me that it’s okay to dislike clients, to not be happy and to vent.

The Nordic Model is quick fix plaster to a complex socioeconomic situation, but the plaster doesn’t stop the bleeding, it just covers up the wound.

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