VAWG and Prostitution: We Can’t Leave Sex Workers Behind.

In light of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, we are being made aware that Wayne Couzens saw sex workers, and at times, didn’t pay them. Would it surprise me that he perhaps assaulted a sex worker at one point? Not really. People tend not to kill, and particularly plan to do it, without events leading up to it. However, it can not be denied that violent men have greater access to sex workers, and this is why sex workers experience higher levels of violence than ‘civvie’ people.

Alongside the #MeToo movement, and the open discussions of the lengths of what women have to do to keep themselves safe, only now are we slowly beginning to see a more accurate picture of the level of violence levied against women, and especially sexual violence. In turn, there has been exceptional pressure put against political parties and the police, asking what they will do in response and to keep us safe. In fact, many are comparing violence against women to terrorism, arguing the government should take it equally as serious, and others are pushing for it VAWG to be a specific crime.

But where do sex workers sit in all of this?

Scared of VAWG

I actively wish to eradicate violence against women. I work within Rape Crisis, work to improve services and reduce violence against homeless sex workers & have myself have experienced sexual violence, of various forms. As a sex worker, I am acutely aware of the dangers, violence and harms against me and my friends. However, I recently remarked to my friends that I am scared of the VAWG agenda, and the discussions around it. I say this because it pushes people to bring prostitution to the front of centre of the discussion, even where it’s not necessary. For example, the only person responsible for the murder of Sarah Everard was Wayne Couzens, but people have somehow managed to shoehorn their anti-prostitution agenda into it. They have gone on to blame what happened to Sarah on prostitution, and argue that it proved an escalation of violence, without any consideration to the sex worker themselves.

Victoria Bateman once said that nothing divides feminists more than capitalism, with sex work being a close second, and sex work entails both. We can not achieve VAWG without recognising the divide within feminism; those who support decriminalisation of sex work, and those who advocate for part-criminalisation. Although we both share the commonality of wanting to end violence, the way we go about it differs greatly. I would argue, the latter excludes sex workers, hence why they are called Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists (SWERFs). As feminists, we champion the voices of women, and we chant ‘nothing about us, without us’ but the same logic does not apply to sex workers.

I feel myself enraged by the fact that by simply existing, my existence is being argued over in spaces well above me, usually by feminists who have never traded sex, nor lived under criminalisation conditions.

Victim and Villain

The discussion around sex workers is funny at times, and doesn’t make sense from the outside looking in. One minute, I am the poor little innocent victim, who is being brutally abused by men due my drug addiction, but the next minute, I am to blame for all violence against women. One minute I am pitied, the next minute I’m described as ‘flesh’, ‘vessel for men to cum in’ or compared to the meat trade – I should add, this is said by other women. I can’t figure it out at times, but I think I know why this happens.

Women hate sex workers. They hate the fact that we sell sex to men, the very men they hate and cause violence. They hate that we deliberately advertise for the male gaze, and we are not the women at the CEO table, nor on STEM courses. Women have advanced so far, and we should be taking advantage of those rights we fought so hard for, and not be selling sex to men who oppress and objectify us. Women see us as the enemy, or in the words of Julie Burchill ‘collaborators’ who should be shot. However, they can’t say this because it isn’t feminist to berate and degrade another woman, but occasionally the mask does slip.

In turn, they blame us for wider violence. They blame us for the pervy men approaching children in the park because that’s where someone sold sex 12 hours prior. They say that we are the reason men continue to objectify women, because we allow them to do it to us. They say prostitution is violence against all women, without caring about the violence against the sex worker themselves. You can see this in the current discussion, it is stated that prostitution and/or clients should be banned because Wayne saw sex workers, and therefore, it was only natural and understandable for him to go on and kill Sarah, right?

It is hard to say all this, so instead, they openly take the victim tonality instead, but the villain in private. They recognise that yes, I would not be having sex with this guy if he wasn’t paying me, and therefore, I am the victim of the client. Despite the fact it is poverty driving me here, not the client. When you paint someone as a victim, you make clear they are defenceless and therefore, this gives space for people to act and come to their defence. This is a good way to ensure that sex workers do not pipe up, because they are victims who clearly don’t know what’s best for them and need defending by other, good women. If you meet sex workers, they’re anything but quiet, but they are silenced, and bigger voices are instead projected.

If this doesn’t work, they call you a ‘traumatised wounded animal’ or say you have Stockholm Syndrome, in further attempts to belittle you.

The Nordic Model

Sex workers for millennia have been shouting that cops are bad, and they know this because they experience it daily. In Argentina, they used to pay the police 50 pesos to avoid arrest, but they would sometimes rape or arrest you anyway. Sex workers have given sexual favours to avoid arrest, and are hassled by the police. Cops are clients who then turn up and brothel raid you. They barge in on you on the grounds of ‘safeguarding’ and enter your home whilst you’re in your lingerie, vulnerable. The entire system gives powers to the police to arrest and charge you. If you report an assault, they don’t take you serious, ask you if the client knew you was a working girl and worst of all, conflate rape with sex work and class it all as rape. When you’re then genuinely raped, you’re not believed.

Despite knowing all this, feminists advocate for a system which increases the interactions between the police and sex workers. Why are police not allowed near the good women now, but people advocate for them to be near us, despite screaming for years that the police are not safe? We know the police are men who commit harms against women, we’ve seen it. Why are you then pushing for them to be near marginalised women? When you criminalise the client, you bring the police near us. We have seen that partners of sex workers have been arrested for living on their earnings, forcing us to not have a relationship. We see that 55 sex workers in Ireland were arrested for brothel keeping, which forces us to work alone, increasing violence against us. In Norway, we saw 4000 evictions of sex workers, as landlords could be culpable, which results in homelessness.

The Nordic Model also brings greater power to the client, as he has more bargaining power than us. If you cut off 80-90% of my income, you make me desperate, especially if homeless or drug using. As a result, I will do more riskier things for a lower price, and he knows that. HIV and the Nordic Model go hand in hand, because sex workers are less likely to carry condoms, and more likely to engage in riskier sex for income. It also means you leave me with clients who are risking breaking the law by seeing me, and removes all the good, professional and law-abiding clients. If he’s doing this, or doesn’t care about being caught, what will he do to me? Finally, I can’t ask him for his name, any info about him etc. because he fears I will report him, and therefore, if he assaults me, I won’t even know who he is.

Doesn’t this sound brilliant if you’re a client? Lower prices, bareback sex, and they don’t have to identify themselves. It also means I might be charged with or be able to plead guilty to buying sex in court, rather than rape.

The sex worker however thinks fuck, I now have less money, more desperate, risking my health, and can’t engage in basic screening, and whoever it is, he’ll be a risky client. I can’t have a relationship, and I have to work alone. I also now have to dodge the police and work in riskier, more secluded areas. If I do come across the police, they might hurt me as well.

It is true there is an unequal power dynamic between sex worker and the client, but the Nordic Model tips the balance towards the client. This is all evidence based too, and this is simply a triumph of ideology rather than lived experience and reality.

Why are we advocating for something that gives MORE power to both the police AND the client, in the light of Sarah Everard’s rape and murder. We are not ideological fodder, and we do not want to be the battleground of feminist debate.

What do we do?

Poverty and exploitation go hand in hand, particularly with regards to sex work. When I stopped working, I turned back to an abuser for both income and drugs. In addition, how is anyone supposed to just stop sex work when they have a drug addiction, have nowhere safe to sleep at night, and doesn’t even have a bank account. Why are you projecting your own expectations onto someone who does not have the same resources as you? Not to mention, they’re likely enduring domestic violence, sexual violence or other forms of traumatic experiences, but yet, people just expect it all to end? It is unrealistic. It takes time, but the first thing we can do is to allocate appropriate, safe housing for people. Give people adequate social benefits to sustain them, well funded drug and alcohol clinics and free, accessible counselling.

In the meantime, we offer unconditional support. If you want me to leave sex work, and I don’t, then I will not turn back to you for support if I return to it. Why would I? I would be too scared to get a lecture from you about it being bad, that I should stop doing it, and worst of all, degrade me by saying I am better than that. This is dangerous, because it means I have lost my support and likely access to free contraception and quick-access sexual health. All because you have an agenda you want to project onto others. We should also offer harm reduction and safety advice, which is often lacking in exit programmes because they think it is encouraging it. No, they will still sex work anyway, but now you’ve just ensured they don’t know best ways to keep safe and therefore, will experience preventable violence.

Secondly, we need to stop the conflation of rape and sex work. People say sex work is rape, but nobody ever says rape is sex work, because it isn’t. As mentioned previously, when you conflate the two, nobody believes you when it actually happens. When people say it is rape, they make the assumption that poor people are unable to make informed decisions, consent and know what it best for them. I always say that I chose to sex work whilst homeless and in active addiction because it was the best route for me. Nobody would be saying I was a victim who had no choice if I turned to battering your nan for her purse instead. Sex work kept me out of prison in my most desperate points. I chose to get into a stranger’s car, and yes there were limited options that led me to this decision, but I still made that decision. I agree to have vaginal sex for X price. If he anally rapes me, doesn’t pay me or assaults me then that is not consensual, and is rape.

We need to fully decriminalise sex work. I say this not because I like clients, in fact they repulse me. However, it is for the safety of sex workers themselves. My concern for sex worker’s safety overrides my hate for clients. If you are so blighted by your anger of male violence that you do not consider the impact to lives of sex workers themselves, then you are not a feminist. You can not leave behind sex workers, and we are not your ideological battleground. If we truly want to eradicate violence against women, then we need to put the rights of women above all, and stop centring the discourse around men.

If sex work was decriminalised, it would make it a safer environment for people to report violence. Like I said, I would not be surprised if Wayne has previously assaulted sex workers, but why would she report him? Now think of the Nordic Model, it would make this situation even worse because it gives more power to both him as an individual, and as a police officer. If we are so keen to say sex workers cause violence against all women, then let us prevent violence, by giving us the rights we desperately need. In addition, this reduces stigma, emboldens sex workers and reduces violence for all.

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