In a world where abuse against sex workers is trivialised, getting support as domestic violence victims can be hopeless
I’m worried about the impact of politics like these on vital services. If they feel obliged to toe this line for government funding, women who sell sex will be further alienated
As the world faces a global pandemic, sex workers have been left in dire and dangerous circumstances, unable to access support or financial aid, despite desperate calls from sex worker advocacy groups.
It has, in part, taken minor steps towards improving conditions for all victims of domestic abuse. Priti Patel's recent announcement of a £2m boost to online support for victims of domestic violence is one such example. Yet it doesn't go nearly far enough. After years of cuts to services, charities like Women’s Aid have rightly pointed out that a couple million pounds won't have the impact that women, sex workers especially, so desperately need.
Even still, no specific help for sex workers has been announced, leaving it to peer-led sex worker organisations to help. Hardship funds have been set up by sex worker communities to help out the most vulnerable workers. Yet despite the demand for these services, they have been condemned by the likes of Labour MP Sarah Champion as an attempt to "exploit the coronavirus pandemic".
Labour is supposed to be the party for marginalised communities, the working class and social equality – the intersections of sex work. While it should be applauded that it is taking seriously its duty to safeguard some victims of abuse, the party has largely been silent when it comes to sex workers' experiences. Jess Phillips, Labour's shadow minister for safeguarding, for example, has taken measures such as calling on hotels to open their doors to victims fleeing domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown. But there is a blind spot in her politics that needs addressing too: disregarding the importance of decriminalisation.
During a 2018 parliamentary debate on sexual exploitation, for instance, Philips interrupted Conservative MP Victoria Atkins to insist she refer to sex workers as "prostitutes", stigmatising language which is rejected by most sex workers. Like Philips, I’ve worked with trafficking victims, but during my time with a sex workers’ outreach project, I saw first hand how the intersection of her politics regarding sex work and domestic violence contributes to leaving vulnerable women in danger. For many sex workers, Philips’ promotion to shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding is a cause for concern. What women need is a nuanced, specialised, tolerant attitude towards selling sex, and not a puritanical and judgemental approach about how they earn their money.
Disclosing domestic abuse is a battle; many survivors are bullied by their abuser into believing that their problems are not problems and no one will listen to them. If all sex work is conflated with violence, then sex workers who face abuse away from work will struggle to find the support they need. It’s daunting to explain the nuances to someone when all you want is to be believed.
In 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended decriminalising key aspects of prostitution legislation. The most recent Home Office research on the nature of sex work in the UK showed that many were selling sex to get by financially and that decriminalising sex work would make the sex workers included in the research safer, none of whom were trafficked into the industry. Neither report came down on the side of the Nordic Model (also known as "the buyer law," which pushes sex workers into more dangerous and precarious working conditions) or further criminalisation. It is frustrating then, to see Philips, along with other Labour MPs like Champion and Harriet Harman, ignore such evidence, instead repeatedly campaigning for more criminalisation through the implementation of the Nordic Model.
In countries where parliaments have passed the buyer law, violence against sex work has increased, trust in police has decreased and arrests and raids have still seen sex workers end up behind bars. All while seeing no reduction in the amount of women selling sex. The reasons why women sell sex, such as poverty, austerity and lack of viable alternatives are not something that can be arrested away. Support for the Nordic Model goes directly against what sex workers all over the country are asking for.
The stigma shown by MPs against sex workers feeds into the abuse they face at home. The examples vary, from Stella Creasy MP tweeting support for the Nordic Model, to Caroline Flint allegedly blocking sex workers on Twitter for trying to show the failings of that legal model.
Domestic abuse against women is based on and upheld by misogyny. As writers and sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith point out, when feminists speak about sex work as a “single-use license to penetrate” or compare sex workers to “dogs” and “meat”, their language upholds the same world view of sex workers as that of abusers: worthless and disposable.
I am worried about the impact of politics like these on services where women seek help and support. If service providers and domestic abuse charities feel obliged to toe this line in order to get government funding, sex workers will be further alienated from vital support. Clicking on a website looking for help, they may be met with stigmatising and offensive language, or to hear that their job isn’t a job but de facto violence. Sex workers are already being failed by the justice system when they report sexual assault because of stereotypes about the job. Instead of working with sex workers to improve the justice system, MPs like Philips simply plan to legislate them out of existence.
I left my job as an outreach worker at a frontline women’s charity because I was tired of people speaking over sex workers in this way. I was tired of women telling me that the job was not where they were experiencing abuse, the relationship was, and that they weren’t being listened to by the organisations who were there to support victims of domestic violence.
Gaslighting of sex workers and denial of their experiences sound very familiar to anyone who has been trapped in an abusive relationship. When we disregard women who say they are consenting, we disregard them when they say they are not. This distinction is vital: for understanding domestic violence and for understanding sex work. Attitudes like Phillips’ will, almost certainly, have an impact on services which must apply for government funding. If the result of this is the further alienation of sex workers from life-saving support, that is a frightening prospect.