Interview: International Union of Sex Workers
Positive outcomes can come from the most horrible of circumstances. So while the headline-grabbing murders of five women in
In an attempt to redress the balance, I have come to a quiet pub in north
As we sip our drinks, Catherine tells me the IUSW was formed in 2000 by Ana Lopes, a migrant sex worker from Portugal, who had come to the conclusion "that a lot of the problems in the sex industry were not actually related to the work itself" but were "about the conditions in which the work was done and the amount of power the worker had."
Affiliated to the GMB since 2002, the IUSW has just under 100 members in the
So what are the IUSW's main aims? "Our aim is for people who work in the sex industry to enjoy a full range human, civil and labour rights", she says. "We want to be treated like the rest of you. We want equality. And that means enjoying the same rights as people in other industries and people in other occupations."
Getting to the nub of their position on prostitution, the IUSW's website argues that "there is nothing inherently exploitative or degrading about consensual sexual behaviour regardless of its motivation." This isn't to say they ignore the darker side of prostitution. "There is abuse and exploitation and rape and coercion. It would be obscene to say that doesn't happen", Catherine admits. But, she argues "the history of the left shows, we didn't go out and rescue the miners, take them away and give them a wash, and say ‘come and do this you will be much happier'. We gave them rights, we gave them bargaining power. And that is the solution to exploitation - to give them rights and resources, not to rescue and redeem them."
Along with the Green Party, the Royal College of Nursing, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Communications Workers Union and the English Collective of Prostitutes, the IUSW supports the decriminalisation of the sex industry.
"Decriminalisation will not solve all the problems associated with the sex industry", Catherine explains. "It's not going to wave a magic wand and mean an end to stigma and violence and exploitation." However, she does believe it is "an essential first step to letting the light of day shine in upon the industry", and would provide a better level of legal protection for sex workers.
Despite the union's best efforts, the Government is currently leaning towards the prostitution policy currently enforced in
Those who support the ‘Swedish model' in the
Catherine says her experience of selling sex for eight years has been "uniformly positive." "I go to conferences with academics and I receive far more abuse than I would ever tolerate from someone who has attempting to become a client of mine", she notes humorously. She tells me she has felt exploited in a range of other work, but not working as a prostitute: "If a guy is on his knees, and he is kissing my feet, and giving me a foot massage and I am drinking champagne that he has bought me, how far up my leg does his mouth have to get before I feel exploited?"
But she is keen to point out that her experience does not invalidate the experience of other people in the industry, which may be very negative. "I accept there are people, probably a lot of people, who are doing this job and don't want to do it", she answers when I ask what she makes of polls that show the majority of women would like to leave prostitution. "But I'd ask if the survey distinguished between wanting to leave because they were sick of doing a job which is stigmatised, marginalised and derided - or if their problem was with the actual having sex for money part. In
Once again Catherine returns to the wide spectrum of experience that she believes people have working in prostitution. "Let's acknowledge all of these things, and let's try and separate the bad from the good and target the bad."
Rarely seen in the mainstream media and contested by many feminists, the arguments put forward by Catherine on behalf of the IUSW are both challenging and persuasive. They deserve to be heard.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. email@example.com.