Creating a culture of solidarity with sex workers

Creating a culture of solidarity with sex workers

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson.

At last year's national conference, Socialist Alliance adopted an updated code of conduct. In its preamble, it explains,

Our aim is to develop the broadest possible political organisation of socialists. We encourage those looking for an electoral and party alternative to Labor, a socialist alternative to the Greens, and activists and supporters in the union and anti-capitalist movements to join us. We also welcome to our ranks all of those who seek an end to oppression of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQ, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people  with disabilities and mental and physical illness, sex workers and all oppressed groups. Socialist Alliance is an inclusive organisation that celebrates diversity within its membership.

This contribution seeks to expand on what it means to welcome sex workers to our ranks.

I'm writing this contribution because the social and political feminist left, natural allies of sex workers fighting for their rights, can alienate sex workers if there is not a clear understanding of the stigma sex workers face, and how to counter it. This is true for our party, and this is an attempt to summarise and explain how we can ensure that Socialist Alliance provides a respectful, inclusive environment for sex workers.

Sex workers can face the threat of having their children removed from them, difficulty securing housing because of their work, harrassment and violence by clients, bosses, police and strangers, criminalisation of themselves or their clients, leading to unsafe conditions and reinforcing the stigma associated with their work. Many of these things are mutually reinforcing: the stigma feeds into views that sex work should be outlawed; criminalisation feeds the stigma surrounding the industry.

The erroneous view that sex workers sell themselves promotes the assumption that clients and others are within their rights to violate sex workers' consent; the view that no-one really chooses sex work can be used to support the notion that all sex that sex workers engage in is without consent – making it harder for sex workers to uphold their right to give or withdraw consent from any sex act or client. It can further support a culture in which sex workers and their sex lives are held to be necessarily degraded or damaged, and where their private lives are held up to a level of scrutiny that would not considered acceptable if they were not sex workers.

Our socialist party should actively try to create a different culture. We should endeavour to create a culture where it is accepted that members who are sex workers are engaged in work, where no-one makes assumptions (and inappropriate comments) about sex worker comrades' private lives, where sex workers are referred to as sex workers and not prostitutes (with its implication of the sale of the body/self and even being complicit in one's own oppression), where the choice to be sex workers (constrained as all choices are under capitalism) is not assumed to be illegitimate. This culture should be one where it is recognised that sex workers are diverse, that there are not only two kinds of sex worker (the “happy hooker” or drug-using street-based workers in need of rescuing), and where respect and solidarity trump assumption and insult (no matter how unintentional).

Just as we endeavour to educate our members in behaving in a way that is not sexist or racist, to replace transphobia and homophobia with inclusive, humane behaviour, so we should pull one another up if we engage in behaviour that is whorephobic – that is, that tends to shame sex workers and reinforce the stigma they face – to argue against it, explain what is wrong with it, to not let it slide and without descending into incessant policing of each other, to create a culture in which it doesn't happen.

You can glean more ideas from:

How to be an ally to sex workers and How to be a feminist ally to sex workers.