The sex workers’ movement is more than 35 years old. A lot of struggles have taken place in particular against violence, HIV, stigma, etc. Most of these struggles have taken place outside the Labour movement because in many countries sex workers have been excluded from trade unions.
Trade unions can be very conservative organisations. Women fought during years before being allowed joining trade unions, and if we compare, sex workers’ inclusion has sometimes taken much lesser time. So don’t be discouraged.
The main reason why sex workers want to join a trade union is often because we want sex work recognised as work, if not by the State at least by other workers. This recognition will be progressive and the State will probably as usual be the last institution to recognise us as workers. Meanwhile, starting to talk about “sex work” and not anymore about “prostitution”, founding organisations that we call trade unions or joining official and generalist trade unions is the way to go.
We are real workers because we are not objects, we are not victims and we are not poor things who need to be rescued. We are not stupid; we know what we do with our body and our mind. Not all of us chose to do sex work but like most workers didn’t choose to work. However, we don’t deny them the right to call themselves workers and to join a trade union. This basic principle of self-determination is still denied to us.
Being a worker doesn’t mean that we deny the issues of violence and exploitation or that we normalise them. Being a worker means on the contrary that we can suddenly use the tools of the Labour movement to fight violence and exploitation.
Being recognised as a worker means also that we are part of the working class. It means that my experience as a sex worker is similar to those of most other workers. I don’t own any mean of production. I have got only my body and my intelligence: my labour force. Like all other workers, I work in order to earn a living, to support myself and often my family, to pay my rent, my education, my debt, my medications, my cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, what most people have to pay too.
Marx said that ““Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker”. We are all prostitutes. But some are stigmatised and excluded from the Labour movement just because we use a part of our body called sex which is still a sacralised part for many people.
One day, I met a woman who told me that I shouldn’t sell my body, explaining that she worked hard all her life but at least she never had to sell her body. I understood then that part of the whore stigma is to convince other workers that they are better than sex workers, because “at least they don’t sell their body”. So I want to ask: What do you think are you selling?
The stigma around sex work is a way to divide the working class, to let people think that sex workers are worse than you and that it’s better to accept your condition, to work hard so at least you still have your dignity and body integrity.
Most sex workers would answer that these are just words, and words used only to discriminate against us. Nobody can decide for us what our dignity is and use a concept to look down at us, like if they were respectful and we were not.
Joining a trade union is also important because it can provide you with real material support. A trade union could provide you legal advice, sometimes a lawyer to help you in a dispute; it could provide you with a place where to have your meetings, and materials to communicate. It can help you to access more media contacts and to lobby politicians. It gives you more power because you are part of a bigger organisation in alliance with other workers and when you speak, your voice can represent all the workers of your union.
Because you will help other workers and be present with them in their struggles, they will also support you and be at you sides. They will help you to challenge the bad laws, and to make your voice heard.
Since I am part of the GMB, the third largest trade union in the UK with 600 000 members, I am allowed to attend all the meetings organised within the UK Labour movement. The doors are now open and no abolitionist can oppose my presence because I am a trade union member and I have all right to be part of the different conferences, to attend meetings, to pass motions, to vote and to be elected.
GMB has organised sex workers since 2004 and little by little, other trade unionists are getting used to seeing sex workers around them. Even those who are against the idea of sex work finally accept the fact that sex workers have the right like everyone else to organise themselves. A friend of mine was told once during a conference: “I hate lesbians and I hate prostitutes, but YOU… are my sister”. She is a lesbian sex worker but she is also a trade unionist and is seen now as a comrade.
How to organise?
In most places trade unions are desperate to recruit new members. Their membership has often decreased and workers are more and more working in a de-contractualised environment with less and less regulation. People change their job more than once in a life and don’t always share a working place where they can meet easily. Sex workers are therefore less and less an exception.
You can maybe join a trade union as an individual and you may actually have no problem doing it but ending up with no branch to represent you or in a branch that doesn’t represent your interest or worse being expelled. If you’re alone, it will be very easy for them to do that.
Most sex workers’ unions like actually most other workers’ unions have founded their own particular group before to be affiliated to a generalist trade union. In the UK, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) was founded by Ana Lopes before to be affiliated to the GMB a few years later. The fact that Lopes chose to call the organisation a trade union made things much easier for the GMB in order to include us.
In the same way, the French sex workers’ organisation was called Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS), and is now looking for general trade unions to affiliate. With hundreds of members, it becomes more interesting for a trade union to include sex workers.
The success of STRASS is that we work closely with health community organisations that provide us logistic support in order to recruit our members. Once we found one person interested in becoming a member, this person becomes a referee for her/his part of the sex industry and we ask that person to make sure to share all the information s/he receives with other workers and recruit them.
STRASS communicates mainly through a listserv which guarantees anonymity but is a problem for the persons who don’t have access to Internet. It is therefore important to produce a newsletter that the health project can print and that the referee person can distribute to the colleagues. STRASS has produced also membership cards that appeared very important for many of our members because it is a simple but efficient way to feel part of the trade union.
We decided to have a free rate membership for sex workers to be the most inclusive. This means that sex workers can join for free or give as much money they want. Many people felt they had nothing to lose and hundreds joined even when they didn’t participate in the union’s activity. Non sex workers could not join as active members but we agreed to have a supporter’s membership which is open from 5 Euros and people can give how much they wanted.
Only sex workers, who are active members, have the right to vote and to be elected. We made this choice because we heard about experiences in other countries where non sex workers and managers and employers in particular took too much space within the organisation and hindered efforts to organise especially against exploitation. We wanted to make sure that sex workers only can control their own organisation, that we have no spokesperson who is not a sex worker speaking on our behalf, and that managers and employers can not join the organisation even as supporters.
This can represent a difficulty when many sex workers don’t want to appear publicly in the media, when they don’t feel able to do all the work required by the organisation. We can then discuss with some supporters to allow them being part of the organising for a particular and temporary task. It’s about finding the balance between efficiency and independence and make sure our allies understand that working together is not doing things for us and that we need to learn from each other instead of relying on them.
The most difficult was probably to have members ready to speak publicly in the media. STRASS allows all our members to do media work and interviews and we always encourage new people to speak publicly and to come out as a sex worker. We don’t have one spokesperson and anyone can be. More voices will be heard best it is. However it is important to show strong solidarity with the person who takes the risk to speak publicly and who often ends up losing his/her flat, the custody of her children, paying more taxes, being more often arrested especially the day before a conference or demonstration, etc. If there are people who can’t appear publicly in the media, we still encourage them to use a pseudonym and to do written press or radio interviews.
If a good participation of activists is important, the life of a movement depends on the transmission of our activism to new people. Sex workers who may appear as leaders of the organisation must be careful to continue sharing, training and recruiting. We don’t want to have only one person who is Mr or Ms Sex worker representing all the sex workers of the country. We want to build a movement and collective action. It means that we try to have new people elected and to recruit new members and reach more sex workers from all sectors of the industry.
This means going to the streets where we don’t usually work, or trying to contact workers in bars and clubs where we’re not, to spend a lot of time talking with escorts on line and sending many messages to many different people who advertise on line. It means also translating the union’s documents in different languages and link with the health organisations to provide free language classes to migrants who wish to learn.
The union’s mailing list can be used for sex workers to share information about bad clients, timewasters, and services available for them and to socialise. The union can choose otherwise to create a forum or a separate listserv to differentiate political activism discussions and self-help organising and socialising. Political meetings can appear boring at first, but monthly dinners can be a better way to meet and socialise with other sex workers who are not part of the movement yet.
All this represents a lot of work but with a good organisation, we can build a strong movement. STRASS is going to reach 500 members soon and is probably the biggest sex workers’ trade union in Europe. We are still struggling to be heard by politicians but we’re more and more seen as a legitimate voice within the media and if the government plans to increase criminalisation and talks about criminalising our clients, our strong public opposition made many new sex workers joining the union as a result because more and more sex workers are aware that we exist, and that we are the organisation that defends their rights. When people are asked why they never joined a trade union before, the most common answer was because they were never asked.
Sex workers united will never be defeated.