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Sex-worker led organisation SCOT-PEP has branded the latest Scottish Government consultation on prostitution, “Equally Safe”, a “Rapists’ Charter”. The consultation’s stated aims are “challenging men's demand for prostitution, working to reduce the harms associated with prostitution and helping women to exit.” Red Fightback is committed to decriminalisation and sex worker unionisation, and we call on all other communists in Britain to take this stance, in support of the rights and safety of sex workers. In this article, we expose the lies and contradictions of the consultation paper and explain who really profits from the client-criminalisation ‘Nordic Model’. Only when we understand that the capitalist state fundamentally will benefit from deepening the exploitation of sex workers can we truly see the purpose of this consultation.
To read our response to the consultation paper – and the differences between our response and SCOT-PEP, click here.
The consultation paper begins with the lie that “Commercial sexual exploitation persists as a result of how women are viewed by society.” Sex work, as a form of labour exploitation in general, persists because people need to sell labour to survive. The Scottish Government is not unaware of this fact: the UK Home Office reports that "Economic necessity is the main imperative for women becoming involved in prostitution". This is fundamental to capitalism, and capitalist parties and states will never tackle exploitation or poverty without undermining their very basis for existing. We should not pretend that the government is merely misled by ‘carceral feminists’ who have tricked politicians into believing that sex work is a consequence of misogyny which can only be solved by ‘ending demand’, which always involves locking people up.
In order to maintain legitimacy, governments pretend to act towards ‘alleviating poverty’ or ‘suppressing exploitation’ - but their primary aim in doing so is a matter of pacifying resistance. They are fundamentally concerned with defending the root of poverty and exploitation. The British state, and the devolved Scottish government, are carceral states. The prison & policing system, which finds its origins in colonisation, is fundamental to the imperialist project. When this government talks in public of ‘alleviating poverty’ or ‘suppressing exploitation’, they are really talking about criminalising the poor and locking up the exploited.
Sex work is gendered work. We hold no illusions about this. Many sex workers work in this industry because their gendered oppression involves being hypersexualised and seen as inappropriate for other forms of work; or whose care responsibilities, for children, friends, partners or relatives makes it impossible to take on jobs with regular hours. These mechanisms of exclusion can only ever worsen as capitalist ‘progress’ leaves more workers competing for fewer jobs. The government has no interest in tackling gendered exclusion – the Scottish & British governments uphold the ‘two-child limit’ on benefits; and the Scottish government has spent a decade delaying meagre reforms to gender recognition while the British state’s intentions to ban trans women from bathrooms, changing rooms and domestic violence services was pitched by Liz Truss in a leak to the Telegraph earlier this year.
Transmisogyny is a pillar of Scottish government policy and carceral feminism, and this consultation is no exception. The section “Why are we focussing on women involved in prostitution?” includes the line “We are also aware that people who are transgender engage in prostitution.” It is no surprise that an approach to gendered work, but particularly sex work, that centres cis women and disregards more oppressed gendered & de-gendered subjects will ultimately uphold patriarchy and seek to expand those institutions - prisons, police, the border, the military – which are the greatest abusers of women.
The Scottish Government states that it continues to provide funding to TARA and Migrant Help to ‘support adult trafficking victims across Scotland’. But the Scottish Government has no intention of acting to prevent Glasgow City Council from defunding all groups dependent on the Communities Fund, including Glasgow Women’s Aid, the Diaspora African Women’s Support Network, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis, Homeless Network Scotland, Refugee Survival Trust, or the Terrence Higgins Trust. All of these groups, and many others facing funding collapse, form part of the support network for sex workers. There has also never been government contribution to Sex Worker organised mutual aid funds, like SWARM’s COVID-19 Hardship Fund. Again, the government makes clear that it is only ever interested in appearing to address poverty and exploitation, while acting consistently to worsen both.
Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, the pigs in Britain can seize money from the 6 years prior to a criminal offence, and keep any funds that the person convicted cannot prove as legitimate income. The section of the consultation that discusses crime during the lockdown should be interpreted as an admission that the state may have looted money earned by sex workers during the pandemic: “Recorded crime data for April 2020 indicated that there was 50% less crimes recorded associated with prostitution than the previous year (2 crimes in total) and the number for May 2020 was also 2.” At the same time as the government is feigning concern that sex workers “felt in a precarious economic position” observing social distancing while “not receiving any financial support”, the law enforcers were seizing assets and issuing fines.
The attempt at concern trolling about sex workers being exposed to COVID-19 as a form of gendered exploitation is extremely vile. The government forced household childcare workers and cleaners back to work on the 13th of May, has reopened schools and nurseries, and funnelled contagious patients into care homes resulting in a 400 per day death rate at the height of the pandemic. We completely reject any notion that the government which has conducted a eugenics campaign against the elderly and disabled, while exposing care workers and cleaners to the virus, has any concern whatsoever for women affected by COVID-19.
Reform or Revolution
The 3rd section of the consultation is explicitly misleading. It notes in the first paragraph that “New Zealand decriminalised sex work with their Prostitution Reform Act”, but then presents a table of options of “Policy Approaches by EU Member States”: “Abolitionism”, “New Abolitionism”, “Prohibitionism” and “Regulationism”. The consultation asks you to choose which of those four is most effective – the New Zealand model of decriminalisation is not listed in the table, because it is not implemented anywhere in Europe, and “Abolitionism” has been appropriated from slavery & prison abolitionism, distorted to mean a solution involving criminalising prostitution by criminalising buyers or brothels.
This is clearly set up to game the consultation response, as every possible proscribed answer provides a basis for expanding criminalisation. Regulationism, framed as the least prohibitive, is actually the most carceral. Under this model, sex work is “regulated by the State” and “therefore not prohibited when exercised according to this regulation.” This means sex work would be brought under right-to-work laws, legitimating a government crackdown on the most precarious survival sex workers, arming pimps with the full weight of the law in coercing them, and creating a perverse financial incentive for sex workers with citizenship to rat out migrant sex workers to the Home Office in order to increase demand for their own services. Given the significance of the solidarity between the sex workers movement and migrant struggles, “regulationism” should be seen as the greatest threat to sex worker solidarity.
In Britain today, we find a mixture of regulatory & prohibitionist approaches to different forms of sex work – presenting a particular challenge for workers trying to organise and coordinate across the industry. Workers in regulated sectors are subject to right-to-work checks, with citizenship wielded as a form of property that grants access to preferential working conditions. In Scotland, citizenship or a legitimate visa also means the ability to access certain reserved Sexual Health services like NHS PrEP prescriptions.
The victory of the UVW strippers union & Decrim Now in achieving worker status and access to basic workers rights is fantastic. What is particularly encouraging is that UVW & Decrim Now continue to struggle beyond the concessions won from the state, towards rights for all workers and against state control. The recognition that workers’ rights emerge from workers’ struggle, not from appeal to bourgeois law or morality, is a lesson more unions in Britain need to learn.
In Scotland, MSPs voted to give councils the power to regulate Sexual Entertainment Venues. Glasgow City Council consequently considering a ban on SEVs demonstrated the intertwined nature of state oppression of trans people and sex workers – Sexual Entertainment is defined as a “live display of nudity”, and this is subject to the gendered legal distinction between “chests” and “breasts” which means theatres or clubs booking acts like the Dreamboys are not subject to SEV regulation. The restriction of women & gender non-conforming sex workers supports and is supported by the state’s power to categorise us and discriminate between our bodies.
Regulationism is exposed as a carceral approach – giving government the power to permit is always giving government the power to deny – in contrast to decriminalisation, which seeks to remove the authority of the government to permit or deny. “Socialists” seeking to entrench and extend the power of the state by supporting “abolition”, regulation or prohibition have abandoned revolution and placed themselves in allegiance with the ruling capitalist class. Communists organising to smash the bourgeois state have no choice but to struggle for decriminalisation.
“Supporting Women to Exit”
The Consultation acknowledges that sex workers are already organised around supporting each other. Discussing “Barriers to exiting”, the government states that “Exiting would involve leaving networks and friendships and resulting in a possible feeling of isolation.” You will not find a clearer statement of intent: “Ending demand” really means isolating sex workers and breaking up friendships and support networks. It also recognises that “financial reasons” and “lack of choice” - “poverty being the main driver” - are foundational to why women aren’t quitting sex work. Given this, we shouldn’t treat it as hypocritical that ending demand means sex worker impoverishment – this is a war on sex workers, not a struggle against patriarchy.
We’re glad to see changes to legislation that mean sex work convictions don’t have to be disclosed to employers. But given that the government recognises the harm the convictions do to workers who make it out of prison, they can no longer pretend that they harbour any illusions about the harm imprisonment itself causes.
CW: The following paragraph discusses weaponised sexual violence
In a paper that poses “exiting” as a universal good, it’s impossible not to see it as deeply predatory that they specifically highlight “positive and negative life events that lead to women exiting”, such as rape, sexual assault, trauma, poor health and exhaustion, pregnancy and child protection issues as motivators to exit. A policymaker who sees pregnancy as a cause of people “exiting” is likely to think twice about free provision of abortion, birth control and condoms, and will not see “increased reports of women offering unprotected sex throughout lockdown” as a wholly bad outcome. Similarly, the use of powers to take away children as a tool by which women can be forcibly “rescued” is hardly “child protection”.
“Challenging Men’s Demand”
Following the same logic that consumers of commodities are somehow responsible for the manufacture – a logic designed to obscure the owners of the means of production, the capitalist class – much of opposition to sex work is centred around the question of “demand”. Marx identifies the two fundamental characteristics of commodities: they must be useful to someone; and they must be exchangeable for one another. Capitalism involves the production of commodities for the purpose of exchange – in this instance, sex workers sell sexual labour, such as the experience of sexual pleasure, in return for money or goods which are useful to the sex worker. Commodities have value according to the labour that goes into them, not according to an abstract estimation of usefulness. The average quantity of labour that is necessary for producing sexual experiences determines how much these experiences are worth. Supply and demand, market mechanisms, can only cause prices to fluctuate around this fundamental labour value depending on the scarcity of the supply or the capacity of the market to absorb it. In Marxist economic terms, a campaign to “End Demand” is a campaign to crash prices. Ending Demand is an enforced boycott of the labour of some of the most precarious workers with the outcome of worsening working conditions and depressing wages.
One of the proposals for “prostitution prevention educational programmes” is to create a “cultural taboo against men who buy sex” – as if taboo has ever discouraged men from doing what they will – alongside “cultural respect for men who make the choice not to buy sex”. This latter half speaks volumes about those proposing it. Ending prostitution to restore men’s honour is far more in line with the cultural conservative who believes modern men are degenerate – a nostalgic reverence for the times of chivalry before their good men were corrupted by the sex worker – than the purported feminism of the ‘sex work abolition’ movement. Any notion that a culture of shame around sex-buying would not affect sex workers more than it would ever affect men is rank idealism.
“Challenging Men’s Demand” is therefore a contradiction – reducing demand means achieving more favourable conditions for purchasers of sex – rewarding demand rather than discouraging it. The state is outlawing all non-commercial social activity, with bans on visiting each others’ homes and incentives for eating out; bans on helping family or friends with childcare or cleaning but forcing childcare workers and cleaners back to work. In this context, increasing criminalisation of sex work, alongside existing laws criminalising drugs, is ultimately an attempt to heighten exploitation in the informal economy and force it’s workforce into greater competition with the formal, taxable labour market. Crashing prices is a typical monopolist tactic – one of the biggest winners of the pandemic in the sex industry has been the expansion of the online market. Restrictions on street workers means profits for transnational pornography corporations and the credit card companies who are excluded from taking their share of the primarily cash-based in-person sex work economy.
The two-pronged approach of Regulationism & Criminalisation is exposed as the model most desired by the capitalists class and the capitalist state. By formalising the sex-work economy, the state gains a new taxable revenue stream. Universal Credit, responsible for so much of the deprivation that has forced so many into sex work, would become overnight the biggest pimp in Britain, gaining 63p from every £1 earned by a sex worker – money that currently moves silently through bank accounts or most often, cash-in-hand. To secure those profits, criminalisation looms large to jail anyone working informally and seize all their earnings to fund the Home Office under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The struggle between Regulationism & Criminalisation is little more than a struggle over the division of plunder among the ruling capitalists – should the money go to MindGeek, the DWP, or the pigs? The workers have answered: No! Labour is entitled to all it creates!
The value of the commodities traded in the sex work industry is fundamentally upheld by the toil of full service sex workers. Commodity values are continually diminished as the most labour intensive sections are augmented by machines, which allow one worker to do what once took the labour of many. By placing these in competition with less efficient ways of working, the owners of the machines (websites, data centres, etc) transfer value from street workers to themselves. The gigantic profits currently reaped by the porn monopolists as they expand by destroying the existing market would diminish and disappear as that project is completed – but elimination of the competition means the monopolists can fix prices. Criminalisation therefore pays the dividends of the world’s most prolific pimps, but the more effective it is, the harsher it will have to become to maintain those profits. If PornHub and OnlyFans aren’t bankrolling these “End Demand” movements, they’re missing a trick.