Radical media, politics and culture.

Interview with the International Union of Sex Workers

hydrarchist writes "Here's another interesting piece on organising in the sex industry, once again its from Issue 59 of Organise pubnlished by the Anarchist Federation.

Not in my backyard

This article sets out some of the main problems faced by sex workers in their
relationship with the State, and concludes with a brief interview with Jenn
Clamen of the International Union of Sex Workers.

You’re self-employed, running a legal
small business on a tight budget and
want to advertise your services. For
most, a card in the local shop window
or phone box might be just the ticket.
But not if you’re a sex worker, it

Clamp down

Though prostitution is legal, soliciting
on the streets isn’t. Until the Criminal
Justice & Police Act came into force in
2001, the prostitute’s tactic of
advertising sex by putting cards in
phone boxes was legal too - not
anymore. It’s estimated that 13m
cards are distributed across Britain
each year and in 2001 BT removed
150,000 from phone boxes in central
London alone - though it didn’t stop
schoolboys swapping cards in
playgrounds when the Pokemon craze
died down! Apart from the waste of
money, carding is now attracting
severe penalties as the police and local
councils clamp down.The police pose
as clients and get the addresses of
people selling sex. They are visited,
warned, often the landlord is informed.
With most landlords afraid of being
charged with abetting prostitution,
such a warning usually ends in
eviction. The woman (and it usually is
a woman, sometimes with children) is
moved on again and again. Their
livelihoods are lost as it takes time to
re-build your client base. Immigration
officials often accompany police, and
women working illegally are issued a
deportation order and dumped at the
nearest airport. Sometimes the only
way they can raise the airfare is to
head back into town and go back on
the streets. If they have been
trafficked (smuggled into the country)
they may still owe the traffickers their
fare and be in immediate danger here
and in their home countries. Cards at
flats are confiscated and the card boys,
if caught, face heavy fines, up to
£1,000, or 28 days in jail.

One operation in the area covered
by right-wing Westminster Council
(all-part of its family-friendly tourist
strategy) led to 60 card boys being
charged, though none of the women
were. As Jenn Clamen says: "The real
agenda is not getting rid of the cards,
but getting rid of the women.
Prohibition is unlikely to drive sex
workers into convents but harassment
will force them underground where
there is less access to support
networks and where they risk more


Organise!: When was the union
formed, what are its main policies,
how many members does it have and
what do they see as the main benefits
of membership?

Jenn: The IUSW was formed in 2000
and now has 100 members. It has
recently affiliated to the GMB and its
Sex Work & Fantasy Branch has 40

The main demands of the IUSW are:
decriminalisation of all aspects of sex
work involving consenting adults; the
right to form and join professional
associations or unions; zero tolerance
of coercion, violence, sexual abuse,
child labour, rape and racism; legal
support for sex workers who want to
sue those who exploit their labour; the
right to travel across national
boundaries and obtain work permits
wherever we live; clean and safe
places to work; the right to choose
whether to work on our own or cooperatively
with other sex workers;
the absolute right to say no; access to
training - our jobs require very special
skills and professional standards;
access to health clinics where we do
not feel stigmatised; re-training
programmes for sex workers who want
to leave the industry; an end to social
attitudes which stigmatise those who
are or have been sex workers.

O: What are the main benefits of

Jenn: The main benefits of
membership are that being part of a
collective group that is ostracised and
generally doesn’t get to enjoy all of the
benefits of a free society, gives power
and confidence to people in the sex
trade. Being part of the GMB has the
usual practical benefits: discounted
travel insurance, free legal advice,
compensation for injuries at work
(although this only applies to people
working in wholly ‘legal’ aspects of
the trade i.e. massage parlours or
dance clubs).

O: What are the main forms of
discrimination faced by sex workers?

Jenn: Because the law around sex
work is so contradictory and
ambiguous, it is very difficult to
ensure that sex workers can be safe
and healthy in their jobs. This in itself
is discrimination. The Government has
set up the law to feign approval of sex
work, by making it ‘legal’. However,
none of the activities around sex work
(including living off the money earned)
is legal. This too is discrimination. On
a more practical level, sex work is not
considered a real job, so people who
sex work cannot enjoy the benefits of
working in a ‘real’ job i.e.
compensation if hurt, health benefits,

O: Is sex work dangerous?

Jenn: There is a lot of danger in sex
work because of the lack of proper
laws. Sex workers are exposed to a lot
of violence from punters and pimps, if
they have a pimp, because there are
no laws to protect them. If raped or
assaulted, proving it is difficult
because generally the population
thinks it’s part of the job: many
women who work on the street will
tell you that this is exactly what police
called to the scene will say. A lot of
women are forced to work
underground because they must
remain out of sight so as not to get a
fine for soliciting. This puts them in
more danger, as they are not always
familiar with the working area and the
punters in that area.

O: To what extent are sex workers
able to control their transactions with
clients and their employers (if any)?

Jenn: Sex Workers are usually in
control of the transaction. For women
who work in flats, it’s a simple
transaction. There is usually a maid,
who answers the phone and keeps the
money, and a working girl. The punter
comes in, requests a service, woman
gives a price, money is exchanged -
simple. Where a woman has a pimp, a
lot of her money goes over to him or
her, resulting in a lack of control. With
regards to services, however, most
women determine what services they
offer, and how they offer them, bar
none. If people are new to the
industry, it obviously takes time for
them to devise their own working
regime, so they may not be in as much
control as they would like to be. In
some massage parlours and escort
agencies, and even flats, the owner
will demand the girl see a particular
client she may not want to see, or
perform certain services like oral sex
without a condom. However, the
answer to this dilemma is simple,
move to another sex working job. If a
woman wants control over her
business, she will seize it.

O: What is the general attitude of
officialdom - police, social workers,
local councils and so on?

Jenn: The general attitude is that sex
work is a pest. Most councils will deny
that it exists in their area (very typical
of posh suburban areas). At the same
time they are beginning to use antisocial
behaviour orders (introduced
originally to deal with ‘neighbours
from hell’) against street women - if
breached they face up to five years in
jail. A lot of the police and general
public think it should be
decriminalised but still maintain a ‘not
on my doorstep’ attitude. There are a
lot of people in favour of a ‘red-light
district’ where sex work would be
‘contained’: fair enough, at least they
are aiming for a decriminalised area.

O: And the Government?

Jenn: The Government will not make
any efforts to change the law; this is
the main problem. The current laws
themselves are the real problem, the
nuisance. I think there is a general
attitude that if the law made more
sense, there wouldn’t be so many
problems. In the meantime, while the
laws don’t make sense, people think
that visible sex work (I stress visible
because a lot of it is indoors) is a pest
- even though many of the people
with this attitude are punters

O: What are the main other ways by
which sex workers are controlled by

Jenn: The lack of structure in the law
controls the lives of sex workers. They
cannot go public. They must live
double lives. They must always be on
guard because of a lack of safety. They
must suffer with the stigma attached
to sex working. They are not
controlled as other people can be:
most are confident and self-assured.
But in general, it’s the law that gets
you down.

O: Some people argue that street
prostitution attracts kerb crawlers who
accost women not interested in selling
sex and are perceived as a menace to
children. The trade seems to attract
crime - especially drug-related crime -
and can be a nuisance, affecting the
whole neighbourhood. Are sex workers
to blame for this and should they ply
their trade indoors?

Jenn: No. Street sex workers are not
to blame for drugs or menacing
punters. Many street workers are
homeless and can’t trade indoors. I
have been to residents’ meetings
where this is suggested, but it’s
ridiculous: where would they go?
They don’t have homes. The main
problem with street sex work (aside
from complaints about mere visibility)
is condoms and syringes around parks
and schools. This is why needle
exchanges and sex work projects exist,
to help people dispose of them safely.
The councils also have to train rubbish
collectors to handle these things (with
gloves, sterilizing equipment etc).
Safety is the biggest issue in street sex
work but I wouldn’t blame the women
themselves for a lack of it. The social
context around street sex work does
not allow for a dialogue between
residents and working women.

O: What are the IUSW’s proposals for
addressing these issues of perceived
and actual nuisance, crime and safety?

Jenn: The anti-kerb crawling
campaign being mounted currently in
some areas is not a safe or effective
way of targeting punters or sex
workers; it makes sex work more
dangerous by pushing the women
further underground and into working
areas they are not familiar with. With
regards to punters approaching women
who aren’t sex workers, there is
danger because some punters can get
rude and intimidating. A designated
working area may solve that problem.
Educating residents and council
members so that they do not need to
feel against the women is one way.
Decriminalising an area where sex
workers can work, shower, and see
punters is another. Residents need to
acknowledge sex workers as residents
and come to an understanding
together about safety in the

O: What change in the status of sex
workers and society’s attitudes to sex
workers would you like to see?

Jenn: Society, and especially
Government, needs to pay attention to
what is going on in the world, the fact
that London is laden with sex and sex
work, that there is a demand for it.
That people need to feel protected. It
would help if the double standard that
most Britons have about sex was
dumped, that the stereotypes of
sleazy, broke sex workers was
forgotten or changed for good.

O: What are the means by which this
could come about?

Jenn: Decriminalisation of all aspects
of adult sex work involving consenting
adults. Accepting sex work as a
profession and a choice. Legislation
needs to be changed.

An anarchist view

As anarchists we may have an inkling
of some of the problems sex workers
face. We too lead double lives and
often find ourselves arrested for doing
things that up to a moment before
were entirely legal! Though there’s
not as much demand for our politics as
there seems to be for sex, more’s the

We also recognise the truth that
collective organisation brings strength
and confidence. Some lessons have
been well learnt. We would certainly
support the formation of more IUSW
branches and are glad to see that sex
workers recognise the limitations of
trade union membership! Where we
differ perhaps is in expecting any
change in attitude from Government
or that legislation will do anything
more than increase control and lessen
perceived public nuisance while doing
nothing to curb those who exploit or
harm sex workers."