We, the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), and our co-signatories below, note the stated intentions of your conference. You write, “Women and girls are facing an ever-increasing attack on their rights, which needs not only to be challenged, but to be stopped. It is for this reason that we have decided to act and try to engage women from all backgrounds to stand up, debate and demand their fundamental rights”.
SWOU is a workers’ collective comprised of current and former sex workers from all sectors of the industry. Our collective includes people who work in fully criminalised contexts (on the street, or in working flats), strippers, phone sex workers, cam-girls, porn actors and actresses, and pro-subs - to name but a few. We are migrants (with and without papers), mothers, people of all genders, students, and people living with HIV. We are also feminists, trade unionists, and people who organise to fight the oppressions that harm us, or those we love. Our lived experiences chime powerfully with your call for the attacks on the rights of women and girls to be recognised and halted. That is why we are so disappointed that you appear to have made the decision to actively exclude sex working voices from your conference.
We’re disappointed that you found the time to invite Object, who organise to put your trade union-represented colleagues (sex workers are members of both Equity and the GMB) out of work, against the wishes of the workers, and who have in the picketed our workplaces, and harassed women going to and from work - and yet you did not find the time to invite sex workers.
We’re disappointed that you found the time to invite ‘NorMas’, an organisation whose co-founder casually discredits and libels sex workers who have the temerity to disagree with her: we're "internet shills" who are paid to post from "fake profiles" in order to give pimps’ arguments “credibility”, apparently. SWOU would love to know who out of our collective are the paid “shills”. When SWOU members speak about our experiences of sexual violence within the sex industry, and how that has shaped our activist work focused on making each other safer, are those people the paid “shills”? What about when we organise sex worker-only spaces to talk intimately about poverty - is it the organisers, or the attendees, who are “internet shills” in the eyes of the organisation you choose to invite to speak about our lives? There are many different feminisms within SWOU, originating from our experiences as working class women, or migrant people, or queer or trans* women. One thing all our feminisms share is the principle that we believe and respect marginalised people - for instance, sex working women - when they speak about their own lives. We are disappointed that this basic principle - of believing women - is not shared by NorMas; we are disappointed that you don’t find this a highly problematic attitude for an invited attendee of your feminist space to express, but most of all we are disappointed that you found time to invite this organisation, and yet could not find the time to invite sex workers.
We are disappointed that, as a counterweight to these advocates of punitive, carceral feminism - a feminism that has been shown again and again to harm sex workers, whether we’re working through choice, circumstance, or coercion - you saw fit not to invite any sex worker-led organisations, but to invite an advocate of the “Merseyside model”. The Merseyside model is based on health professionals - not sex workers - negotiating with the police to do their job and investigate rape and other violence against sex workers. This model is not a counterweight to those who seek to punish us through - at best - cutting off our incomes and inflicting poverty on us; at worst, increasing the criminalisation we face, forcing us to work in isolation and in more dangerous situations and leaving us desperate and vulnerable enough to be at the mercy of violent individuals posing as clients, who we would, in a rights-based framework that protected us as workers, be able to identify and reject.
Furthermore, we are disappointed that the advocate of the Merseyside model’ who you have chosen to invite, used her platform to uncritically propagate the words from NorMas’ co-founder that we discussed above. (“They can pay internet shills to comment under posts with fake profiles on social media to give their arguments credibility” was published on Ms Jacobs’ blog, where she admiringly interviews women such as the the NorMas co-founder.) We would be interested to know in what sense someone who agrees with the quoted sentence enough to give it an unchallenged platform, is a counterweight to the two explicitly anti-sex worker organisations you have chosen to invite. Ruth Jacobs is so different from NorMas that, while they explicitly give voice to their hatred of sex workers, she merely … amplifies that voice? Is that really so different?
You have responded to some of the criticisms raised, but the nature of your response has rather deepened our concern. You write, “ … we are actively inviting ex-sex workers to participate in both of these parts of the conference [the NorMas presentation, and the Merseyside model workshop] to share their own perspectives on the issue”. We are extremely confused as to why you are “actively inviting” only “ex-sex workers”. If SWOU were planning a day of workshops around feminism, we would not invite only “ex-feminists”. Furthermore, we are curious as to why you are “actively inviting” sex workers, current or former, to participate in two spaces - the NorMas event, and the Merseyside one - when the NorMas co-founder has stated that sex workers who disagree with her (a non-sex worker) are shills paid by pimps, and the Merseyside workshop leader has supported that view sufficiently to give it an unchallenged platform. This is not a safe space for sex workers - current or former - to participate in. We doubt you would invite to lead a workshop on rape culture, a man who had stated that women whose lived experiences disagreed with his theories to be liars, fakes, or paid-off “shills” - because you would understand that such a workshop would not be a safe space for women - or people of any gender - who had experienced sexual violence, to participate in. We are deeply confused as to how you can possibly think an organisation which has expressed such views about sex workers in an appropriate organisation to lead a workshop about sex work, let alone a workshop that you are encouraging sex workers to participate in.
We call on you to publicly rectify these problems in two ways. First, if you want to have a discussion about sex work, you need to invite actual sex workers, and our organisations. We would suggest that you invite SWOU, who have been community building since 2009. The chair of the TUC LGBT Committee has said, “[SWOU] are an excellent initiative in organising in the sex industry; one that faces unique challenges not least in terms of the law and health & safety”. (Ms Exall continued, “in 2010 the TUC LGBT Conference passed a motion recognising sex workers as workers with rights, the GMB I50 Branch under its President, Thierry Schaffauser has done a tremendous amount in unionizing and organising sex workers so that they are fully part of the movement and defend and advance sex workers rights.” That sex workers are already part of the trade union movement, and recognised as workers by your LGBT colleagues, makes our exclusion all the more odd.)
We also suggest that you invite x:talk, as the voices of migrant sex workers are often ventriloquised by those who seek to invoke the presumably-exploited body of the migrant sex worker at the very same moment as erasing the complexity of migrant sex working experiences. Migrant sex workers can, themselves, give voice to their lives and needs, and a good way to ensure that they lead the conversation, and not those who seek to co-opt those experiences in the service of UKBA-style feminism, is to invite an organisation that is run by and for migrant sex workers. Finally, we suggest you invite the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organisation of current and former sex workers working in various areas of the sex industry. Founded in 1975 the ECP has an unrivalled and distinguished track record campaigning against criminalisation and poverty so that sex workers can leave prostitution if they want to.
We call on you to seriously consider how appropriate NorMas are to run a session on sex work, given their founder’s stated position that sex workers are “shills” - and how appropriate Ruth Jacobs is, given her view that these words should go unchallenged. If you continue to consider their views appropriate for a feminist space, we would call on you to publicly amend your “active invitation” to (ex) sex workers to participate - to warn them that these sessions will not be a safe space for sex workers to “share their perspectives”, as you’ve previously advised.
The Sex Worker Open University,
Glasgow, London & Leeds
STRASS, The French union of sex workers,
TAM-PEP international foundation,
AIDSi Tugikeskus (AIDS Information & Support Centre),
Glasgow Feminist Collective,
SZEXE, the association of Hungarian sex workers,
CEO of Sexworker Verein
Aoife Nic Seáin,
SIO (Sex Workers’ Interests Organisation),
The International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE),
Europe and Central Asia
former board member ICRSE
Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association,
The Everyday Whorephobia Campaign,
The Glasgow Network for Gender and Sexuality,