Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

Sex Workers of the World United

by Cherry Bennet

Last year – Sunday, 20 May 2001, to be precise – two representatives of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), Gareth and Jacinto, decided to investigate just how independent and “ready to listen” were the Independent LGBT Advisory Group to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

The Advisory Group (AG) had organised an open consultation meeting with the LGBT community and had targeted sex workers – and particularly men who sell sex to men – as a difficult but very necessary-to-reach group. So, when two male sex workers arrived at the door, the Advisory Group weren’t about to give them the opportunity to turn and run.

The Advisory Group were keen to hear their concerns, fears, insecurities and demands. The LGBT Advisory Group “Sex Workers’ Project” (SWP) was proposed, in order to address issues of recognition within the law: advice on courses of action open to sex workers when subjected to assault; robbery or blackmail; clarification of the law as it affects sex workers; and other policing issues – and is now up and running.

The issues raised here concern people stigmatised because of their job, people who are now challenging prejudices and discriminations that go back more than 2,000 years. They are questioning legislation that encourages crimes more violent and abusive than the crimes such legislation seeks to address.

Sex workers I am in contact with do not view their profession (which is not always chosen) as something shameful. Many are students, some are tourists, others are there for the duration or for as long as they are “marketable”.

Although this diversity dispels as many problems as it raises (such as stereotyping), the transient nature of many of those who take on this work makes it very difficult to identify leaders. I’m often only too aware that the strong and articulate sex worker with whom we meet to brainstorm one week may disappear the next, either to a more open and perhaps less hypocritical environment – for example, Amsterdam or similar – or to their homeland to resume a “normal” life and profession. For this reason, support groups and organisations such as Streetwise Youth attempt to advocate for sex workers.

Outsiders try to push hurriedly towards finding a structure that will offer a solid base for the fledgling IUSW – a union that itself sees no need for “personalities” or identified people. The remit is to provide security for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they are going or where they have come from.

Gareth, a spokesperson for the IUSW, told me: “People get into sex work for individual reasons. I got into sex work through desperation. I arrived in London from Australia and was totally unprepared for how tough it could be here. I was “adopted” by a small group of male sex workers who befriended me. They were based in Earl’s Court and were totally supportive in their way. They didn’t get me into it but I did learn from them. I lost my fear of it, I guess. I had a partner in Sydney who did it – strangely enough it nearly killed me when he went back to it after giving it up for me. Now I’m doing it. Kinda funny.”

The IUSW was set up by a small coalition of people working in the sex industry and their supporters. They came together while planning a demonstration as part of International Women’s Day (in March 2000) in Soho, London. Their aim was to give support to the English Collective of Prostitutes. From this action grew a union of workers from many different sectors of the sex industry and a quarterly publication, Respect. This union offers sex workers support, friendship and respect. Those on the outside can’t or won’t offer support and current legislation stigmatises and disempowers people: the Sexual Offences Act does little to address the abuse, violence and exploitation by coercive pimps – instead it would appear to encourage it.

The IUSW is challenging concepts that are ingrained, fixed and sanctioned by church, state and the moral majority and helping its members to gain confidence and respect for themselves as individuals and each other. Knowledge is power and they are keen to learn about the law both domestic and international.

The union is tentatively looking towards a stable platform for its activities. Obviously, full Trades Union Congress recognition and a national executive committee are a long way off but its demands are no different from those of any other union: access to training (“our jobs require very special skills and a professional standard”); retraining programmes for sex workers who want to leave the industry; no taxation without such rights and representation; the right to form and join professional associations or unions; and so on.

Not that long ago the acting profession was vilified by society – “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” – and, as for the nursing profession, before Florence Nightingale it would never have received a royal title!

However, the main items on the agenda are a resource centre – a safe haven, a base, a sanctuary, an escape from subjective laws, even a place of education. The IUSW brings to whomever will listen a request for something similar to the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) set up by the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Health in Australia.

Gareth again: “I’m aware of the ‘glamour’ and mystique escorting has. It’s perceived as both a high and a low profession. Look at Andy Warhol’s films on hustlers. That’s one of my main reasons for getting the resource centre and outreach project up: it’s to get people to see the reality of this kind of work and to make informed decisions about it.”

SWOP is a community-based organisation established in 1990. As well as seeking to minimise the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS throughout the sex industry in NSW, the project provides a range of health, safety, support and information services for sex workers and their management, clients and partners. SWOP is also active in lobbying for law and health reform and peer education. Services are confidential and free of charge and available to women, men and transgender sex workers in NSW.

SWOP uses various strategies to provide information and support for all sex workers, whether they are working in brothels, privately, on the streets, strip clubs or other areas where commercial sex is available.

In late 1995, the NSW government passed the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act (DHAA) 1995. This Act removed brothels from the jurisdiction of the police. The DHAA also amended the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (EPAA), giving local councils responsibility for applications for brothel development approval. The reforms have enabled brothels to operate legally and given local councils the right to regulate brothels in much the same way as any other business.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the resource centre is just a dream, but there is evidently a determination and a united spirit reminiscent of the gay community of the late 1960s that has so far brought people together at low-key meetings in a hired room. They have captured the attention of some gay rights activists, the LGBT Advisory Group to the MPS, nurses from a genito-urinary clinic and some political and student groups. It is embryonic but they are pulling the strands together. Their quest is for peer support, empathy and solidarity, experiences and feelings most of us take for granted.

At present a permanent base is needed and the search for funding has begun with members of the IUSW exploring and listening to advice given by, in the main, old campaigners from the gay community. Fundraising is a welcome possibility but not an ideal. The ideal is funding from the local health authority, the Department of Health or the government. The government will need to recognise that resourcing some projects will make them feel uncomfortable and very unpopular with “Middle England”.

The IUSW are in evidence at more than just stereotypical events and parades: in November 2001, for instance, members joined with thousands of other people to protest about the bombing of the people of Afghanistan. Their banner was easily seen amid the traditional protest slogans of campaigning groups and socialist parties. Ana Lopes, an IUSW spokesperson and one of its founding members, said: “We support both the peace and anti-capitalist movements. It is about issues of poverty. People are sometimes forced into sex work because of poverty and are exploited. It is not their choice.”

She continued: “In order to respect the Muslim community present at this march, we are dressed in a more modest fashion and in black to symbolise our mourning. All this talk about the Taliban makes me feel like doing body painting every day – because the oppression of women within this regime is absolutely appalling. They are made to wear burkas and this makes me more vehemently determined to paint my body, celebrate it and rejoice in my sexuality.”

Monica Paladin, another member of the IUSW, said: “I’m here because I feel very close to the women and children of Afghanistan who are denied the right to express their ideas and identity to the world; the sex workers are also denied this right.”

If you have any ideas about funding, resourcing or have any advice for the International Union of Sex Workers, please contact them through the G&LH editorial address.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :