On 18 June 2012, members of RHUL Fem Soc went to the Stop the Arrests Campaign Launch in London.
Stop the Arrests is a campaign group calling for a moratorium on the arrest of sex workers during the London 2012 Olympic Games. They are concerned that the policing of sex work and establishments associated with the Olympics will compromise the safety and autonomy of workers in the industry. Stop the Arrests hopes to build working alliances with groups campaigning for the rights of women, sex workers and migrants. Through this campaign, they hope to force the political issue, which cuts broadly across mainstream parties, a mixed bag of opinions in each. I’m stressing the particularity of the aim, as I feel this was highlighted quite late in the evening’s proceedings, and the breadth of topics which were and were not discussed make more sense when this is highlighted first.
The chair began the evening by giving an introduction to the group x:talk, who initiated the letter to the Major of London regarding policing of sex workers and sex establishments in the lead up to the Olympics under the Stop the Arrests Campaign. X:talk is a grass roots organisation, a sex worker-led workers co-operative whose main activity is the organisation of language classes for sex workers. This isn’t something which was concentrated on at the campaign launch, but you can find more information about x:talk on their website. To whet your appetite, here’s one of my favourite sentences from the “about” page: ‘We understand language to be a politically and socially charged instrument of power, which we aim to teach critically and thoughtfully according to the specificity of our classes.’
To move back to what was actually said, x:talk have been in dialogue with groups worldwide regarding the London 2012 Olympics, especially concerning the policing tactics which may be brought in surrounding them under anti-trafficking auspices. They highlight the ineffectiveness of these tactics imposed from above, believing that sex workers are best placed to deal with problems which concern them. They call for campaigns to target laws effecting sex workers, relating to third parties, and to the pursuance of premises. Some of the variety of groups with whom they work are represented in the speakers.
The first speaker was Dr Laura Agustín, trafficking expert and author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. Laura described the hysteria over a rise of trafficking associated with large sporting events. She identified this rise in trafficking as a zeitgeist, and, moreover, one which has been disproved (see, for instance, research relating to the Germany 2006 World Cup and the South Africa 2010 World Cup, discussed on the Stop the Arrests website on “The Evidence” page). Furthermore, Laura stated, there is no contradictory research evidencing a positive link between large scale sporting events and increases in trafficking.
It seems, then, that political hysteria over trafficking associated with large sporting events must result from concerns apart from those stated, concerns such as immigration more widely. The vocabulary employed is frequently a step backward, with women construed as passive victims. There is also the idea of the “rescue”, in which raids of premises are reported to have resulted in, for instance, 3 people being “arrested” and 23 “detained”. What does “detained” mean? It has been difficult to find out through freedom of information claims. It seems that those detained are told that they should leave the country, resulting in yet more clandestinity. Laura concluded by reminding us that ‘selling sex in this country is not a crime’ - it is only activities surrounding the selling of sex, such as soliciting and the running of brothels, that are against the law.
Next, Vera Rodriguez, who is involved with x:talk and the English Collective of Prostitutes played us some interviews with voices from the industry. We heard two interviews.
First was the voice of a Brazilian woman who ran a flat who was told by the police that they would arrest her daughter, should she not plead guilty to trafficking. Having pleaded guilty, the judge of her case acknowledged that she had treated women in her flat well, but still gave her a custodial sentence due to what he considered to be the immorality of her actions. She spent nearly three years in prison, separated from her children, one of whom was only six years old. Having lost her home and possesions, friends who attempted to assist her were arrested and threatened with deportation.
Second was the voice of Jenny, the mother of a severely disabled daughter. As such, sex work was a job in which Jenny could control when she worked, in order to meet her bills, costs of equipment for the home and so on, when benefits are meagre. She said that restrictions and harassment due to existing laws on sex work made the job dangerous. Under proposed changes, she would risk a criminal record if seen working more than twice in three months by the police. Jenny described how the criminalisation of sex workers could result in a vicious circle: if she got a criminal record for soliciting, this would likely become the only job she could do. She also highlighted the cost the government would incur if she put her daughter into care.
The next speaker was Georgina Perry, manager of Open Doors, a free and confidential sexual health service for people working in the sex industry located at Homerton University Hospital in Hackney. The areas for which they work include three of the six Olympic host boroughs. Over her talk, Georgina aimed to outline why services (such as the NHS, in schemes such as Open Doors) should work within a harm reduction framework.
Georgina began by considering why it is that people feel drawn to a vocation in health. She sees it largely as relating to health as a universal human right. However, services are frequently guilty of discrimination and are judgmental towards those who do not conform to imposed norms (for instance, intravenous drug users). It is groups like this who schemes like Open Doors engage with.
Georgina identifies three main groups with whom Open Doors has engaged. These are:
- Migrant sex workers – normally about 1000 per year (although, despite the public belief that the Olympics will lead to an increase in migrant sex workers in London, she notes that this year they have actually seen a decrease in attendances)
- Street sex workers – frequently individuals who also encounter judgmental attitudes due to addictions etc;
- Survival sex workers – do sex work to make ends meet (e.g. like Jenny, to pay bills). Open Doors have met increasingly more survival sex workers over the last three years.
Georgina described the difficulty of navigating the NHS system, especially for migrants, who may not have a comparable public health system in the country from which they migrated. People may find themselves, referred from department to department before receiving treatments. In some cases, for instance which a person is seeking a termination, this can result in it being two late by the time treatment is offered to them. Services like Open Doors help these people to navigate the system, and help the NHS and other services by highlighting aspects which don’t work well. In particular, they can assist with navigating the interdependency of health and other services such as housing. Georgina summed up the approach by describing it as client and right based, rather than as a “rescue”.
Georgina went on to outline what Open Doors have started seeing in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics. From 2008, Georgina has been attending meetings about the Olympics, for instance at the GLA. The Olympics are seen as a great opportunity for causes to attract money and attention to their message, and we see with trafficking. Counter to the claims used in promoting this rescue agenda, women in the sex industry who Open Doors have worked with rarely do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it. However, despite the statistics held by Open Doors (the NHS is good at counting!), their points are ignored.
Government cuts have affected who takes the lead in these meetings, with some groups disappearing. Open Doors have seen a large increase in brothel closures in East London, 2009-10, when a new police unit was introduced for this task. The first of the voices from the industry which we heard earlier was one woman effected by this move.
The knock on effects of this increased policing are dangerous. It has become more difficult for services such as Open Doors to build relationships with sex workers. Open Doors do not work with the police, but when one has such negative experiences with one public service (Georgina mentioned particularly police response to a case in Barking and Dagenham, which shall be returned to later), it is more difficult to trust another. For instance, more workers now do not inform Open Doors when they move home. Sex workers are also experiencing higher levels of violence and aggressions, with more attacks on flats taking place, for instance. Again, the Barking and Dagenham case serves as an example.
Next we watched a video link-up from Dr Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour and author of The Sex Myth. Brooke highlighted that police targeting of consensual sex work under auspices of anti-trafficking campaigns created an environment where a concern for personal safety (e.g. in not being clandestine, in working with a group in a flat) could result in arrest. This leaves sex workers with a decision to make between a criminal record and their own safety. Brooke also mentioned the one-sided reporting of sex work in the media, and the ineffectiveness of prohibition. As she writes on one of her blogs (the 18 June 2012 entry): “It's time we started acting like grownups and stopped pretending that making something illegal makes it cease to exist.”
Following the end of the official speakers, Carrie Mitchell, from the ECP, offered to read us a statement from Lana, a sex worker targeted in the Bradford and Dagenham case already mentioned. As a quick background, quoting from here:
Last December in Barking & Dagenham a violent gang carried out a series of robberies on brothels at knife point. Sex workers were deterred from pursuing the attacks after police threatened them with prosecution. Thus many more were attacked and one woman was raped. Once the police agreed to an amnesty from arrest, sex workers were able to come forward.
Lana worked in a flat near an Olympic site. The flat was well established, and they had good relationships with neighbours. In this series of violent attacks, they were robbed, and sent a tape of the events to the police, who did not respond. They were targeted a second time, which they did not report. Then a third time, when sex workers were assaulted at knife point. This they reported, and police turned up to investigate the same night. However, a couple of days later, they received a letter from the police, indicated that they were liable themselves to be prosecuted. They sought to talk to politicians, and were in contact with the Guardian, who published this article. The police responded to questions, claiming that the sex workers were unwilling to cooperate, and attributing the violence they suffered to their ‘dysfunctional lifestyle’. Lana responds. The police were persecuting rather than protecting; that’s dysfunctional. The gang attacked once more. Another flat posted a video on Youtube, in which attackers were recognised. The ECP helped facilitate contact between the Barking and Dagenham police, and those in Lewisham, who had dealt with a similar case previously, and charges have now been brought against gang members. However, even with the support which she has received, Lana said that, thanks to her experiences, she would not report again.
The last amnesty on the arrests of sex workers followed the Ipswich murders of 2006. This was not formally stated, but resources for sex workers were made available, and no arrests were made for a year. A dedicated phone line was established for sex workers to report violence in anonymity and confidentiality. However, this was cut off the day after Steve Wright was arrested.
Next, the floor was opened for questions.
An audience member highlighted the difference in statistics employed by groups campaigning for legalisation, amnesties, and anti-sex work groups. They asked how these arose, how do we know who to trust?
Laura Agustín outlined the impossibility of accurate statistics in this area. Noone can know how many undocumented migrants and unregistered people there area; groups rely upon estimates. Not all businesses are run legally, resulting in more of the same problem regarding statistics. Furthermore, if a researcher calls a receptionist, for instance, posing as a client, with a request to see a sex worker of a specific nationality, they are likely to receive a response that this is possible.
An audience member from the ECP criticised anti-sex work campaigns for many of the same reasons, but also highlighted responses to the Pentameter from different groups (see here).
Laura added that there are disagreements between parties over what ‘trafficking’ means, and that this should be bore in mind when considering reports.
The second question concerned attitudes of local MPs and media in Olympic boroughs.
Georgina Perry took the lead in answering this question. She highlighted that the media won’t report boring (non-)stories e.g. ‘People are selling sex and using the money they earn to study’. Commissioned reports may also feel pressure to make exciting conclusions.
Local MPs are interested in votes. Having an opinion on who a sex worker is, what they want, etc can provide a universalism to use as a vote spinner. Georgina mentioned the example of Tower Hamlets, where campaigns against dancing clubs also expose the effect of cultural pressures and concerns.
The third question asked if the campaign had received any communication from the Met or the Major of London.
The chair explained that the letter to Boris Johnson had been presented a couple of weeks ago, but had received no response as of yet. The Metropolitan Police have been in contact, informing that they know of the campaign. They are launching a ‘rescue’ campaign with a religious organisation in the Kings Cross area, a move which has been organised without the consultation of sex workers. The protocol to be employed by the police regarding sex workers during the Olympics was due to be announced today (18 June), but has not been.
Here, Laura Agustín added to discussion of the ‘rescue industry’, as this had come up a few times in the evening. The description of the ‘rescue industry’, as in her book title, and used this evening, is not to say that those who are ‘rescued’ have any less authentic experiences: it is not to say that victimisation etc does not ever occur. However, for the Met to employ only this type of organisation for consultation is shocking.
A final question asked if the campaign had considered mounting an aggressive defence of sex work.
Laura Agustín outlined that this is a very focused campaign, but many who are involved are also involved in defences of sex work elsewhere.
An audience member outlined the Swedish model of sex work, where in law it is presented as violence. Abolitionist viewpoints such as this push sex work further underground, with a criminal client and a victim worker, and do not solve problems.
You can sign an open letter to Boris Johnson here.
There will be an organising meeting at Centre for Possible Studies, 21 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8HR next Monday evening (25 June 2012).