Sex work is an emotive issue, and not just to those who make a living from it.
Monday was International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. Newspapers are full of horror stories about women being forced into the sex industry. Twitter and the blogosphere are abuzz with arguments between sex negative feminists, their sex positive sisters, and sex workers themselves about the ethics behind sex work in modern Britain and Ireland.
Into this melee we can add the proposed bill by politicians Rhoda Grant and Baron Morrow who would like to see sex work criminalized in Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively, by introducing the “Nordic model.”
A friend of mine, Jemima 101, is a sex worker, blogger and prolific tweeter. She is also a wife, mother and former teacher. She agreed to discuss the issues and how they will affect sex workers in Scotland and Northern Ireland with me.
What kind of sex work do you do? Do you enjoy it?
I’ve been independent escort for just over two years. I love it, I enjoy sex, I like meeting people and it combines the two. I am free to work when I want and have got to meet some really interesting people.
I also often feel I have done a service, if that is not an over the top way to put it. I have met a number of older clients who crave human contact. They are often widowers who without sex workers would have no opportunity to be intimate. Leaving them with a smile on their face is incredibly rewarding.
You’re a sex positive campaigner. Can you define what being sex positive means to you?
For me sex positive means seeing sex, in all its forms as normal, provided there is enthusiastic and informed consent, and natural. That is not to deny the experience of those who are asexual or call them unnatural.
Sex positivism sees sex as a part of life that should be celebrated, not hidden away. It is about accepting that there is no “better” way to have sex, just the way that works for the individual. Sex positive is a state of mind for me, not being disgusted or judgemental about anything adults might get up to.
What would you define as the main differences between feminists who identify as sex positive and those who do not?
This argument seems to be hugely divisive at the moment. For me there are many feminists who claim to be sex positive but when you question them they are giving lip service to the idea, or put monogamy on a pedestal.
In “sex negative” feminism only certain forms of sex are acceptable, and ironically they’re often the same forms of sex accepted by the Christian Right. Once you start saying that only non-paid sex, or straight sex, or whatever category you believe is OK, is acceptable you are not sex positive.
Sex positive feminists see that patriarchy or even the Kyriarchy actually imposes these roles, as many sex negative feminists clearly have a patriarchal attitude towards other women.
If women are to be free of the roles imposed on them - often summed up as whore/Madonna - then reinforcing it with the idea that there is good sex and bad sex, is not only patriarchal but sets the fight for equality back.
Do you identify as a feminist?
No. I went to my first feminist conference recently, and I was excited because I see the younger women around me facing events like carnage and slut dropping, and thought, “one voice cannot fight this, we need to stand together.” So, after worrying about what to wear, arranging childcare and setting off at an ungodly hour I arrived full of enthusiasm ready to fight the good fight.
I left eight hours hours later angry and demoralized. When I approached one of the organisers with ideas for the next conference, and suggested sex work, I was told, “We cant even trade bananas fairly, so it isn’t going to happen with women.” I am not a banana.
Why do you prefer to be identified as a “sex worker” over any other term, for example “prostitute”? Why is other terminology offensive?
Partly to reinforce the idea that sex work is work. Organizations like Object and Normas2012 refuse to accept that it is, giving sex a special status that I do not believe it should have.
Being referred to as a “sex worker” reinforces the idea I am working, not being abused or victimised. Certain organisations insist on the word “prostitute” because they want to deny women the right to sell sexual services.
“Prostitute” has a lot of historical baggage. It has generally been used in a pejorative sense and to condemn women. It, and the incredibly offensive term “Prostituted women”, are used by anti-sex work organisations to deny sex workers the ability to consent.
Many sex workers, myself included, would probably rather be referred to as “whores.” A good old English word, that I would love to see reclaimed. Perhaps I’m only semi-serious, but you know when someone uses the term prostitute they normally don’t mean to be sex positive.
What is meant by the ‘Nordic model’?
We understand that the model is very close to what Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow want to introduce to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Nordic Model, as adopted by Sweden and Norway, makes paying for sex a crime. It is described as an “End demand model”. The idea of it is that if men will not visit sex workers if they fear prosecution.
It is based on the anti-men stance of some feminists who feel that no normal man would ever visit a sex worker and that all who do are abusers. It ignores women who visit sex workers.
What has happened in Sweden is that street workers - who are the most vulnerable sex workers - are less able to negotiate safe sex, feel less able to turn down men who worry them, and are not able to be contacted as easily by support services.
There has been no decline in the indoor trade, but since even carrying condoms can be seen as proof of sex work outreach is near to impossible.
There was also the recent situation of Swedish police filming sex workers without their consent to prosecute the men visiting them. Apparently consensual sex for money is abusive but being filmed without consent is not. The End Demand model, which Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow want to introduce, is based on a sex negative view of the world, hidden behind concern trolling. Sweden said to sex workers, “this is a feminist country,” but it’s not a sex positive one.
There are huge parallels between the campaigns by anti-sex work crusaders and anti-abortionists. A moral belief about what women should be allowed to do with their own bodies apparently overrides consent, autonomy and a woman’s right to choose.
Grant has described the increased danger the Nordic model puts women in as “a price worth paying.” Individual women’s lives don’t matter measured against the moral belief sex work is wrong.
What changes to legislation do you think need to be made to improve conditions for sex workers?
The first change that has to happen is to the law on brothels. Currently, if two sex workers work on the same premises it is defined as a brothel, forcing sex workers to work alone, which is clearly more dangerous, and leaves them more open to abuse.
There is a class issue, as it is harder for working class women to rent premises alone. Street workers in the past often banded together to rent a flat but now that could lead to them being charged with brothel keeping. So, again, “morality” has put women in more danger and because of the idea we need to end demand on the basis that sex work is wrong.
As for other changes, I would like to see people helped for the problems they have, not for the choice of work they make.
Let me know what you think about the proposed criminalization of sex work in Scotland and Ireland. Sex workers are entitled to as much protection under law as women in every other job, right?