SWOU at Edinburgh Reclaim The Night

Hello, I’m [pseudonym]. I’m here speaking as part of the Sex Worker Open University. We are a worker’s collective comprising current and former sex workers (and some allies). People within SWOU have done lots of different kinds of sex work, for different reasons at at different times in their lives. SWOU members do or have worked on the street, in brothels, parlours or saunas, from working flats, independently, or been dancers, strippers, worked in porn, done phone sex work … Our collective does not include bosses or managers, because although we want our managers to be decriminalised so that we can have labour rights and workplace safety, we have an analysis that holds that the interests of workers are not the same as the interests of our bosses, and so we do not include those people in our collective.

Thank you for having SWOU here. Reclaim the Night has not always been friendly to sex workers (with some sex workers facing harassment on RtN marches, including being interrogated by the police at the request of stewards). At previous Reclaim the Night events, in other cities, I’ve seen RtN be deliberately routed through red light districts, to disrupt the income of women working there, and as if to “reclaim” the streets from sex workers as well as those who perpetrate harassment. In Edinburgh, I’ve heard feminists describe our workplaces as if merely seeing them is an assault – either against their dignity, or, I guess, their house prices.

This, of course, taps into a more general hatred of sex workers. In particular, a form of violence against street-based sex workers that is often overlooked in a widespread keenness to blame all the violence those workers experience on a shadowy ‘Other’, “pimps and johns”, is the substantial amount of violence that street-based sex workers face from the general public (p89). This can be shouting, it can be groups of people driving or walking past and throwing bottles, eggs, or bricks. A decade ago, Leith Residents Association was organising against the women who worked in the tolerance zone by forming vigilante gangs and going out and threatening the women with baseball bats. The tolerance zone was closed due to this local campaign, leading to a huge spike in violence against street-based sex workers perpetrated by men posing as clients. With the women unable to work safely, the number of violent attacks they reported to outreach workers went up from eleven, in the final year of the tolerance zone, to a hundred and eleven in the year after it closed (p70). This was in addition to the harassment and violence from the resident’s association, which was on-going and which was essentially endorsed, given that their tactics – baseball bats, etc – led to politicians giving them what they wanted, i.e the closure of the tolerance zone. (Street-based sex workers in Scotland still cite the renewal of tolerance zones as one of the key ways their work could be made safer, but its politically pretty toxic. The house prices and baseball bats crowd have won, for now.)

So when we talk about violence against women (or people read as women) on the street, we also need to think about the violence of stigma and criminalisation, the ways in which those are mutually reinforcing and in turn drive both violence – and we need to include sex workers in the community of people we want to protect, because that’s not always the case.

One of the arguments that’s often used against sex workers’ safety is: “yes, but sex work hurts all women”. This gets wheeled out when we’ve shown beyond doubt that criminalisation – whether of us, or of our clients or managers – hurts us. When we’ve proven that, the goal posts shift: “yes, but sex work hurts all women”. This suggests that violence against sex workers is acceptable or even necessary to protect “good” women from the harm that we supposedly do them. One amazing thing you could do to tackle violence against women – against sex workers – is to call out this argument when you encounter it. Since criminalisation manifestly harms our safety from violence, our access to justice, and our ability to protect ourselves from HIV, start asking feminists who make this argument how exactly an increase in assaults against us, how increasing our vulnerability to HIV, helps to build the gender equality of other women.

I want to conclude by quoting a blog post called ‘“Hey Baby, How Much?”: stop blaming street-sex workers for street harassment’, which is a really amazing blog and you should read it. It says:

“For those of us who get sexual street harassment on the regular, blame the patriarchy, don’t blame it on sex workers or the class and race character of the neighborhood. As targets of the patriarchy, sex workers understand it intimately and have some of the best solutions to resisting it. We have analyses which are critical for building feminist movements.

Think about the communities you belong to, the ones you love and want to nourish. There are sex workers amongst you – are you seeing them? There always have been sex workers in your communities – do you know our heritage and legacies? How can you learn to listen and believe us better? How can you challenge the attitudes that push us into silence? If you have participated in anti-sex work feminism (and we all have) how can you be accountable for the harm you may have created and prevent it? What have you got to learn from us, from the ways we navigate multiple identities and locations to what sex work has taught us about sex, bodies and gender?

There are many ways to be respectful. It might include supporting sex workers human and labour rights. Doing some research and making yourself someone a sex worker would want to talk to about their work. Getting real about who your feminism is excluding/disrepsecting and excited about how much you have to learn from sex workers about resistance to patriarchy, sisterhood, community based resistance to violence, how the patriarchal state tries to exert control over women’s reproductive & sexual labour, the gorgeous and nourishing fierceness of femininity–and so much more. Wherever you are, start by respecting the sex workers around you and in your neighborhood streets”.

Thank you for having us here. If you are able to, a good way to support sex workers in Scotland right now is to donate to Scot-Pep. (SWOU doesn’t have a bank account, which makes handling donations a bit difficult, though still possible!)