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Where ROSA and the Socialist Party get it wrong on sex work (part 1, maybe)

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A response to this

First of all, I have to acknowledge that ROSA and the SP have moved a good way on this issue since the last time we wrote about them here at Feminist Ire – back when they were still supporting the Turn Off The Red Light campaign and refusing to use the term “sex worker”. I don’t know whether it’s a case of minds being changed after looking at the evidence, or just of sounder party members winning the internal policy debate, but it’s still a significant step forward for them and this deserves to be recognised (and hopefully followed by certain other parties on the left).

But it’s still not good enough – for a few reasons. We hope to have a guest post soon from an actual sex worker explaining some of them, but for now I’ll highlight a ROSA/SP position that would continue to leave sex workers extremely vulnerable: their support for broad “anti-pimping” laws.

The problem with these laws is twofold. Firstly, as currently written in Ireland, they don’t only criminalise “pimps”. The offence of living on the earnings of (another person’s) prostitution is not only committed when a sex worker works for someone else – it’s also committed when someone else works for a sex worker. This means that a sex worker cannot hire someone to do security for her, screen her calls, drive her to and from outcalls, etc, otherwise that person will be as liable for this offence as if they were the one in the “employer” position. No less than the brothel-keeping laws, the over-application of these laws forces sex workers to work on their own, without anyone else who could help ensure their safety.

The second problem is they seek to force sex workers into a particular business model – the sole trader – whether they want it or not. In sex work no less than in every other industry, mine included, not everybody is ready or willing to be their own boss! A lot of women start out working for agencies or in parlours or saunas etc, and then go out on their own once they’re experienced and comfortable enough; others simply prefer not being the one that has to deal with things like advertising and security and so on. And others go back and forth as their circumstances dictate. This is a reality in the industry, and criminalising “pimping” doesn’t stop it. It just means that the sex workers who do have bosses can only – by definition – have bosses who operate outside the law. It’s fair to say that these guys aren’t losing sleep over the possibility of WRC complaints.

In this article ROSA/SP draw a comparison with coal, saying “we oppose the filthy profiteers of that industry“. And that’s fair enough. But they’re not calling for criminalisation of everyone who employs someone else in the coal industry, are they? They’re not insisting that everyone who goes to work in that industry should have to navigate it – and its dangers – all on their own.

With a predictable reference to Germany – which, for the zillionth time, has a legalisation model that literally nobody in the sex workers’ rights movement advocates – they make the point that a legal industry isn’t necessarily an industry that looks after its workers. This is not actually a point that needed to be made; in fact it’s one of the reasons sex worker groups favour decriminalisation over legalisation in the first place. But if only the worker herself is decriminalised, how can she possibly access the available remedies for breaches of labour and health and safety law? The answer is she can’t, because her employment is illegal anyway.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Socialist Party are a socialist party – or at least that’s what it says on the tin. They make a big deal about their policy being derived from their socialist principles. Yet ironically, it’s a policy that protects only petty bourgeois sex workers, while throwing the wage-earners under the bus.

And while this should go without saying, I’ve been having these debates long enough to know I need to spell these things out, so for the record: this is not about supporting “pimps”, or some non-existent concept like “pimps’ rights” or something. It’s about not putting sex workers who are already being exploited (I mean that in the Marxist sense, though quite often it’s also in other ways) in an even more precarious position by relegating them eternally to the shadow economy. Nor does it preclude the possibility of penalising those sex industry bosses who are particularly exploitative. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

Whenever I’ve seen ROSA/SP get all defensive about this subject, they’re very insistent that they support sex workers. But I’m not sure which sex workers they’re taking their cue from. Where is the sex workers’ movement that is advocating for decriminalisation of the worker and her client, but not for any third parties? To me this reads more like an internal compromise sort of position, aimed at placating the wing of the party that had them on board with the Swedish model just a few years ago.

Notably, their writing on the topic is absent any reference to the New Zealand model (except for this five-year-old piece which, um, seems not to know what the New Zealand model is). Given that this is the most widely-supported model within the sex workers’ rights movement – and also has a decent track record of actually protecting sex workers’ labour rights – you’d expect them to take an interest in it, if they really wanted to support sex workers. If they have examined and decided to reject that model then fair enough, but I’d like to know their reasoning (and especially how they think any problems they may have identified with it can be overcome in a system where there is no regulation of the managed sector).

Again, I do accept that their position has improved over the past year or two and it is no longer really fair to describe them as SWERFy – at least in terms of their overall party position (though I admit I still have my doubts about some of their leading activists). But they still don’t seem to be really listening to sex workers; they still seem to be overly concerned with adhering to a rigidly dogmatic ideological view of the sex industry. As long as that remains the case, they’ll continue to be criticised for holding an anti-sex worker position – and, at least when it comes to sex workers that don’t work the way ROSA/SP thinks they should, that criticism will continue to be justified.

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

One response »

  1. If these lefties can’t figure out that they need to first listen to sex workers then how about … Don’t apply restrictions & models on one group of workers that you wouldn’t apply on others!!

    Reply

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