A DECRIMINALISED FUTURE
This is the opening panel from the Decriminalised Future conference in May 2019. It brings together activists and organisers from across a broad range of movements to discuss drug policy, feminism, migration, anti-trafficking policy, reproductive justice, gender, sex work and our ongoing struggles for decriminalisation.
To view a pdf of the transcript for ‘Cops Don’t Keep Us Safe: When Survival is Made Criminal’ please click here.
To download a word document version please click here.
Blair Buchanan (Decrim Now), Chiara Capraro (Amnesty), Emily Kenway, Rain Watt (TransgenderNI), Kirstie Douse (Release)
sex work, anti-trafficking, drug policy, migration, reproductive justice, sex work, gender, decriminalisation, violence against women
Blair Buchanan (BB)
Chiara Capraro (CC)
Emily Kenway (EK)
Rain Watt (RW)
Kirstie Douse (KD)
00:00:00 BB: So hi, I’m Blair. I’m from SWARM. I’m on the board and I’m also a co-ordinator of the Decrim Now campaign, and I just want to welcome you all to the event. It’s such a great honour to be here, and to have all of you come and join us at this incredible ten-year anniversary event, where we’re celebrating [Audience cheers and applauds] everything that SWARM has achieved and build on our movement and trying to intersect our movement with other struggles. And, yeah, it’s great to see so many people here, and I’m sure there’s more going to come in as the time goes on. I just want to start with a couple of housekeeping things, just so that we’re all on the same page. If you, at the reception, saw the people giving out yellow stickers, basically if you would like to not have your photograph taken, please find Juno over here and get a yellow sticker and have it on you visibly so that we’ll know not to take your photograph. Also, Valerie, our conference organiser supreme over there, [Laugh][Audience cheers and applauds] we all want to say a big thank you, because without them it would be, it just wouldn’t have happened. So, we all hold a lot of ‘thank you’ for you. [laughs] I just want to remind everyone about the Safer Spaces policy that we have here. Obviously, this is a three-day event, and we’re here to try and understand and tackle the oppressions that sex workers face, both as marginalised workers and as members of marginalised communities. We’re aiming to create a respectful space that centres sex workers and their experiences, whilst also exploring the intersection of these experiences with other social struggles. Please be mindful that people attending the festival will be coming from many different communities, experiences, countries, backgrounds, educational levels and context, and that we might not always have a shared language or vocabulary or understanding about some of these issues. Throughout the festival, we’re aiming to foster a space where we can communicate thoughtfully and respectfully of difference, while building a movement that supports not only sex worker rights, but our struggle towards collective liberation. There’s going to be a wide range of discussions, a lot of different experiences and positionalities, and we want to foster an environment where open-mindedness, willingness to learn and respect for each other’s experiences and perspectives is prioritised. And we want people to feel able to ask questions and to engage without fear of reprisal or humiliation, but also be willing to take on challenges and be respectful when people are engaging with them about how some of their language or their perspectives might be oppressive or harmful for others in the community. We’re all in a process of unlearning. You know, SWARM ourselves, we’ve done, we’re really committed to working on being respectful of our own position and how we practise our politics in this festival and in our wider work, and that means we’re committed deeply to anti-racist organising, and we believe that all other types of oppression are not acceptable in our movement. We want to make sure that we’re prioritising and amplifying the voices of those who are most marginalised or stigmatised across many different intersections. You can read more about our Safer Spaces policy at the registration, and we also have wellbeing officers who are going to be here across the festival, so that if you have any concerns or you have issues that come up, you don’t have to deal with them alone, and we want you to feel as though there’s a community accountability and responsibility for dealing with issues that might come up. Yeah, so that’s that. I just want to generally say that SWARM and the festival this year, it’s our ten-year anniversary and we’re really, really proud that we’re not just keeping in this narrow silo of just thinking about sex worker rights. We’re deeply, deeply committed to trying to create a movement which is tied up with other movements, whether that be prison abolition, drug user rights, taking down TERF ideology, moving away from anti-migrant racist type of practices; we’re deeply seeing ourselves as embedded within those other movements. And that’s kind of the premise of why I wanted to do this panel, because I believe that not only do we have a lot to share about sex worker rights organising, but also look at the ways in which we can build with other movements that are struggling for decriminalisation or against state violence, against all forms of discrimination and violence that marginalised folks can experience.
So, yeah, on to the panel! So, yeah, I’m really honoured to have such great panellists with me today. I’m going to introduce them all now. But I just wanted to tell you a little bit about Decrim Now first, and sort of the national campaign, because that’s where I’m coming from solely today, on this panel. Decrim Now is a sort of coalition or collective of different organisations—whether they be sex worker organisations, feminist organisations, trade unionists and others—who’ve come together to try and change the legislative situation for sex workers in the UK, and we believe that we can’t do that just by staying solely within the sex worker rights movement. We need it to broaden out and try and reach out to make this a more important issue for people across different movements and across different sectors. Decrim Now has had a lot of successes. We’ve been doing that within, not only just political lobbying, but also by being a big part of the union campaign for United Voices of the World, which last year started organising strippers, and we’ve had some incredible successes. We’ve ended up getting a lot of strippers—like, there’s been a unionisation drive in a lot of clubs across the country, and we’re now actually getting union recognition in a number of clubs, which is pretty incredible. It’s changing the landscape of industrial struggle for sex workers in this country. And now also we’re moving on to looking at hostesses and other forms of labour where there is an identifiable boss and an identifiable workplace, and seeking to gain worker status, which would allow us to be fighting for basic maternity leave, statutory sick-pay, lots of things which strippers currently, and other self-employed—that’s what they call us, anyway—self-employed forms of sex workers are not able to access currently. So, yeah, I’ll introduce you guys. Basically, we wanted to have different spokespeople or panellists come and talk about their particular movements. I’ve got Chiara from Amnesty, who’s come to talk about Amnesty’s work but also just thinking about women’s rights and its connection to sex worker rights around reproductive justice, around economic justice, migrant’s rights, etcetera. I’ve Rain from Transgender NI, who’s talking about the NI context, and also just thinking about transgender rights and how it’s tied up inherently with sex worker rights. I’ve got Emily, who’s here to talk about the context of anti-trafficking and how it intersects with sex worker rights often in incredibly toxic and harmful ways and thinking about other ways in which we could bridge these two movements together. And then I’ve got Kirstie from Release, that’s here to talk about drug criminalisation and the intersection between drug user rights and sex worker rights in building solidarity and fighting against state violence. So, yeah. Got quite a line up. [Laughs] [Audience applauds] So, yeah, I just want to start by going around and getting people to sort of introduce what they wanted to bring to the conversation, and what they think that sex worker rights, and the struggle for decrim particularly, has to do with your movement, and the sort of position that you’re coming from.
00:07:44 CC Thanks, Blair. Yeah, first of all I wanted to thank the organisers and also to say that I’m really, really pleased that I’m able to represent Amnesty International UK today, and also congratulate you on writing the Safer Spaces statement, which I found incredibly helpful and I spammed to everybody I know, basically. [Laughs] I think the perspective from which I can speak today is of a person who leads women’s human rights policy work in a big international human rights organisation, and I think that what I’m trying to do is to really look at kind of what’s going on on the floor rather than the ceiling of women’s rights, and how the most marginalised women and non-binary people are facing struggle that intersects around capitalism, austerity, borders, and just violation of their rights to be safe and free from violence. So, I was thinking in terms of the reproductive rights movement. Of course, Amnesty does a lot of work on abortion. We have a big campaign going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, but we also work internationally as well. And I think that the two movements—I mean the sex workers’ movement, and the reproductive justice movement—of course share the same goals of bodily autonomy, integrity and choice. But the thing is that, when we say the criminalisation of abortion doesn’t make abortions go away, it just makes them more unsafe and dangerous for women, the same doesn’t compute when we talk about sex work, because unfortunately the main opponent is actually within the feminist movement, or—I say feminist in like a… you know… kind of a… [Laughs] Okay, let’s say feminist movement. And often the most visible and powerful parts of this movement are the most vocal against sex workers’ rights. So I think it’s really important that the two movements work together more and look at the impact of criminalisation across a range of issues, and what’s the place of the most marginalised—whether we’re talking about trans folks, or undocumented folks, or people who are facing violence in their intimate lives and relationships—what does criminalisation do to them. And I think it’s at quite an interesting time right now, where I think that there are this unholy alliances are becoming increasingly visible. So, trans-exclusionary radical feminists and evangelicals, for example. Like, more and more links emerge about this funding from US evangelicals is actually powering that kind of campaigning here in this country. And so, I think this is really a unique for the movement to come closer together, and yeah, I’ll stop here for now. Or you stop me if you want me to stop? [Audience laughs]
00:11:16 BB Does anyone else want to jump in?
00:11:17 EK I can go. So, yeah. I’m Emily. I work on human trafficking, formerly as an advisor to the independent anti-slavery commissioner, and now elsewhere. And I’m here as an independent, rather than representing my organisation, and that should tell you perhaps a bit about what standing up for sex workers’ rights can feel like in the anti-trafficking space. So—but I should say that that is changing, and I do want to do an immediate shout-out to the two authors here of Revolting Prostitutes, because I can see you both in the room, and I’m seeing that sweep around the anti-trafficking sector and I’m having conversations with people where their minds are changing. So, it’s amazing. [Audience cheers and applauds] So, my kind of angle for today’s panel is, yeah: how does the anti-trafficking space intersect with sex workers’ rights? And, for me, anti-trafficking is not going to go away, that whole kind of domain. And so, how do we engage with it productively to further decriminalisation? I think that we have to not overlook the fact that anti-trafficking has often had explicitly embedded in it anti-sexwork in general. So, for example, the Swedish deputy prime minister saying, “If we got rid of all prostitution, we’d get rid of all trafficking in women.” So obviously, for him—or her; I actually don’t know who it was—the getting rid of sex work is the answer, ignoring the fact that women are trafficked into many other sectors, of course. And likewise, the toolkits and the tools that are developed to identify whether someone might or might not be a trafficked person—used by police, but increasingly citizens and consumers are being exhorted to use them—are really problematic for sex workers. So SWAN Vancouver, which is an amazing organisation for sex workers, put together a list of the red flags that they found in anti-trafficking toolkits to work out whether or not a sex worker might have been a trafficked person. And it’s things like women of the same nationality are working together in the same premises, they show fear of authority, they don’t want to share their immigration status, and they have a language barrier in the local area. So you get a nice bit of anti-immigrant stuff in there as well, which is very common in anti-trafficking. And the main fight in the trafficking sector around sex workers’ rights is the sex purchase ban versus people who want sex workers’ rights. And unfortunately, the most respected international tool that’s used by the trafficking space, which is the UN Human Trafficking Protocol, has an element of it which says that “states shall adopt or strengthen measures to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.” And that has been taken and run with by a Nordic Model demand, and I think that that’s one of the things that we need to do as a space is flip what ‘demand’ means. Well, what about the demand of capitalism for cheap exploitable labour? What about the demand of neoliberal elites for hard migration policies that create this? And what about, more importantly, the demand of the workers—whatever sector they’re in, factories or brothels—for their rights, and for those rights to be protected and to be able to organise. So, I’m sure I’ll talk more as we go on, but there are spaces where I’m seeing common ground come into the fore with anti-trafficking movement, and ways in which we can align with intelligent anti-trafficking stuff in other sectors and put sex work in with those. So, there is lots of opportunity, but there is also a big fight.
00:15:14 BB Can I just say, on the anti-trafficking thing—I know that we’ll carry on in more depth—but it’s interesting: each one of the anti-trafficking organisations, there is a member of their staff who I’ve spoken to, and nearly all of the main ones, who agrees fundamentally in sex worker rights, in decrim, but they are absolutely terrified to come out and say anything publicly or for their organisation to take a staunch position on it. And that really tells you about the level of power, which is being wielded down, and how that is affecting the situation for us. The amount of funding that comes from the, as you were saying, very nefarious places, that is pushing sex worker rights to be pushed down the agenda in these anti-trafficking organisations, is really incredible. And so I think we really need to think about how we put pressure on those organisations to come out with a particular position that we feel is progressive and that we want, and we really need to think outside of the box, I think, about with the funding especially and how that becomes a pool of power that stops us being able to take things forward.
00:16:25 RW Hi there. My name’s Rain. I’m one of the directors of Transgender NI, which is a human rights organisation in Northern Ireland supporting, advocating for, doing politics around the trans community there. Northern Ireland obviously is a very interesting place to look at—"interesting” in air quotes, there. For sex work generally, because of course our laws are slightly different, but I’m going to talk about this a little bit more, I don’t want to take up all the time at the start about this. But I’ve talked to some folks who are working on preliminary research on what the change in law has actually meant in Northern Ireland, and if [someone whispers off mic] yeah, yeah. So, basically criminalisation of purchase, the Nordic Model, ending demand, is something quite recent to Northern Ireland, 2015. And in the subsequent years, things have happened, and if you’re thinking what those things might be, you are probably correct [laughs], but we’ll talk about it in a little minute. And then, also from that sort of trans perspective as well, because, of course, so many trans folk are in the sex work industry, due to a variety of factors, some of which are sort of based in capitalistic problems in regards to lack of access to education, and under- and unemployment, and in other sectors, due to discrimination that of course is not specific to the trans community, but that’s the perspective that I’m coming from. As well as that, some particular current concerns for trans folk in Northern Ireland, of course, is abortion access, reproductive justice, for those trans folk that require it. Still, those laws have not changed. There’s really big pushes to make things happen, but due to the lack of an executive, it’s been so very hard to get any progress on those things. But it leaves the situation still very unsafe for folks who are able to get pregnant that need access to those things. But, yeah. That’s all I want to say right now because I think there’s some very meaty, juicy things to talk about in regard to the law, but we’ll get to that.
00:18:57 KD Hi, my name’s Kirstie. I’m a lawyer and head of legal services at Release, which is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. We deliver lots of services, but that’s probably something for another day. I think our policy work is of most relevance. We specifically advocate for decriminalisation of personal possession of all drugs. I’m going to start by saying what angle I’m not bringing today, which is I’m not bringing this negative stereotype that drug use and sex work go hand in hand. What I want to bring out today I think is that, as Blair said, that we need to be working together. I think drug policy reform has traditionally kind of acted in a silo, and we do really need to look at the similarities in other movements. So, for instance, the decriminalisation campaign for drugs and sex work are very similar. It’s highlighting the negative consequences of criminalisation in pushing activity underground. It’s all about an activity which is exercising personal autonomy over someone’s body and what they do to it. In terms of campaigning for decrim, both movements are looking at international evidence, whether that’s negative or positive, and trying to highlight that. So I think it’s really important actually, we can see those similarities, and see what has worked for one and not for the other. Obviously, there are going to be individual differences. So I’m really excited to be able to talk more about how people who use drugs can do some more organising and be empowered in the same way that I see the sex workers’ movement is. I would love to be able to come here today to say, “This is what we’ve done, and we’re really successful in terms of decrim of drug possession.” We’re not, but there are actually some positive things that are happening, and I don’t know if it’s something that the sex workers’ movement can take on, but I hope that it will give some inspiration.
00:20:54 BB Okay, so I want to ask, what are your experiences and lessons which you would share with organisers and activists today on fighting against criminalisation, and searching and struggling for a way to get decriminalisation in your particular movement or struggle? Because I think that so many of the movements we’re talking about, as you’ve just said, they’re so similar in many ways, but also there are particular nuances, there are particular things that make things easy or more difficult. You know, arguably, the reproductive justice case, you know, the TERFs and the SWERFs aren’t spending all their time generally trying to stop abortion access. But at the same time, it’s the same issues around, well: who’s getting access to abortion? The majority of the abortion rights campaigners that I see are white, cis feminist, middle class women, who generally speaking are prioritising their voices and their experiences. And we’ve just seen that around the sex strike in the United States, where people have been calling out that entire movement’s strategy as actually quite regressive. And so, obviously we can talk about that, but I just, I think we need to be thinking about not just, you know, “Oh, well, the SWERFs and TERFs, they’re for abortion access, they’re for this thing,” or whatever. But actually, when you get down to it, they’re happy to get in bed with the evangelical right, the far-right fascists, and use the funding that comes from that in order to pursue their ends. So, yeah.
00:22:29 CC Yeah, one thing I wanted to say was exactly that. I think that because of part of the reproductive justice movement trying to centre more and more the experiences of trans and non-binary people and using non-gendered language around the issues of abortion and pregnancy, that is really pissing off these constituencies. [Laughs] Like, you can really see it on Twitter, on—you know, let’s say Twitter is a reflection of the real world—but, and—yeah, no, well, I won’t go there. But, for example, Amnesty International started using—so our revised policy on abortion talks about women and girls, and other people who can get pregnant, who have the ability of getting pregnant. And so, even in tweets on social media we use that, and a lot of people now are taking that up as an issue. It’s like the idea that it’s like, “‘People’? Why do you say ‘people’?” And we’re spending loads of our time on trying to deal with that. So I think that these sort of unholy alliances are starting to emerge, and that should push the reproductive justice movement, and the sex workers’ rights movement, and other people who are affected by criminalisation, and just like dehumanisation, really, to come together and be stronger together. And I think that definitely the reproductive movement, in general, could learn from the sex workers’ rights movement to centre more the experiences of trans and non-binary people. And also—well, loads of things—but to look also at other issues around the criminalisation of reproduction. So, for example, the fact that, apart from access to abortion, which of course is critical, but also other issues around for example criminal justice approaches to women who are pregnant who use drugs, which is something that happens in the US, and also the wider kind of austerity, and what happens after birth really, because I mean all these [movement from the room] I don’t know, people are—
00:24:58 BB There’s a mass exodus!
00:24:58 CC People are escaping! [Laughs] Because, yeah, of course… I mean, this impacts… [Laughs] Sorry! Okay, there’s some rearranging. Okay. I think that in the campaign for Northern Ireland, organisations have tried to highlight more and more that the impact of the total ban is not equal on different constituencies. So, for example, undocumented women cannot travel. Of course, women on low incomes find it much more difficult to travel; women who are in an abusive relationship, the same. So I think this idea of really being much more intersectional and bringing out those stories, and I think that in the Irish campaign—I mean the Republic of Ireland—for the referendum, the stories and fighting stigma through normalising abortion, and the fact that it’s like, your sister, mother, girlfriend, whatever, has been really what has made the change, and kind of make it an issue that is relatable, because it affects the person, but it affects also their family and community, and trying to speak to people in that way. And I think that was extremely powerful. I also recognise that’s much harder to do for sex workers because of how more difficult it is to be visible.
00:26:36 RW Yeah, really interesting hearing about the sort of approach to talking about stuff and gender-neutralising the language, which definitely there’s been more and more of a push to do that. I think generally the lesson to take away from that is, there is a lot of people who have rhetoric that is, I think, for some people it makes sense to them, where it’s like, “Well, if you use this gender-neutral language, it’ll scare people away from the movement,” and whenever TERFs and SWERFs and the rest of it pull those sort of things out it can scare people away from using that kind of language, when really, these movements aren’t losing momentum at all. We are still making progress despite putting in alliances “to talk about” more minority groups, “to talk about” those more difficult issues. You know, leaving space for those things actually makes movements stronger and makes them more relatable to people, and actually leads, I think, to more progress. And being able to fend off that sort of rhetoric is incredibly useful, and I think that’s useful for all movements to not shy away from talking about minority experiences, and not just centre the most privileged of people in any given situation. And, for example, in the abortion case for Northern Ireland, so many times the response is, “Well, people can travel.” You know, they can’t [laughs] is the thing, is the issue. There’s so many people for whom that’s not an accessible solution, for whom that’s never going to be a possibility, and de facto, abortion is not an option for them. And so, by ignoring those minority experiences, you are cutting out all of the nuance and all of those difficult things, and really, where the progress needs to be made is with those more underprivileged people. And so, there needs to be active effort to pull those voices up, which is why I’m so happy to be speaking here today. It’s incredible.
00:28:43 KD Thank you. So, I guess…. So, as I said, at Release and other drug policy reform organisations, we often look at the evidence internationally. So, Release produced a report looking at twenty-five different countries across the globe that have introduced some form of decriminalisation, and looking at the fact that the sky didn’t fall in, and everyone didn’t—as soon as decrim happened—everyone didn’t sit around taking drugs all day long. [Laughs] In fact, for instance, in Portugal, which is the most reported on and the most researched, who decriminalised in 2001, drug use in the most affected population—so injected drug use—reduced; drug use in young people reduced. There were positive health outcomes. In Australia, it increased positive outcomes in housing and relationships and things like that. However, nobody wants to listen to that still. So, in the vein of trying to intersect with other issues as well, we’ve really looked at racial justice, and we’ve produced a couple of reports now on the disproportionate policing and prosecution of drug offences in relation to race, highlighting that black people are more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, more likely to then be arrested, more likely to get prosecuted, and then get harsher sentences; so more likely to go to prison. And there some politicians who are picking up on that, but the problem is the politicians who are picking up on it are the ones in the shadow cabinet—are, you know, in opposition—and whilst we have the government that we have, then there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of movement top-down. So actually, what we see, in terms of the positive movement, is from what we call “the unusual suspects.” Drug policy reform in the UK now is really being led by the police, which is quite surprising. But—and it’s for many different reasons. Many of the police that we speak to are actually really understanding of the experiences of people who use drugs and differentiating between recreational users and people who use drugs problematically, but every single person who uses drugs has the potential to be criminalised, although more privileged people probably are less likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. But others are coming at it from an economic angle. So the police are being asked to do more with less, and they see the futility of continuing to police and prosecute people who aren’t doing any harm to anybody else, and most of the time doing no harm to themselves too. So we’ve seen diversion programmes across the UK. One in Durham called Checkpoint that’s been operating for quite a long time now, that has seen positive outcomes, in terms of people engaging in treatment if they need to, but also reduced criminal activity. There’s a similar programme in Avon and Somerset, but the one that I quite like most at the moment is in Thames Valley Police, and that’s because those other programmes are post-arrest. So you’re still having that criminal encounter, whereas Thames Valley is an on-the-street diversion. So you get diverted to treatment if that’s something that you want and need, but otherwise you’re kind of left to go on your way. And perhaps—or there’s an education programme, if that’s what you want to do, and that’s more focused around harm reduction. As I say, police really leading reform, but that’s not decrim, so there’s… possession of drugs still remains as a criminal activity, and what you’re getting is a postcode lottery. So if you’re caught in possession of drugs in one county, then you’ll get a different response compared to if you’re in London, for instance. And so, it’s not enough, but it is a really good positive move for those areas, and what we’re hoping is that there might then be some more national leadership. So we have seen the Police Federation actually coming out in support of diversion programmes. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is one of the lessons to learn is to perhaps engage with those unusual suspects—whether that’s the police and crime commissioners or the chief constables—and then similarly other unusual suspects. For instance, in Glasgow, there’s been proposals for a drug consumption room, and that’s really been backed by local businesses, because they see the benefits, in terms of reducing drug litter in their communities. So, and that’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily go to for your kind of first supporter, I guess.
00:33:16 BB I just wanted to pick up on the stuff around the relationship with the police, because obviously we’re an organisation or a collective and a movement that is fundamentally opposed to the police, incarceration, prisons, and state control of marginalised people through that sort of lexicon. And I think that from my experience in the drug user rights movement, we’ve also had a similar analysis that, generally speaking, if you look at the war on drugs around the world, it’s a deeply racial, neo-colonial project. It’s one that is not comfortable with just identifying people as good drug users, bad drug users. It’s often the way in which we discern that is through racial lines, and is incredibly regressive, whether we’re—I don’t know. My main point is that I don’t personally agree with diversion projects as a goal. I think, sure, as a transitional sort of demand, or a transitional thing when they don’t have any other option, I think that’s something. But it really reminds me a little bit of like the rescue industry and the way in which we think about pushing people towards, you know, “You can either be criminalised, or you can do this thing.” Neither of them are the options that you actually want, nor what you’ve decided that you need, and are being foisted on you by the state. And I also think—there’s a particular thing, I was at the Harm Reduction International recently, where we were discussing this real issue around, “Well, is decriminalisation enough?” Because it’s a deeply reformist project, in a lot of ways because you still—especially in the drug context—because you’re moving, basically, the responsibility and the control of drug user’s lives from the police to the public health system. And often, in the sex worker rights movement, we know that doctors can be just as problematic, service provision can be just as problematic in telling us what our autonomy, our safety, our self-determination should be. And I think we really need to be quite critical of that turn towards public health as a solution if we’re still framed as the service user that needs to be socially controlled as a potential vector of disease, as a potential threat to the mainstream society. I would say, I’ve had some, I’ve had the pleasure of being at the launch of Kojo Karam’s book about the global colour line and the war on drugs, and it was incredibly amazing to listen to academics—and particularly Amani that works with Release—talking about this particular issue of, “How do we capture what the decrim movement can be, beyond just a legal lobbying sort of exercise? What does a decriminalised future look like, that we move towards thinking about people through these lenses, and actually reconceptualise punishment, and think about sort of dealing with harm? How do we move beyond a world where there are always the criminals and the good people, and we need to just keep them segregated away from society in these cages?” Yeah, it was really useful. But I think we need to really think about what we prefer as the alternative to criminalisation as well, and really think about that because, for us, in the sex worker rights movement, it’s about having the autonomy and the self-determination to determine how we operate. Whether that be collectively working together in co-operatives or whatever, or whether working independently, or whether it’s using third parties, because we actually don’t want to have to deal with the administration, and the advertising, and all the rest of it. There are lots and lots of ways, but the deeply important thread within it, is that we are determining that for ourselves, and it is not being foisted upon us by public health, by service providers, or by the state. Yeah, sorry for the little rant.
00:37:16 KD Completely agree with you. I’m absolutely not here advocating for diversion programmes. So, that’s not the goal, but in the immediate short-term, if that is reducing the harms of criminalisation, then that’s a good short-term measure, and absolutely, then we need to be pushing for decrim. But then picking up on that, I think that’s perhaps where the two movements are different is that for people who use drugs, decrim wouldn’t be the end goal. So, yes, criminalisation’s gone. However, because of the illicit market, there are a number of health harms that come with that. And so, we would be looking more for regulation, which is absolutely not what the sex workers’ movement wants. So, there are different end goals, definitely.
00:37:59 EK It’s interesting, what you were saying about the kind of dichotomy between the criminal and the non-criminal, because that’s very, very kindred to what you see in the anti-trafficking space. So, if you’re an undocumented migrant, or you’ve got irregular migration status, you’re either illegal or you might be a modern slave, and then you can get some support. It’s kind of like an evil version of the Harry Potter Sorting Hat, in a way. I mean, there are literally, on police raids, we have documented evidence of police literally saying, “If you don’t go into the”—we have a national framework for supporting victims of modern slavery; you get paid a certain amount a week, and if you’re illegally here, you’re likely to get deported once you get to the end of that short-term period of support. So people are told on raids, “Either go into this thing called the National Referral Mechanism,” which eventually is going to mean you’re probably deported, “or you’re an illegal migrant. We’re going to put you in an immigration detention centre.” So that’s great. But—so obviously, most people on the panel are talking about trying to fight for something; I obviously am not fighting for human trafficking [chuckles], so coming at it from a slightly different angle. But I think that there is still, so—
00:39:17 BB [inaudible]
00:39:18 EK Yeah, well yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Thanks. [Laughs] There’s ways in which the sex worker rights movement and intelligent anti-trafficking stuff can intersect, and play off each other. So, what we’re seeing, slowly, but hopefully surely, in the anti-trafficking sector, is a move away from the kind of neoliberal, capitalist, consumerist approach, and it’s not done yet, and there’s a lot to do. But—so there’s a reason why Theresa May and Trump, et cetera, like modern slavery, like talking about it, and using it as their moral calling card, though obviously normally they don’t really care about the kind of people that that would apply to. So why? Well, that’s because it serves a purpose. It enables them to harden borders. So it enables border force to literally turn people back at the border, because they might be about to be a victim of trafficking. And also to DFID to do programmes around the world, which are basically discouraging people from coming here in the first place, in case they’re trafficked. And it also, I think really crucially, distracts from the general economic system. So, basically, if you are a right-wing, anti-slavery activist, you think slavery happens because one bad person did one bad thing, and it has nothing to do with the system. So the answer to that is to prosecute that person; it’s a criminal justice response. If you—and that has nothing therefore to do with like labour market structures, like having a hostile environment to migrants and trade unions, et cetera, et cetera, etcetera. So that’s why it serves their purposes. What we’re seeing is a shift now, slowly but surely, towards a systemic understanding of why labour trafficking happens. And so, that’s putting people’s attention much more towards safe and legal migration pathways; towards not having the illegal working offence, which pushes people into the grey economy, where they can be exploited; towards recognising that most people who end up in a trafficked situation wanted to migrate in the first place; they obviously didn’t want to be exploited. So that shift is really crucial, from a sex worker rights point of view, because if we can bring into view the systemic factors causing this, of which the individual really bad trafficking incidents are symptoms, then we can use that same narrative for sex worker rights that understand it in the same context as other sectors. And therefore, sectors in which bad things may occur, if protections aren’t in place, and rights aren’t in place, and unionisation isn’t there, and migration policy is shit. So, yeah, for me, that’s, there’s a glimmer of hope. And I think, in the same way as the programmes you’re talking about, there are interim steps, potentially. So safe reporting, for me, is a real common ground that we could all look at together, which means that people can report crimes to the police without fear of their immigration status being looked at. There’s an amazing campaign called Step Up Migrant Women that’s doing it on domestic violence because they had cases of women being told to go back to their violent partner, or they would be put in immigration detention, essentially, because they were here illegally. Same with trafficking. It’s stops people reporting that they’ve been trafficked because they see immigration written on people’s vests when they go in and do raids. Same with sex workers. Obviously, it’s a huge problem. So there’s like stepping stones we could use as well.
00:43:02 CC I just wanted to pick up on something about criminalisation, and I think that of course as a person who kind of operates in what’s like a mainstream feminist space—or women’s rights spaces—I think that we need to be better at calling out people when they promote criminalisation not only in terms of ending demand kind of models, or criminalisation of workers, but in other areas as well. There is a big debate right now, for example, on reforming hate-crime law—in England and Wales, at least. Well, also in Scotland—and calling for misogyny or gender to be a category. And police, like for example in Northumbria, they are trialling to have misogyny as a hate-crime, so that women can report cat-calling to the police. There’s no real evidence of that having any effect on reducing cat-calling or kind of like street harassment. But the point is: what does this kind of approach produce, and who does it affect? Of course, access to justice remains you know, written up there for many, many communities. And so, this idea that putting another sort of policing on… sorry, giving more power to the police, is going to help end things. It’s just like no. It’s just really naive, politically, and deeply problematic for minority communities and other communities, and I think that there’s also in fact—oh, sorry. Do you want to come in?
00:44:53 RW Just one thing. Yeah. After your point. Go on.
00:44:56 CC Well, just to say that I think that as allies of the sex workers’ movement, we need to do, to step up more, and be much more vocal in our women’s rights kind of mainstream spaces because there is so much harm done, and so many myths and falsehoods still propagated that we need to… yeah, we just really need to step up and educate our peers and call them out, not only—or call them in, rather—not only on what they’re saying about sex workers’ rights, but what they’re saying about a criminal approach that is going to lead us to women’s rights. That’s not going to work. Or what they’re saying about kind of racialised communities and racialised men, and violence against women, and trans people, and all of that. I think that we need to start pointing out these huge contradictions, and the fact that they’re not going to take us anywhere, they’re just going to divide us more.
00:45:59 RW And I think if you want to talk about that, there is probably no better place to turn to in the UK than to look at Northern Ireland at the moment, in regards to these sorts of things. Because I was talking to people in regards to—because obviously, the sort of end demand, Nordic Model, all of those sorts of provisions, are things that are again sort of like common sense things that people feel like are going to change things, where, well, if there’s a sex worker and they’re a victim of abuse, well they can go to the police, and they can get recourse to justice, da-duh-da-duh-da. Of course, forgetting that so many sex workers are part of minority communities for whom interactions with the police are completely out of the question. Like those sort of barriers to access to justice as a sex worker, but also as a sex worker as a member of another minority community, the barriers to access are so high, and the risks of sort of trying to access those mechanisms are so, so high, especially in situations where you could have your wages taken out of you, you could have your housing situation compromised, just from those things. And also, in discussions in regards to trafficking, sex workers are sometimes in the most appropriate positions to spot trafficking when it’s happening, seeing people who are vulnerable, other people working in the local area that something doesn’t seem right about, who then also, in addition to that, have no way to talk about that to police. In situations where otherwise you would want to report something and want to say something, because of those sort of justice interactions, that’s out of the question for our own personal safety. And, yeah, I think if we look to Northern Ireland as to what the impact of partial criminalisation is: does it make sex workers more safe? The stats are pointing to absolutely not. Sex workers, since the law was introduced, year on year, it’s tripled and doubled the amount of harassing phone calls people get, and no shows; even the most basic forms of harassment are just exponentially increasing. And the other thing, the sort of irony of it being called the end-demand model, in Northern Ireland: has demand gone down since the law was introduced? The answer is no, because of course it isn’t. Like, the more people talk about it, the more sex work becomes more visible, the more people engage with it, you know? And it’s making sure that whenever we’re talking about criminalisation, that we are pointing out all of these things, especially when there’s such a great example right across the water from here, is, well, we’ve tried it for the past three years, going on four, and the answer is no. It sucks. And sex workers don’t want it, the police don’t want it, nobody wants it. But it is sort of that paternalistic, patriarchal, political situation where people are told, “Well, we know what to do with your bodies more than you do.” Which is true of, I think, a lot of minority communities, but for sex workers generally. That is sort of the reason behind all of these partial criminalisation measures, is, “It’s for your benefit, even if you don’t want it.” And sort of breaking through that, and explaining to people that, “Actually, just listen to sex workers, and what they want.” Which is the same for anything. Like, if you want to talk about racism, ask a person of colour. If you want to talk about transphobia, talk to a trans person. Don’t be dictated to about what sex workers want from anyone else other than sex workers. That’s, it’s as simple as that.
00:50:09 BB Yeah. I wanted to draw on the fact that like the sex worker rights movement, we talk about our sort of cementing within other movements, but I think the sex worker rights movement has—you know, it depends on the place, it depends on the context, but there is often things that we do wrong. As a movement, I’ve been, as a part of a movement, I think I’ve struggled at times, particularly around drug use in sex work, the way in which we haven’t always been making it clear just how in solidarity drug user rights and sex worker rights should be. Often we’ve seen, even with the New Zealand model, that migrant sex workers are still criminalised and still at risk of deportation in New Zealand, and yet we talk we talk about, unfortunately, the New Zealand model a lot of the time in incredibly positive terms that don’t really highlight that as a fundamental issue, that until sex workers who are undocumented, until sex workers who are migrants, are able to work freely to be able to not fear state violence and deportation and discrimination, then our struggle hasn’t finished. And it’s only when we think about including and ensuring that all sex workers are safe in all these communities that we are a part of have freedom from repression and discrimination and violence, then we’re actually—you know, if we don’t centre those people, then we’ve lost the plot. And I think often we don’t do that enough. I think when we talk about the distinctions between trafficking and sex work in a lot of mainstream sex worker rights activism, we do ourselves a disservice, and that’s why I’m incredibly, incredibly proud that Juno and Molly had such a crucial intervention in this, and that SWARM as an organisation has been trying to like support that narrative change, and make sure that our discourse is not just segmenting the most marginalised and most criminalised folks in our community, and telling them, “Well, actually, you’re not a part of the sex worker community,” or “Your struggle is not bound up with mine.” Because, actually, people who are experiencing labour exploitation, that are experiencing precarity, that are trafficked, or are experiencing all of those things along with the sex worker rights movement, they are a part of it. And unless we’re actually breaking down our, the political viability of borders, and actually saying that they are a racist institution that needs to be destroyed, and that until we have that, we’re not going to have sex worker rights. We’re actually, we’re not a movement that I want to be a part of, and I don’t think that most of us… you know, we need to do more, and I think that we’ve got to a point where that’s starting to change, and that narrative—I’m sure you can feed into this—is changing around making sure that we’re thinking in a systematic basis, rather than just looking at individuals. But, yeah. I’ll possibly pass it over to you 00:53:02.
00:53:05 EK One thing struck me when you were speaking, Rain, which is, I realise this is like an audience of experts through lived experience, or work, or whatever it may be, but I spend a lot of time talking to policy advisors, and think tanks, and MPs, or whatever—and they’re not, those people—and, yeah, and it is how much, when trying to talk with people who either are avowedly in the Nordic Model frame of mind, and they will throw out their like “pimps and prostitutes” lines and all of that, or people who don’t really know anything about it, but instinctively feel like it must be the right thing to criminalise the clients. Which I think we have to accept, by the way, that there’s like an instinctive reaction that we have to acknowledge and say, “Okay. However…”, rather than just be, “No, no, no,” kind of thing. But it’s how often those people genuinely think criminalising the clients is not criminalising the workers by proxy, because—and that’s one of the things that I’ve realised through having these discussions in the anti-trafficking sector, it’s like a real understanding fault line. So, I could be talking about decriminalisation, and they literally think that I therefore might support the Nordic Model, because the workers aren’t criminalised under the Nordic Model, right? So I think, in terms of debates and conversations and trying to win people round, it’s so important to start understanding criminalisation by proxy and giving the real scenario examples of, “Well, there’ll be a police car outside the brothel, so the clients won’t be there, so they won’t earn a living,” and blah-blah-blah. So that is just a real like kind of—
00:54:50 BB [inaudible]
00:54:52 EK Well, yeah, so I think that the police thing is a really interesting and difficult topic, in some ways, because, exactly as you said, Rain, and there have been high-level police officers who’ve said it in the UK, that sex workers ought to be part of the anti-trafficking movement because they’re so well placed to provide intelligence. And that’s what happens in other labour sectors, a lot of the time, and we’re even starting to see trade unions realising that they could—they’ll know which construction site has got problems, put it that way. But with that comes all the problems that we’ve outlined. And also, in the anti-trafficking space, I think the risk is that we’ll end up fighting for decriminalisation of sex work, and end up with a form of regulationism, like legalisation, but I often find people don’t understand what that means, who aren’t these people. [Laughs] So like regulationism—and because that’s what’s happening in other sectors. Like licenses for hand carwashes that are actually paying people properly, right? So we may—that’s a real rabbit hole that could happen in this space that we need to be really wary of.
00:56:09 RW Yeah, and I think, yeah, touching on that sort of like, Nordic Model as instinct, like, sort of instinctively making sense to a lot of people, I think that’s also because—I’m going to speak from personal experience, here—but whenever talking to people about this, typically it tends to be people who are white, who are cis, who are financially okay, who have an imagined interaction with the police, where a sex worker says, “Hello there, police officer! I would like to report a bad thing that happened.” And the police officer says, “Yes, no worries. Let me just write this down for you. And I will be completely respectful of you and your work, and you as a person, as a person of colour, or as a trans person, and we’re all okay, there are no problems with policing.” But we’re really doing a disservice if we’re not talking about the problems with policing generally when discussing sex work because to leave any of that detail out then leads people down the route of… route, God, my accent’s horrible, sorry! But it leads people down that sort of mental rabbit hole where they imagine this perfect interaction with the police, however we know, from lived experience and from testimony in the sex work community generally, that the picture is pretty grim in regards to interactions with justice. And just… and in the same way that we can’t talk about how to really talk about decriminalisation without talking about capitalism, without talking about those interactions with justice, without talking about all of these other surrounding issues, although it gets complicated, it’s really the thing that sort of helps people get from, “Oh, the Nordic model makes sense to be instinctively,” to, “Oh, I had assumed some things.” And I guess gently coaxing people down that pathway is always difficult, to be like, “You might be wrong in some of your gut instincts; those are wrong.” Like that’s a difficult conversation to have at any step of the way.
00:58:18 EK My answer, at the moment, is to give them a copy of Revolting Prostitutes. [Laughs] It actually is!
00:58:25 RW There’s this book you should read!
00:58:27 CC Yeah, exactly! [Laughs] I just want to say something about criminalisation by proxy, because I think in the abortion rights movement that’s like such a clear thing, that if you criminalise access, or if you criminalise doctors, then abortions will go underground and be more dangerous. This comes mainly from the women’s rights movement, then when it comes to sex work, it’s… there’s just like this, I don’t know how to say that in English, but when there’s like some wires, kind of like, you know, sparkling in your head, and not be working very well. [Laughs] So that’s why—and again, that kind of—
00:59:06 EK I love that. [laughs][inaudible]
00:59:08 CC Yeah, I just, you know, when like the light switches off, basically. Which is quite interesting, because, I mean, it kind of makes you think about what are the vested interests for some feminists in maintaining these positions, because they can clearly acknowledge the reality of criminalisations in other parts of women’s lives. So, what is there? And I think that… I mean, of course the answer will different according to context, but I think that that’s quite an easy thing to attach yourself to, and be seen as like, “Oh, I’m a champion for the most marginalised women and, you know, we really need to change society, and objectification of women,” and all of this. So it’s quite like an easy kind of route to go down, if you want to, you know, let’s say maintain or build your position in the mainstream feminist movement. And I think that there’s no—the other thing that it plays on is these concepts of like, for example, demand, which is almost like the concept of life for anti-choice people, and I think, as Emily was saying, we really need to break this down and flip it around because we know really well the life for anti-choice people is ‘until birth’ kind of thing. It’s not that—the same lawmakers who signed the Alabama law this week, they kind of cancelled funding for hundreds of rural hospitals. This is like, okay, so the life until birth, and then kind of like, everyone is on their own, in true capitalistic fashion. So I think that we really need to think about stories and language and think about how we flip certain keywords that kind of created this imaginary.
01:01:15 EK I was just going to say that the people with their brain, the lights switched off, and why they can’t understand the criminalisation by proxy, and kind of that, I genuinely I think a lot of it is about not understanding sex work as a livelihood strategy, as the need for an income for many people, as Rain was saying about the nature of people that might be arguing in particular ways. I can’t remember who it was, but someone here got told, “Why not just stick to honest poverty instead of doing sex work?” So I actually think, they… you just shouldn’t be doing sex work. So if you’re criminalised by proxy, that’s collateral damage. I really think that’s it.
01:02:07 RW Yeah, I think it, the final point on that, is that it does so often just come to that paternalistic lack of agency over our own bodies that so many of us understand. If someone is looking [at] access to reproductive rights, if someone is looking to access transition-related healthcare, if people are looking to become sex workers, it is so much of that, “We know better than you,” and if you say something different, it’s because, “Well, poor you, because you’ve been so brainwashed,” and all of those sorts of things that we know in the community that that just isn’t the case. There’s so many more complicated factors at play here, with capitalism being a big one. Yeah.
01:02:55 BB Yeah, I guess I just think it’s the thing that, the problem we often we often have around trying to get people to see outside of this particular like, “Oh, bad guys, good guys. Criminalise bad guys! Save the good guys!” Like that really liberal notion of how society works, that there are just bad actors, and then there are good actors, and we just need to side with the baddies—sorry, no, the goodies!
01:03:18 EK [inaudible].
01:03:21 BB Always identified as a baddie, anyway! I guess the problem is that it’s just a systematic analysis. Like, trying to actually reframe people’s liberal conceptions of the way the world works is such a huge undertaking. Like, to think that really a lot of this is underpinned by prison abolitionist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-white-cis-hetero-patriarchical worldview. We’re trying to tear that down, if our sex worker rights project has any worth to it. And that involves an incredible amount of, I don’t know, narrative change, breaking down really fundamental concepts that people think about the world. Like there are so many women that I meet when I’m doing this sort of lobbying stuff in NGOs, who just basically look at me at though I’m talking in a different language when I try and say that sex work is often just about money. And they try and distance the money from the situation. It’s like, “Oh, it can’t be about money. It’s about you know purity, or sexuality, or violence,” or something. And it’s like, “Actually, it’s about money a lot of the time.” And then that means it’s about capitalism, and then it means it’s about all these things that are just under the surface, not to be addressed, never to be interrogated. And that’s such a huge thing that I think that’s why it can feel overwhelming when we’re doing this, because it’s like we’re coming in, saying, “No, we don’t believe in prisons. We don’t believe in incarceration. We don’t believe in the police. We don’t believe in capitalism. Everything that your fundamental worldview is built upon, and navigated around, we actually think are like inherently oppressive institutions and structures, and so actually burn it down.” And like that, yeah, it’s—yeah, sorry, go ahead.
01:05:14 RW No, and I think that’s, it’s one of things when talking to leftish people, sort of left—
01:05:21 BB How did you identify them? [Laughs]
01:05:24 RW It’s those things that, like you were talking about the misogyny as hate-crime thing, which is like that liberal idea of, “Oh, you want a bad thing to stop? Make a law to stop the bad thing from the do….” It’s just such a gut reaction, like, “Oh, throw police at the bad thing.”
01:05:45 BB [off mic] Make it go away.
01:05:45 RW Yeah. Without actually interrogating, “Well, why does it happen? Why would people not talk to the police? Why don’t we investigate the police as an institution itself?” And all of these harder questions get circumvented by, “We’ll just make a law to make bad things stop.” Which doesn’t help anyone.
01:06:05 BB We see it with the youth violence debate that’s raging on, where Akala is coming in with an incredibly systematic structural analysis of why youth violence happens, and saying, “The same things have been going on the entire time for years and years and years, and you’re not addressing the structural factors that lead to youth-on-youth violence.” And then you’ve got Piers Morgan saying, “But what about the cuts to the police?” And it’s like, you’re just, it’s like you’re not willing to think about the fact that all the evidence points to the structural factor, nothing points to increased incarceration, increased policing, increased prison building, and so on. And, yeah, it’s a fundamentally, it’s at odds with Piers Morgan’s worldview; it’s at odds with the neoliberal worldview, to say that structural factors lead to endemic problems.
01:07:03 RW [off mic] But it makes people feel good when they think they’re doing something, is the issue.
01:07:08 BB Yeah. I feel like it’s time to open up to questions. Do you want a… have you got a burning desire—
01:07:11 CC No. I just wanted to say what you said. [Laughs] That like what we say, you know, the criminalisation, throwing the police at it doesn’t work, then it’s like I think we have a lot to say on what might work. And it’s kind of like we never get to that place, in a sense, or we rarely get to that place. And I think that’s why these spaces are so important, because you can take some steps on that road.
01:07:36 BB That was supposed to be my last question, was like a decriminalised future. That’s the whole point of the panel and the conference!
01:07:43 CC Sorry.
01:07:44 BB No, no, no. I mean it’s me because I’ve—
01:07:45 EK It’s a nice segue.
01:07:46 BB It’s a nice segue.
01:07:47 CC Okay.
01:07:48 EK What was the question?
01:07:49 BB So what could a decriminalised future look like, where we move not just about trying to get to the point where we decriminalise, but actually what do we do beyond that? What does that look like, and what sort of, what do we want to see in a decriminalised future?
01:08:03 KD Can I be a politician and say what I wanted to say, rather than answering your question? Oh, I just wanted to pick up on what Blair was saying about mistakes being made in the sex workers’ movement, and things like that, but I just really wanted to highlight some of the positives that I see that I think the drug policy reform movement can really pick up on. And there’s lots of them, so I’ll try and keep it short. I think the main thing that I see is that the campaign and activism within the sex workers’ movement is by sex workers for sex workers, and we really don’t see that in the drug policy reform movement. And there are probably lots of reasons for that, many that I don’t know. But whatever those reasons are, I think we really need to learn, and I think that can happen with panels like this and audiences like this, that we can hopefully, this isn’t the end of the conversation, and we can move on with that. Because what we see in drug policy or drug user activism is that there, internationally, there is great activism going on. When I look at North America, there’s—I go to conferences, like HRI, et cetera, there is fantastic work going on. And we really don’t see that in the UK. So we have the International Network of People Who Use drugs, we have the European Network of People Who Use Drugs, but there’s nothing really happening in the UK. And partially that’s because it’s not about activism by people who use drugs. It’s very focused and intrinsically linked with services and treatment. So it’s service-user involvement and service-user activists, but not everyone who uses drugs is a service user or needs to be a service user or should be a service user. And even then, we’re seeing cuts to those services, and so people aren’t getting involved. And then we have a postcode lottery, even from borough to borough in London, let alone across the country. So, I really feel, people who use drugs are really disempowered, and I really see when I see protests going on in the sex workers’ movement, and I think it’s something that people who use drugs need to be inspired by. And then I’m really conscious of the fact that, as an organisation, Release are speaking for people who use drugs, but we’re not necessarily within that community. And we always try to inform our campaigns and our advocacy by speaking to the people that we are working on behalf of. But then when it comes to those people wanting to speak up, for whatever reason, the stigma, the criminalisation, they’re not willing to do that. And so, I really hope that some of the positive energy from the sex workers’ movement can be channelled into that.
01:10:27 BB Am I to think there’s any question? Does anyone have any—
01:10:31 ?? [Inaudible]
01:10:33 BB Yeah?
01:10:35 CC God, this is a hard one. [chuckles] In my notes, I have: open borders, end of capitalism [laughs][audience applauds]. A culture of consent, like, you know, in all areas of life, and a really profound respect for care work, like traditionally women’s work or gendered work, and… yeah. [Laughs] This is a hard question.
01:11:05 RW I don’t know if I can add anything to that, because that’s so much of it, right, is that just decriminalisation of sex work doesn’t do the whole job. There’s so many other things that need to be tackled at the same time, like borders, like our approach to justice, like our approach to capitalism as a whole, and what provision of goods and services should be looking like. So really just all of those things at the same time would be lovely. That would be just the perfect situation, right?
01:11:40 EK Yeah, I feel… [laughs] I mean, end capitalism—yeah, but [laughs] if we don’t manage that, just in case—I hope with you we will. [laughs] For me, decriminalisation—and in fact I think this isn’t just what comes after decriminalisation, but the only way decriminalisation would also be won, is by portraying this, would be about having really proper labour rights and labour protections for sex workers and anyone in related industries. Without that part of the vision, people don’t understand how this would work in practice because they still imagine an exploitative brothel where it’s just meant to be fine. So, for me that’s part of the package. So labour rights in the same way that you have in every other sector, except that they’re not enforced properly or protected properly in any sector. So then you need to come in with a whole range of other tools. One of the most crucial things, I think, that would be most exciting about a decriminalised future is seeing sex worker rights and organising become part of general worker rights and organising, not some kind of morally separable notion that is, through a patriarchal lens, sort of fundamentally other. So that, obviously—and migration policy, obviously, stuff with that. But the other aspect, I think, which decriminalisation could bring in, in terms of enabling sex worker voices to be heard more through the routes I outlined, is around income. So, UBI—Universal Basic Income, or Universal Basic Services, whatever, I am not an expert on that stuff. But basically, what then do you move the conversation to, which supports people to be able to choose how they… what they do with their time, basically? And I think that that then brings you into line with loads of interesting movements on the left, some of which are horrifically, like millennial and privileged, but some of which are quite interesting. So, yeah, quite a lot of things.
01:13:46 KD Just I think the thing I wanted to pick up on is your last point there around choice, and that’s what I’d see as—and again, that’s probably avoiding the question, but I don’t know what it looks like, because it should look like whatever each individual person needs it to look like, and that’s not for me to dictate.
01:14:00 BB So yeah, I want to open out to the audience, because I don’t want it to be completely unparticipatory. [chuckles] So if anyone has a burning question. And can you state which, if all or individual panellists you want to—
01:14:21 Q1 It’s probably more for Emily, but I’m kind of curious about it. So, in my day job, I work around people that are in sex worker outreach, which is distinctively not sex workers, but sex worker outreach, and it comes from a harm reductive model, and the issue that I see a lot like a lot of sex worker outreach projects, some will come out and say that they’re pro-decrim, and many won’t. And it’s a question, because it kind of goes on what you said, Blair, about systemic versus individual, and I often try to push the narrative that harm reduction isn’t just condoms and STI screenings. Harm reduction is systemic. Harm is police violence. And it’s the law that means that sex worker outreach projects have to exist, because sex workers can’t work collectively. That’s why I have to go, in that’s my job. And it’s really annoying. And the argument that I’m up against, by benign incompetent and wilfully ignorant management, is they’re so busy trying to work that they don’t really care what the laws are. And often that’s quite true. A lot of the sex workers I work with are quite… chaotic, but they still have capacity. And my question is—I used to work with Discovery, which is the human trafficking kind of thing, and that was the argument that was put forward—and my question is, how can I… considering the argument that I’m up against, isn’t that sex workers don’t know what’s good for them—that’s not the issue—the issue is, a decriminalised future is so not what is their priority right now. Their priority is living day to day, is getting clean needles, is being able to feed themselves, being able to feed their kids. That’s what their priority is. So really do we need to focus on decrim, and why is that even an issue? Is that question making sense?
01:16:13 EK Yeah.
01:16:13 Q1 And I’m just wondering how I can reframe that decriminalisation is an issue because of police and systemic violence and stigma. And I’m just wondering how you’ve faced that, Emily, because I’m sure that’s something that you are up against, right?
01:16:27 EK That’s really, yeah, it’s really interesting, and also depressing. Yeah, I mean, it’s slightly different in my space because it’s more like people don’t want to… people are anti-decrim, in fact, in anti-trafficking space, because if they’re running safe houses, they’re meeting predominantly women who’ve been horrifically exploited, and therefore it’s just profoundly, understandably emotionally uncomfortable for them to get to a place where they could think about decrim. So it’s slightly different. I think, I mean, that’s such a tricky situation, and you kind of, I’m sure you can understand and respect why people who are… you have to be in a position of privilege to be able to think about bigger things. It’s a fundamental—you must have the luxury of some form of privilege and some form of security and safety to be able to be doing certain things. I think a lot of what this stuff comes down to is something Blair touched on earlier, which is funding models, which generally, apart from the very true fact that anti-trafficking organisations will lose their funding if they come out as pro-decrim, which—not will, but there’s lots of… it is why I’m here as independent; there’s lots of foundations that would stop funding. In a similar way, there’s obviously a kind of aspect of, in your work world, where there’s a need for more funded capacity, and some of that funding going into the day-to-day things you’re saying, that people are busy having to focus on. If that could be fulfilled in another way, then obviously the capacity, which is innate, would be able to be given to the other stuff. But, yeah, I mean I don’t have a particularly useful answer for you, but…
01:18:22 BB I think in my experience of trying to talk to either services or even just women’s rights organisations that are involved in anti-trafficking and so on, often it is that case of like, you know, “This is such a big issue that, you know, we don’t have time to really devote to coming up with a policy proposal around….” You know, I go out, and I do a lot of lobbying and trying to sit down with people and discuss why this is the systemic solution, or part of the systemic solution, to this problem. But I also think that we have to be honest and… don’t try and create, don’t lose energy and momentum trying to turn organisations over to our cause that are just fundamentally not going to. I’m not saying that your particular project is that case, but next week, for instance, I’m going to be giving evidence to a DWP-oriented inquiry around survival sex and universal credit, and next week there’s going to be myself, Nicky from English Collective for Prostitutes, and then just a bunch of organisations that are basically either rescue projects, who are funded by Christian fundamentalists, or you know, organisations which are like Nordic Model now. And at the end of the day, I’m not going to spend my time trying to change their position because it’s a fundamentally wasted time. I’d rather build alliances and build momentum and build power outside of them than spend all my time raging about the antis and carceral feminist responses that are endemic to some parts of the women’s rights sector. But yeah, I think it is about interrogating the funding. I want to get some momentum behind doing an investigation of the links between anti-trafficking organisations and right-wing evangelical funding and Republican funding from the US. I’ve sort of pitched it to OSF, so we’ll see how that goes. But I think it’s really important because the more that we elaborate and highlight the problems of taking that funding, and how anti-feminist and patriarchal those sources are, the more the feminist movement that is on the fence is able to say, “Actually, no, this isn’t the feminist response. And this isn’t the feminist organisation that I want to be aligning myself to.” And I think that that is coming out in the trans movement. We’re identifying the links in the anti-abortion movement, we’re identifying the links, et cetera, so I think it’s just a continuation of that. And follow the money, I guess. Any other questions?
01:21:14 Q2 Hi. So I guess this is most for Blair there, but I guess anyone can answer. Like I was… I sat in a few sessions yesterday, I was thinking about how we can challenge stigma within the sex worker activism. And like people say, “I’m a sex worker, but I don’t use drugs,” or “I’m a sex worker, but I….” And how can we lift people’s voices up without expecting those of us that do do drugs, or those of us that are survivors of sexual abuse, to do all the emotional work, which can be fuck—sorry—can be really exhausting to keep on having to bring up your trauma or talk about your drug use when you don’t want to, but equally you don’t, you’re fed up of other sex workers making you feel dirty or wrong because you happen to use drugs or these fuck—sorry, or these awful things happened to you as a child?
01:22:10 BB Oh. So this is, yeah, that’s… I think it’s about community building, and communities of care building, and capacity building as a whole, because at the end of the day, in SWARM, for instance, we’ve always believed that it’s important to have people can speak from experience talking about the issues that are pertinent to them, and the ways in which those things are very nuanced. But we also we try and ensure that if anyone’s doing a speaking engagement, they’re going to have a buddy with them, or they’re going to be paid for their travel, or they’re going to be paid for their speaker position. We’re trying to build capacity so that it’s not just the same old folks who have to keep going out and basically do a bit of a poverty-porn show, or like whatever, like a traumatisation roadshow for MPs and NGOs, because that, to be quite honest, at times I’ve felt like that. I really have experienced burnout because of having to be like, “Okay, yeah, like, we need to talk about this thing in this nuanced way, and here we go again where I’m just going to feel like I’ve got a target on my back, or something.” But at the same time, like you’re saying, it’s incredibly important in the community that we build ways of discussing these issues in nuance between ourselves. Like, yesterday, I held a workshop around drug use and sex work, and I think that that was the first one that SWARM has done in certainly a long time—if at all, I’m not sure. I’ve not been around. Yeah. In a long time. And it’s about having those conversations in the community, and then thinking about ways of building solidarity that are meaningful and not just tokenistic. Like, next week, when I go to this enquiry, there’s going to be a couple of other members of SWARM that are going to be participating also, and it’s about staying in the room with them when they’re being interrogated by MPs and making sure that they feel like we all have our back as a community, rather than letting people go off and just have to deal with these things alone. And also, just trying to create a community where people are allowed to take breaks, and people are allowed to be honest about how much they can give and how much they can’t, and trying to find therapy and spaces in which people can do that emotional healing and resilience work that often a lot of like, I don’t know, traditional political, social movements, we’re all like, “We must martyr ourselves for cause!” And we will continue on until we’re exhausted, depleted, and then we don’t engage at all for the next however many years. And I don’t want that to happen, and I see it happening, and I think we’re all just trying to find new ways that are going to ensure that that isn’t the majority of people’s experiences.
01:24:59 KD I just wanted to pick up on the point of stigma and division within the community, and that’s something that we see with people who use drugs as well. People who use alcohol distinguishing themselves from very much from people who use other drugs. So we have integrated drug and alcohol treatment services, and people who use alcohol saying, “I’m not like those. I don’t want to engage in that.” Or even distinctions with cannabis, for instance. So I spoke about and described how there’s not really much activism, but there is lots of activism in terms of the cannabis using community, and particularly in relation to medical cannabis. And that’s again people distinguishing themselves because they use an ‘okay’ drug, compare to somebody else.
01:25:37 EK? [inaudible]
01:25:41 KD Yeah, exactly. Yeah, they’re making a more legitimate campaign compared to other people in the eyes of the media and the public, et cetera. And so, yeah, really needing to challenge that division and I guess draw out the commonality between people, regardless of their drug of choice.
01:26:01 EK Um, oh… is it? No. Yes. Okay. I just wanted to add something from a slightly different angle, which is that one of the reasons why—oh, we’re all tangled. One of the reasons why I think it’s so important for sex workers’ rights activism to create shared messaging around this stuff, and to have an agreed understanding of respect and how to talk about that stuff, is because, with specifically with sexual abuse in childhood, that’s often taken as, “Well, that’s the reason why someone’s doing sex work,” by the other side. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We all have our own stories. But that false consciousness kind of argument comes in there really majorly. So if the sex worker rights movement doesn’t have its own narrative about how to encompass everyone, and how not to let different experiences detract from the actual fight for livelihood, for respect, for all of these things, then it will be used against you. And it’ll be used to break the movement apart, I think.
01:27:10 RW Yeah. I hope this is going to be useful because, I mean, there are certain parallels between minority fights that can be drawn. I think this is one where the trans community can look like this as well, where there certain members of the trans community who do say things like, “Well I’m a trans person, but I’m not like those other trans people in this way and that way,” and so on and so forth. And I think part of the reason for that is the struggle as an individual versus survival as a group. If you are trying to survive as an individual without supports around you, without a community that you feel encompassed by, then you are more likely to put other people down so that you as an individual can get a leg up and use those little pieces of privilege you have to get a leg up on everyone else. So you can say things like, “I am a member of this marginalised community, but I’m not like everyone else.” And the more we foster community around sex work, around trans rights, around all of these minority groups who can band together and say, “Actually, there’s so many diverse experiences, and lots of different things that we can talk about, but they’re all under the same umbrella.” And people having the power as a group, more so than as an individual, the more we can have power as a group, the better, and the less and less, hopefully, we see of people saying things and putting down other experiences that doesn’t help them as an individual but will help everyone as a community step forward.
01:28:59 CC That was great. Yeah, I just wanted to briefly add that I think that it’s also important that those who have different kinds of privileges in a movement take time to work on themselves and together and unlearn. Because I think, yeah, there are some, in every movement, a lot of unlearning to do, depending on your position, and sometimes it’s something that we read about, and we try to be better, and we have policies and stuff, but it needs work and time to actually really undo that, like certain faults and feelings we have.
01:29:35 BB So I think we’re coming to the end of our time. Thank you so much, everybody, for contributing. It’s been really excellent, and obviously we’re going to be having the next two days to go in more depth. I know that we’ve got some incredible panels coming up that are going to touch on a lot of these issues.
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