- theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 December 2013 12.23 GMT
Sex workers in London’s Soho had their doors kicked in by riot police last week. The cops brought along journalists to photograph cowering women who were desperately trying to cover their faces. These images were then splashed across the press. Working flats have been closed, throwing women out on to the street. Some, who were migrant workers, were taken away by the police for compulsory “counselling”, detention at Heathrow, and enforced removal from the UK, despite protesting that they were not trafficked victims: they are migrant sex workers – indeed, several of the women currently incarcerated at Heathrow are active within the English Collective of Prostitutes, a sex-worker rights organisation that, along with the Sex Worker Open University, is protesting against the raids.
If this was about protecting the vulnerable, why did police invite numerous press outlets along? If the cops truly believed they were kicking down the doors on victims of coercion, they surely would not bring photographers with them, because to do so would be obscene. That shouldn’t detract from how grotesque it is to invite multiple press outlets along to violate the consent of cowering women whose doors you’ve just kicked in. This wouldn’t be less bad just because the women weren’t “really” trafficking victims; it would just be bad in a different way.
Soho graffiti ‘adapted’ by Toni Mac
It’s differently bad because it begs the question of why some sections of the feminist movement – in fact, the section that is generally the most audible – have signed off on tactics such as these, finding no policing method too punitive if it’s presented as in the cause of “anti-trafficking”, and have put a lot of energy into arguing for new legislation – the “Swedish”, or “Nordic” model – thatincreases police power over sex workers. Feminists who argue for the Swedish model claim that it“decriminalises the women”. This appears to be based on a convenient misapprehension about how laws work, whereby apparently they’re a zero sum: if you add some criminalisation in one place, it must automatically decrease in another. Advocates of “decriminalising the women” tend to not put any work into actually repealing the laws that criminalise us, a good example being MSP Rhoda Grant’s (failed) attempt last year to bring the Swedish model to Scotland, which made all the usual noises about decriminalising the women, yet contained no legislative provisions to actually do so. Her draft bill receivedwidespread support from women’s groups.
Under legislation that criminalises the clients of sex workers, these raids would still happen. Our workplaces are still criminalised in Sweden. We would still be criminalised if we work with a friend for safety. After the tragic murder of Suzy Lamplugh, in 1986, female estate agents started working in pairs. That isn’t because selling houses is intrinsically a form of violence against women (as some people describe sex work), but because the conditions in which work takes place shape how safe that work is. The law circumscribes the conditions in which sex work can take place – unlike Suzy’s colleagues, we’re legally forbidden from working safely with friends. We have to work alone, or face arrest. The violence that these conditions make us vulnerable to is then used as evidence that sex work is intrinsically violent, and thus should be further criminalised – making us further vulnerable to this very violence.
The Norwegian police recently ran Operation Homeless, whereby they notified the landlords of suspected sex workers that their tenants needed to be evicted immediately, with the loss of their deposit, or the landlord would face prosecution. That’s the legal model that is being argued for; to give the police who kick down our doors additional powers to harass, detain and deport us, while continuing to criminalise our work friendships, partners and workplaces.
Given the Met’s “anti-trafficking” justification, it’s telling to compare the experiences of women in Soho with those of sex workers in the global south, who are long familiar with “anti-trafficking” raids. Kay Thi Win, a sex worker in Burma, has said:
“We live in daily fear of being ‘rescued’. The violence happens when feminist rescue organisations work with the police, who break into our workplaces and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in order to save us. What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement to not just silently support our struggle but to speak up and speak out against [those] who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into a violent war against sex workers.”