Saturday, August 12, 2006

Our Bodies, Our Business: Ana Lopes at the Communist University

"Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which falls not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes – and the latter’s abomination is still greater – the capitalist".
(Karl Marx - Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

I got to the conference hall in leafy Brockley, South East London and was early. I started chatting to this woman about various things. She asked me what I was attending and I said I wanted to hear Ana Lopes speak from the IUSW/GMB. The woman looked me up and down and politely asked, "Are you a sex worker, dear"? I replied that no I wasn't but as a socialist feminist and an active trade unionist I believe in supporting and showing solidarity with sex workers. The woman who was going to go home decided to stay after listening to my spiell!

Then when I coughed up the cash to attend the meeting, Peter Manson (CPGB/Weekly Worker ed.) heard my name grabbed my hand and shook it furiously and exclaimed, "Oh Louise, it is great to meet you at last and to put a name to a face"! He then proceeded to tell me that he expected me to be really tall, like 6ft! Nah Peter, I am 5ft 4ins though in my motorcycle boots I am 5ft 6ins. Sorry... if I didn't live up to your tall expectation!

So, I am a virtual 6ft tall sex worker!

Anyway... less about my virtual life. There were about 60 odd people at this meeting (maybe more or less).

Ana spoke about being drawn into sex work because of her studies in anthropology. She deconstructed the sex industry by looking at the parts that make it up such as having various sectors, global, enormous profits, all gender, clandestine and hidden, status has changed over time, shut down? (attacks on sex work).

She wanted to improve the rights for sex workers (and she has worked in all areas of the sex industry) so she interviewed a section of them. They didn't have a problem with their work but had severe problems with the way society distorts the view of sex work. You are either a rich high class hooker or a victim. There was no collective voice. So, in early 2000 the International Union of Sex Workers came into force with the slogan, "Sex Workers of the World Unite"

What I found a bit sad was the IUSW magazine Respect has stopped due to lack of funding (why aren't the GMB funding it..?), which is a pity because it was precisely for sex workers to air their ideas/views/experiences.

They have an internet forum which acts as a supportive network for sex workers globally. When someone may be moving to another country they will post to the forum to ask advice, for example, legislation regarding sex work.

In the early days of the IUSW they organised demos, parties for fundraisers, and education.

But what was missing was official unionisation. In 2002 the GMB accepted the IUSW as a full section. Not all was plain sailing as some trade unionists ripped up their cards in disgust at sex workers being allowed into the union (I find that utterly appalling and shameful). Once the IUSW were accepted they attended the May Day 2002 demo in London as now they were part of the labour movement. The benefits of being a union member was legal representation, support, training, organised voices at consultation, union recognised in table dancing clubs.

Ana spoke about sex workers not being judged, about their well being and the obvious stigmatisation they face. Becoming part of a union has triggered unionisation in other countries and with a network of unions there is going to be an international meeting in India next year. The overall vision is for sex workers gain total control over their industry, all workers gain control over all industries and a distinction between "respectable women" and whores abolished.
After the Ana's introduction, the debate was thrown open to the floor and it was a very good discussion (though I wish some people would be less on the abstract). I won't go into too much detail but will give brief brush strokes of the ideas raised. Ana had spoken of her dissatification with feminism and it's moralism towards sex workers though she considers herself a feminist.

There was a debate on feminism with the CPGB giving the line about how obstructive and reactionary feminism is. But what was also argued was that capitalism is intertwined with patriarchy and to deny patriarchy exists is foolhardy. One male speaker said, "why do you lot dismiss feminism"? One CPGBer replied, "Kollontai dismissed feminism". So what, comrade!!

I felt the need, nay, the desire to defend the battered view of feminism and gave my tuppence worth. I argued that as a socialist feminist and a trade unionist I supported decriminalisation of prostitution and unionisation of sex workers. But for me capitalism feeds off patriarchal norms which leads to the commodification of sex (not much was said on commodification under capitalism). My other argument was how wrong the "Reclaim the Night" demos are especially as they hone in on places like Spearmint Rhino. What do these demos say to the people who work in the sex industry? Feminists should be working in solidarity with sex workers not alienating them. Ana agreed.

There was also debate about pornography and how workers in the porn industry aren't well represented in the IUSW/GMB. There are around 300 sex workers involved in the London Region of the IUSW/GMB. They know they have a lot of work to do as there are thousands of people working in all aspects of sex work.

Brief discussion on whether sex work would exist under socialism, same with porn. How appalling the Swedish model is (criminalise the punter while legalising the sex worker... Absolutely stupid! So do the cops stand around waiting for the punter to finish and then arrest them?).
The issue of power relationships between men and women. That even with an empowered workforce the contradictions are still apparent as women will be the ones who will experience oppression and exploitation. What really summed up sex work under patriarchal capitalism is when Ana spoke of her days as a stripper. She felt confidence in her body and taking off her clothes but felt humiliated and degraded when she had to go around to the punters after her strip with a glass jar asking them for money ("like a busker"). Why couldn't she have a wage, she argued? Asking for money only reinforced the power relationships between sex worker and punters.

Therefore, as I said in an earlier post on prostitution and sex work as workers aren't we all on our backs being screwed by capitalism?

Btw: Ana Lopes has a book coming out next year on the unionisation of sex work.