The sex work divide in British politics

15 December 2021

5:09 AM

15 December 2021

5:09 AM

They seem like completely unrelated questions: ‘Is sex work real work?, and ‘Who will replace Yvette Cooper as chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee?’ Yet the two are deeply linked.

Sex work first. If you’re not familiar with the phrase ‘sex work is work’, get used to it, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot more in public debate in the next few years. The phrase has been around since at least the 1970s, but is now being used with growing frequency and energy by people on the self-appointed ‘progressive’ side of politics.

As a result, ‘sex work is work’ is looking like being a new dividing line for people who enjoy identity and culture politics. Not just on Twitter but increasingly in the real world, that mantra is becoming yet another purity test: if you don’t say those holy words, you’re guilty of demonising and stigmatising women (and others) who have sex in exchange for money.

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but quite a lot of people who champion this way of thinking and insist that ‘sex work is work’ appear to be young men with beards, who presumably have little chance of ending up as suppliers in this particular marketplace.

‘Sex work is work’ is also finding its way into the world of politics and policy, sometimes as an unquestioned statement of fact. As someone who runs a thinktank, I’m obviously inclined to regard thinktank reports as important. But I was struck to read this recent report from Autonomy, a newish think-shop, looking at the night-time economy.

What’s striking about that report is that its authors treat sex work as an economic activity like any other, listing alongside delivery riding, care work and working in warehouses when making suggestions for how urban policy can better support workers of various sorts.

I doubt the chaps at Autonomy would object to being described as left-wing (that report was funded by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation) but the fact that a credible thinktank has embedded ‘sex work is work’ in its thinking can have implications for wider political discourse. This is normalisation, the sort of thing that shifts the Overton window of what can and cannot be discussed.

Here there is a parallel to be drawn with another mantra of progressive politics: ‘transwomen are women’. A few years ago, that catechism was largely confined to the fringes of social media. These days, we see its implications explored in politics, policy and journalism on a regular basis. I won’t explore the parallel here, beyond noting that quite a few people who say ‘transwomen are women’ also say that ‘sex work is work’.

And as my friend Sonia Sodha described recently in the Observer, ‘sex work is work’ is another issue that divides feminists. Some argue that the way to make having sex for money safer is to fully decriminalise it: making sex work into work like any other would allow it to be regulated and policed, they argue. Others argue that there is no way to make having sex for money safe or healthy, since it is inherently exploitative and harmful.

That second group of feminists argue for the ‘Nordic model’, where the people who sell sex face no criminal sanction but the people (men) who pay for it are criminalised. The aim is to reduce demand.

This is not the place for me to discuss the merits of these arguments, though I should make clear that I like and admire several of the leading advocates on the Nordic model side of this debate. To put it another way: when Julie Bindel says something, I think it’s wise to listen.

The more immediate issue is whether the question at hand — is sex work work? — is going to become a matter of live political importance. Which brings me, at last, to the Home Affairs Select Committee chair.

That post is vacant because Yvette Cooper has left to become shadow home secretary. Her fellow Labour MPs will elect a replacement on Wednesday.

One of the contenders for the chair is Dame Diana Johnson, the MP for Hull North since 2005. Like most long-serving MPs, Johnson’s parliamentary career has been varied. Some highlights: she’s campaigned with great success on contaminated blood; opposed sanctions against Israel; served on Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench; resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench;  and campaigned to liberalise abortion rules.

And most recently, she has supported that Nordic model on sex work and prostitution. Johnson earlier this year tabled a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the Commons that would have criminalised the buying of sex while ensuring no penalty for those who have sex for money.

The bill was supported by some old-school Labour feminists* and a few Tories. It was opposed by Momentum, the Left-Labour faction that is home to quite a lot of young men with beards, as well as other people who also insist that ‘sex work is work’. Other opponents of the Johnson bill included the GMB trade union, Amnesty International and Stonewall.

That opposition to Johnson’s bill is now spilling over into the contest for the Home Affairs committee chair where, remember, the electorate is comprised only of Labour MPs. The ‘sex work is work”’camp is keen to argue that Johnson’s views on sex work and prostitution should disqualify her from the chair of a select committee whose views on sex work and prostitution carry great weight.

Here’s SWARM, a “sex-worker-led collective” that is part of the wider network of “sex work is work” advocates (the group contributed to that Autonomy report) on Johnson and the committee:

Diana Johnson MP consistently ignores sex workers — even her own constituents in Hull — who oppose her dangerous obsession with imposing the Nordic Model. She would be disastrous as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Among Labour MPs, the expectation is that younger, Corbyn-leaning members — for whom ‘sex work is work’ is often an article of faith — will vote against Johnson for the Home Affairs chair, while those of a Blair-Brown vintage (and earlier) will support her.

These splits aren’t just about sex work and prostitution, of course — there are several other divisions at play — but I think it’s safe to say that those words ‘sex work is work’ are testing the British political left, and the election of Yvette Cooper’s successor might demonstrate what that means in practical terms.

I also think it’s inevitable that this won’t be the last time this issue causes tension in British political debate. Remember those words — ‘sex work is work’ — and start thinking about what they mean.

*Declaration: one of the Bill’s backers was Dame Margaret Hodge, who is a trustee of the Social Market Foundation where I am Director, and therefore one of my bosses. I have had no conversations with her about this article or the topic in general. As with everything I write, this column reflects my views, no one else’s.

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