International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers 2020

17th December is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW), a day in which we honour and mourn the sex workers who have been murdered and abused because of the marginalisation and criminalisation that we experience. We are holding a digital vigil; asking workers and allies to post candles of remembrance onto social media.

This year, we want to draw attention to the multiple forms of violence that sex workers face, and the ongoing brutality we experience at the hands of clients, partners and of police, all of which have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Organisers in SWARM spent the first half of the pandemic creating a hardship fund, putting money directly into the hands of 1,255 sex workers in the UK who desperately needed it. Whilst our efforts – and the efforts of other mutual aid projects that have sustained communities throughout the crisis – should be celebrated, the need for such a hardship fund should be seen as a damning critique of the effects of a decade of racist and classist austerity measures, which have disproportionately affected Black people, people with no fixed abode, people of colour and women, as well as the government’s inadequate response to a pandemic which has killed over 60,000 people, and has disproportionately affected people of colour and women.

During the pandemic the police, armed with new powers, increased their surveillance on those who breached lockdown. The definition of ‘lockdown’ has been vague, and the police seem to enforce it at their discretion. This is not dissimilar to how police enforce prostitution laws in the UK, or in any of the countries where sex work is partially or wholly criminalised. We have heard reports of street-based sex workers being shouted at, spat at and reported to the police by vigilante members of the community. In turn the police, instead of helping the most vulnerable people stay safe, flexed their carceral muscles and arrested or handed out fines. Sex workers have been hesitant to report crimes committed against them in order to keep themselves below the “police radar”. Clients could abuse and assault with impunity, and they knew it. 

Around the country, brothels were raided and closed down, often with excessive, unjustifiable force. In October, a suspected brothel in Canterbury was raided by twelve heavily-armed police officers and a helicopter, arresting a migrant woman who was found there. We questioned the validity of such a violent response, and why, despite the police claims that brothel raids are carried out as a ‘safe-guarding measure’ for victims of trafficking, earnings are confiscated from workers and migrant women are then arrested and detained under immigration charges, often with their passports held. It is clear that the purpose of brothel raids has nothing to do with ensuring our safety, but rather is about re-enforcing police control and border violence. 

During the pandemic, sex workers experienced the effects of what an end-demand policy would look like – something which sex workers in Northern Ireland already endure. Since the implementation of the Nordic Model in 2017, violence against sex workers in Northern Ireland has increased by 92%. With the fall in the number of clients, parlours and brothels across the UK have closed their doors. With the fall in the number of clients, many of us have been forced to see clients we would otherwise refuse to see. We have to agree to offering services we would otherwise refuse to do. We are victims of neighbourhood vigilantism. We are caught in a cyclical trap, the brutal choice of avoiding poverty, or avoiding criminalisation. 

Poverty, criminalisation and lack of support and employment networks are key drivers of harm that increase violence experienced by sex workers. Poverty is violence, and its gendered and racist forms are insidious. Austerity pushes people into sex work, while increasingly harsh prostitution laws exacerbate the risks faced by sex working people. At a time in which most sex workers in the UK are destitute, a small, but loud and powerful group of middle-class, carceral ‘feminists’ are pushing for further criminalisation of the sex industry. In a letter to the Home Secretary, prominent politicians and other ‘feminist’ advocates in April accused SWARM and other sex-worker led organisations of ‘exploiting the COVID crisis to advocate for ‘legalised pimping’, by advocating for full decriminalisation. Accusing SWARM of exploiting the crisis as we handed out money to sex workers is nothing short of shameful. As we write this, a Bill that hopes to introduce the Nordic Model into the rest of the UK has been passed, and will be put before parliament on 29th January 2021. In September, the Scottish Government announced a new consultation concerned with gathering the public’s views on ‘ending the demand for prostitution’. We strongly oppose the criminalising of clients on the grounds that these legislative changes have nothing to do with keeping sex workers safe. Criminalising clients pushes us into more precarious, dangerous working conditions.

Many sex workers have been faced with an impossible decision: rely on insufficient state support and go hungry, or risk our health and return to work. Independent workers who are registered as self-employed have experienced the government’s inadequate furlough scheme – a system which has strict criteria in order to be eligible. It also requires us to register ourselves as sex workers, which comes with the risks to our housing, child custody and accessing service provisions. Some of us have turned to Universal Credit as a way of getting by, but the average monthly payment is disgracefully inadequate. Many of us are ineligible for Universal Credit, due to the UK’s hostile environment, which keeps people with precarious migrant status in precarious, often dangerous, situations to survive, or risk arrest and deportation. Victims of domestic violence have been locked in with their abusive partners; often their status as sex workers will be used to threaten child custody action against them. Many of us require healthcare, most specifically life-affirming trans healthcare, which has been hugely affected by the toll the pandemic has had on NHS services, while the risk to trans sex workers’ lives due to violence remains. Sex workers made up 61% of trans people murdered in 2019 globally

This is why SWARM set up the hardship fund – to fill in the gaps which government and carceral feminists refuse to close. We must learn from this pandemic. Increased police presence jeopardises our safety. What stands between sex workers and viable routes out of prostitution is access to money and healthcare. Full decriminalisation could remove police from intervening in our lives, and remove barriers to justice, capital and healthcare. 

Further Resources & Other Events:

ECP – ‘No Bad Women, Just Bad Laws’ online event, details here

SWAI – Candlelit Vigil, details here

SWARM North – Candlelit Vigil, details here

Umbrella Lane – Vigil and Quiz, details here

National Ugly Mugs

Bent Bars

Abolitionist Futures


Revenge Porn Hotline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *