I entered sex work because my disabilities mean I can’t work in a bar or a shop or an office, and my rent needs to be paid. I became a sex worker after looking at my options, and deciding that this was the best option from a number of bad ones.
For the most part, I don’t particularly like my job. Just as I didn’t like my job when I worked for £3.70 an hour in a designer shop selling clothes worth more than a month’s wages, or when I did twelve-hour shifts behind a bar.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need to work to survive. If my housing benefit and sickness benefits covered my rent, my bills, food, and gave me some money to have any kind of semi-decent quality of life, I would not do this job. But while I do this job, I want to be able to do it safely. That means fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK. Whether or not I enjoy my job should have no bearing on the labour rights I deserve while I do it.
Like many other sex workers in the UK, I was incredibly pleased to see Jeremy Corbyn come out publicly in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work last week. As a Labour Party member and activist, I am regularly told that sex work is rape and abuse, that we are victims without any agency, and that I am a handmaiden of the patriarchy.
Depressingly, a lot of this comes from women Labour MPs.
After Corbyn’s comments, Harriet Harman hit back at Corbyn, Stella Creasy began tweeting evidence from the End Demand campaign, and Caroline Flint apparently blocked sex workers on Twitter who tried to send her evidence about the failures of the Nordic Model.
Melissa Gira Grant has correctly observed how conversations on sex work are so often framed around the feelings of how the women who have never done sex work feel about those who have.
If feminists in the Labour Party want to stop women like me entering sex work, they could argue for disability and sick benefits to be raised with inflation; they could fight for living grants for students, for rent caps, against sanctions, and for a welfare state that protects, rather than punishes.
They could have voted against a welfare bill that has hurt women across the UK. They could agree to meet with Sex Worker Open University, the workers’ collective I organise with, and listen to what sex workers have to say.
Criminalising the purchase of sex, otherwise known as the Nordic Model, has been proven to lead to a worsening relationship with the police, a willingness of sex workers to engage in more risky behaviour out of desperation for money, and does nothing to reduce levels of prostitution.
In Northern Ireland, where the Nordic Model was implemented recently, there have been four arrests - and three of these arrests have been of sex workers. Remind me how arresting women working together for safety is feminist?
We talk so much about listening to those who are marginalised in the Labour Party and passing policy in consultation with these groups, but notice how the voices of sex workers and sex worker-led organisations are completely excluded from the discussion. Sex work is so stigmatised that I cannot speak about my experiences without a pseudonym, for fear of the backlash that would occur.
You might think sex work is immoral, or wrong, or symptomatic of a patriarchal world. But you can’t change any of that with laws that place me in more danger while I’m at work.
Caitlin O'Leary is a pseudonym. She tweets @LondonSexWorkerReuse content