The decision by UCU Congress to close down debate on, and then back the ‘organisation’ of women involved in prostitution rather than prioritise routes out of prostitution, is an example where those calling themselves the ‘UCU Left’ should be ashamed, says Michael McKrell, who has just retired from the NEC.
In 2009 the TUC Women’s Conference debated Motion 40 (The Commodification of Sex) – proposed by UCU – which demanded that Conference campaign to:
- i) expose the social causes of prostitution including women’s poverty;
ii) review the residency status of trafficked women;
iii) criminalise men’s purchase of sex rather than its sale; and
iv) ensure that the commodification of sex and the objectification of women’s bodies is shown to be a contributory factor in violence against women.
The motion was carried.
Fast-forward to UCU Congress 2017. Motion 56 motion on ‘Education, sex worker safety and collective organising’ was passed – albeit with a curtailed debate – calling for ‘decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers’.
I have no doubt that this will be regarded by organisations involved in the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women, such as Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid and anti-trafficking organisations with utter incredulity and dismay. How is it possible that a union which has until now sought to campaign against the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies has now come to adopt a policy which represents de facto collusion in the continuing wave of abuse against women forced into prostitution?
Rather than adopting the position of the TUC Women’s Congress, representing 3 million women, or the position of organisations who deal with the rape, deaths, and abuse of women involved in prostitution, Motion 56 – which was not taken to any of the Union’s Equality Committees before Congress – was pushed to a vote at Congress, debate having been guillotined. We are now stuck with a position that isolates us in the labour movement and effectively means we contribute nothing to the ending of the exploitation of women involved in prostitution.
It was good to see two men – Douglas Chalmers, President UCU Scotland, and Eurig Scandrett, a prominent member of the ‘white ribbon’ campaign in Scotland – speak against the motion. Douglas ably articulated the position of Rape Crisis and other groups opposed to legalizing prostitution. Eurig stated that if student poverty is driving students into prostitution then the answer is to end student poverty, not legalise prostitution!
But it was the deliberate and calculated move to close down the debate that shocked and angered me and which, in my view, brought discredit on the union.
For the only time during Congress the ‘move to the vote’ was called for before HE President Joanna De Groot and FE President-elect Vicky Knight (Chair of the TUC Women’s Committee) could voice their opposition to the Motion. And the manner in which it was done was shameful; it was galling to see a prominent member of the SWP/UCULeft go to the front of Congress where those waiting to speak sat, and say to those in favour of the motion ‘You should close down the debate, we’ve got the votes for it.’
Opponents of the motion had asked ‘where are the Pimps in this motion? Where are the men who buy women’s bodies?’ and had argued that prostitution was part of the cycle of exploitation and abuse women faced and should be worked against, not facilitated.
The answer in the debate, by one prominent member of UCULeft (and NEC member), was that ‘women do not sell their bodies, it’s just like work – which has unpleasant parts to it.’ This is an astonishing statement. Of course, all forms of labour are exploitative and alienating. But are we really expected to compare the everyday experience of workplace ‘unpleasantness’ with the situation in which, driven by economic desperation, women are compelled to endure the systematic use of physical force, threats and use of violence, psychological coercion, and in many cases crippling addiction?
One of the reasons I am angry at those promoting this policy is the callous ignorance of the brutal reality of prostitution, as outlined in The Independent some time ago ; a reality masked by the use of words like ‘collectivise’ and ‘organise’. A question for those who believe we can “support self-organised sex workers in their call for decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers” is this. Just who are the ‘organised sex workers’ going to negotiate and bargain with? Answer: pimps and gangsters (not exactly renowned for their unimpeachable adherence to fair employment practices) – lumpen criminals who risk nothing themselves but make huge profits from the exploitation of women.
Drawing on the Independent report on the effects of the legalisation of prostitution, Megan Murphy writing on the Feminist Current blog pointed out that; “the only thing the Dutch government’s 12 year experiment with legalization succeeded in doing was to increase the market. The illusory labour-based approach, put forth by confused lefties, wherein prostitution is imagined to be ‘a job like any other’ hasn’t worked either…Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain. Under the “labour” model, assault and rape is no longer violence against women, but “an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe,”
There’s simply no reason for police to charge men for doing something they feel they are legally entitled to do. Talking about ‘sex work’ as ‘work’ doesn’t help women. It doesn’t help women leave the industry, it doesn’t create gender equality, it doesn’t stop the violence, and it doesn’t de-stigmatize prostitution. Reframing legalization as ending the ‘stigma’ has not only been shown to be untrue, but it distracts us from the reality that violence and inequality doesn’t happen because of stigmatization — it happens because of male power and systemic injustice.
Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings, is quoted as saying; ‘The problem is gender-specific. Men buy women.’ Which is why a feminist approach is needed’’.
Congress Motion 56 is tantamount to an endorsement of capitalism’s relentless drive to commodify every aspect of human relations and to condone the further alienation of the body from the self; the body and its most intimate functions are reduced to a means of production, a machine for producing a commodity in the form of a service – sex – the use value of which is appropriated by the (male) consumer, whilst the exchange value enriches the trafficker and the pimp. The way to tackle prostitution is by eliminating its material basis – the demand by men to pay for women’s bodies; exactly what UCU called for at the TUC Women’s Conference in 2009.
As trades unionists and progressives we should be seeking a way out of exploitative human relations, not facilitating their all-pervasiveness and entrenchment. UCU needs to move quickly to reverse the retrograde step it took at Congress this year, adopt an informed and gender-specific analysis of prostitution and drop this shockingly out of touch position.
Retiring NEC member
In the interests of debate, we would welcome any members of UCULeft or the SWP who proposed or backed this motion to write in and let us know what was in their mind when they did so. We’ll publish any contributions.