Articles - 17th January 2020

Sex Work and Intersectionality

Words by Zoe Southcott
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Zoe Southcott went for tea and chats with Sex Worker and Activist Pussy Willow, here’s what she discovered.


There are few sex workers in Britain who are happy to talk publicly about their work but PW is driven to be as informative as possible, for the purposes of educating the masses. She is bright and cheerful as we share cups of tea and chat about sex work. 

PW is a busy woman and is fitting in our interview between a session with a client and rehearsing for her stand-up comedy gigs, and preparing her agony aunt for sex workers slot at Radio Ava. PW says she is very much up for a friendly conversation with all, and has offered the opportunity for tea and chats with various SWERFS (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) in an attempt to reduce polarisation and to show that whilst the sex work industry is certainly far from perfect, actually she is not someone that is being exploited, any more than anyone is, by their work.

 “I got into sex work for both financial and vocational reasons. I really enjoy my work, I wonder how many people can say that? I’ve worked in Sainsbury’s and washed dishes, now that’s work abuse – right now I am self-employed and I earn enough money and have enough free time to really pursue my dreams such as comedy, and in what other job can you honestly say that you make people really happy, better, and more well. That’s what brings me joy, people only see the negative but I see how I help people.

I finished a poll on twitter yesterday to use in a comedy show, and actually only 4 % of the sex workers that responded said they hate their job and 42 % said ‘I f***ing love my job’. It’s irritating to be framed as a victim all the time. Why are people so determined to see me that way?”

Debates about the best way to tackle the exploitative treatment of women in the sex industry, whilst at the same time ensuring the safety of sex workers, can often be unexpectedly acrimonious, despite the fact that both sides usually have something almost identical as a goal – the safety and wellbeing of women. 

On one side, there are those who favour the Swedish/Nordic model, which is what Northern Ireland has adopted, of criminalising consumers rather than sex workers. Others are backing anti-trafficking legislation and vehemently opposing the campaign by Amnesty International that supports the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work. It is especially annoying for PW, when this narrative is pushed by anti-prostitution activists and sex worker exclusionary radical feminists who ignore the experience and opinions of sex workers.

 “I try to engage with the dialogue about sex work. I ask them to stop excluding actual sex workers from the conversation about sex work, it’s patronising. Though I understand that the vast majority of these people are trying to help, it actually ends up being damaging, the ‘shh, we know what’s best for you, and you’re actually only doing this because you’re a victim who doesn’t have any choice’ is pretty infuriating because, whilst I’m in no way saying the sex industry is a perfect working environment, it is my choice to be here, and I think I would know if it was harmful to me. In fact, I love my job, it was working for minimum wage in shitty jobs, that was harmful, I once worked four jobs at the same time and still couldn’t afford a decent quality of life.  

Imagine if it was any other marginalised group being excluded from a conversation about their rights – single mothers for example, feminists would be up in arms about that- where’s the parity?

I have definitely seen these kinds of arguments play out online, and what strikes me is that both sides are really passionate and argue that they are campaigning for women’s rights and safety. This, and also the area of trans rights, seem to be such a fractious and confusing area of feminism. It’s pretty interesting to me as a therapist to see our group forming psychological nature at play – even the most trivial of differences will be used by us to divide us, to form subgroups. Perhaps this is why polarisation in politics can get so extreme so quickly, even between people who share a basic political stance.

“You know sex work is really something that is intersectional, sex work enables those that are disabled, single mothers, transgender, migrants, and even those with mental health issues, to work and support their families independently. I believe that if you care about marginalised groups, and claim to be feminist or an ally or just support these groups, you should support sex worker rights. 

It is impossible to ignore the fact that austerity disproportionately impacts those groups, 86% of cuts have targeted women so yes, poverty does play a part in the choice people make to turn to sex work, but isn’t that the case for all work? Aren’t we all selling our time, often our physical labour, our emotional labour…that is what work is. Instead of going after the people who do sex work because that feels like the best option for them, we should be focusing on why people feel this way – looking at poverty and women’s rights etc. 

“That being said, there are laws in place that make sex work needlessly dangerous,” PW calmly explains, particularly for those who work alone. It is much safer for women to be able to organise themselves collectively, and to keep each other safe from potentially dangerous clients. Unfortunately, there are a number of laws in place currently that prevent sex workers from adequately protecting themselves in the UK. First of all, it is illegal for two or more prostitutes to work together. To be within the law, sex workers must work alone.” 

Sex work is an emotive subject for many of us, bringing up questions about morality, ethics, empowerment, and victimhood, but wherever we stand, the reality is that 70,000 women today will exchange sex for money in the UK, and they are not sufficiently protected by law.  

It is legal to be a sex worker in the UK but it’s illegal to work together, this forces sex workers to work alone and to put themselves at risk. Working with others, sharing information, and being able to effectively screen clients are basic security measures that would really help ensure that my working environment is safe. 

What makes it worse is that many sex workers have little faith that the police would be helpful or take us seriously if we were to report a crime, we may even end up facing prosecution ourselves. I know one woman that was assaulted in a flat sharing situation and when threatened with the police, the perpetrator through that bit of legislation back in the workers’ faces saying ‘You won’t call the police because if you do, you will be done for running a brothel, because there is two of you here.”

I ask PW about the Amnesty International vote to support the decriminalisation of sex work, and the backlash that that vote received, particularly by those who are concerned about the welfare of trafficking victims.

This is the problem,” says PW, “sex work is not trafficking! Sex work is consensual sex between two people, trafficking is trafficking. Trafficking is absolutely a crime and those who are trafficked should be protected, but criminalising sex workers, or their clients, has nothing to do with trafficking victims. Ultimately tarring sex work with the same brush as trafficking is misleading, yes trafficking is wrong and criminal – sex work is not and there are already laws that exist to manage trafficking. But moral crusaders often bring up trafficking victims in relation to sex work to get an emotive response from the public to get backing for their agenda of criminalisation.  Society believes that prostitution is wrong, morally speaking, and that is why it is criminalised- but that perspective is out of date.”

I can certainly see why the advent of effective contraception would definitely change the moral playing field somewhat, historically women that slept with many people would have been likely to have contracted, back then untreatable, sexually transmitted diseases, so I can understand why societies might have developed an aversion to people who have many sexual partners. I ask PW about this. 

In terms of sexual health, sex workers are very careful, more so than the general public I would say.  This is to do with the ‘ick factor’ and people feeling that they couldn’t do the work, or even that it would be wrong in some way to explore their sexuality or to have more than one sexual partner, it’s the policing of women’s sexuality that has been going on for millions of years – which is all to do with our old friend the Patriarchy.”

Monogamy and marriage certainly seem to have served many purposes across time across the globe, in terms of stabilising individuals, raising children, and benefitting society at large. So, I can see why people want to hang on to those moral structures, but nevertheless the moral- psycho-social fears should be separated from the law and should not be used to make sex work unnecessarily dangerous.

I used to live and work in New Zealand, and there things are very different. New Zealand is fully decriminalised which means all areas of sex work are legal, the only thing that is illegal is for a client to not wear a condom and they would be prosecuted for that. Sex workers have rights, legal, health, and safety rights and are much better able to screen and refuse clients, and to call the police if there is a problem. There are over 70,000 sex workers in the UK. The law as it is, forces us to work in ways that are dangerous, so they must be changed.

Last year in the States, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), alongside the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). This is supposed to help stop trafficking by criminalising sex work advertising online. What this means is that there is even less safety for sex workers, it is harder to vet clients, and ‘bad client’ lists have been removed. Also, it is harder to get clients, and it is harder for sex workers to offer one another support, which means that pimps are more likely to be able to have control in sex workers lives and workers are being forced to work on the street to find clients. This bit of legislation does the exact opposite of its intended purpose, it makes sex workers more vulnerable not less. What we need is full decriminalisation, unionisation, and the rights and safety that any other workers receive.” 

Last of all, I ask PW how it feels to make herself visible in this way, advocating for the rights of an understandably invisible workforce.  She drinks a sip of tea, takes a puff of a roll-up, and considers the question. 

“I consider myself quite privileged as a sex worker. I am very lucky as a sex worker because my family know I am a sex worker and support what I do. Most people don’t have that luxury and have to live in secrecy and fear, unable to share what they do because of stigma, peoples judgements and also a very real risk of losing homes, jobs, family and friends. You very much become the ‘other’ as a sex worker, and I have lost friends because of the choices I’ve made. So this is about personal growth for me, excavating the woman, the worker, from the heavy burden of shame and stigma, that society projects on to sex workers, and…” and here I notice her voice becomes determined as she raises a cup of tea to her family and friends who accept and love her, “it’s because it’s the right thing to do, and someone has to bloody do it!”  

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