The debate on “sex work” has divided the trade union movement.
While the GMB has tried to organise women who work in lap dancing clubs, in 2009 the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Women’s Congress voted against a motion which supported the decriminalisation of the sex industry and the unionisation of sex workers.
Instead a motion was passed in favour of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex.
Within feminist thinking there are opposed views on sex work and violence against women.
Radical feminists in alliance with neoconservatives campaign for the abolition of prostitution and, in the interim, are supporting legislation that proposes the criminalisation of men.
Other feminists, many of them academics who research in this area, as well as sex workers’ organisations themselves, demand the decriminalisation of prostitution.
They argue that, while the long-term aim is to eliminate the conditions that breed prostitution, in the short term the priority is to keep women safe.
The language itself is highly problematic and emotive.
The use of the term “prostitute” is regarded as a denigrating word used for women who are forced into selling sex through poverty and exclusion, while the use of the term “sex worker” is seen as dignifying an activity which reflects and compounds women’s oppression.
This article does not suggest that sex work is “a job like any other”—however, the term sex work will be used, first because it avoids the moral condemnation often attached to the word prostitute.
Second, this term is used because women who directly sell sex on the streets, in flats or in brothels are only a subset of a much larger number of women who work in the sex industry.
The modern sex industry is a multibillion dollar industry, which generates huge profits for both transnational corporations and criminal gangs.
The sex industry is difficult to define because it encompasses a huge range of diverse activities.
According to the writer Elisabeth Bernstein: The scope of sexual commerce has grown to encompass: live sex shows; all variety of pornographic texts, videos, and images, both in print and on line; fetish clubs; sexual “emporiums” featuring lap-dancing and wall-dancing; escort agencies; telephone sex and cyber-sex contacts; “drive through” striptease venues; and organised sex tours of developing countries.