In Full Sight: ‘The pimp lobby’ at the Amnesty AGM

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The 'pimp lobby' slur thrown at those who argue for full decriminalization discredits the sex work labour movement. Frankie Mullin reports on the Amnesty UK Annual General Meeting. 

Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist covering social issues with a special interest in the politics of sex work.

“The English Collection of Pimps.” That was the slur thrown at a small group of women – all current or former sex workers – who were waiting to speak at the Amnesty UK Annual General Meeting (AGM) on Sunday. The women were there to defend Amnesty International’s support for the decriminalisation of the industry; their adversaries to call for its end.

The English Collection of Pimps: a clumsy, defamatory take on the name of the UK’s oldest sex worker-led organisation, the English Collective of Prostitutes. It might be funny if it wasn’t so insidious, so damaging and so utterly predictable. The ‘pimp lobby’ is a myth that will not die.

This particular instance of the ‘pimp lobby’ slight – and there are many – came courtesy of Ruth Greenberg, a member of Rad Fem UK, who was speaking in favour of a motion asking Amnesty International to re-evaluate its policy on prostitution and, instead, back the Nordic Model, in which sex buyers are criminalised.

The motion was defeated 65%-35%. Amnesty’s call for decriminalisation – which, it argues, offers sex workers better legal protections and makes them less vulnerable to exploitation from third parties – is backed by 174 organisations around the world, and this was not forgotten.

“Amnesty is committed to ensuring that any discussions we conduct on the decriminalisation of sex work are evidenced-based,” a spokesperson said. “It is unfortunately common for sex workers who are trying to defend their rights to be stigmatised as ‘pimps’ and silenced in the public debate.” Greenberg was asked by the Amnesty chair to retract her statement or leave the podium. But her words had been spoken: calling sex workers ‘pimps’ is now the language of her set.

Nikita, an Afro-Asian sex worker in her twenties from London, was due to speak shortly after being labelled a pimp. She was shaken.

“We’d only been given three minutes and I didn’t want to derail any further by talking about how I was abused and preyed on by a pimp when I was in my teens,” she said. “It was too lurid, too painful. The accusation that my presence at the AGM fighting for workers’ rights indicated that I was one of the people exploiting workers rattled me. I was near tears.”

Amidst this hostility, Nikita further found her presence erased by a (white) pro-Nordic Model speaker who was supporting the motion.

“They are my sisters and I love them,” the speaker said, before telling the room that “they wouldn’t see any women of colour on the stage fighting against the motion” to further criminalise the sex industry.

“This amounted to directly ignoring my presence on the stage minutes before – and my disgust at the weaponisation of race to deny workers’ rights and the glossing over of the racism inherent in the Nordic Model itself,” Nikita says. “Her mistake didn’t even register on her face.”

Amid the selective blindness, fantasy flourishes. And this is why the ‘pimp lobby’ myth is more than just an amusing quirk of the abolitionists. It indicates the extent to which their views are divorced from reality and the void is vast. The pimp lobby – a conspiracy theory in which astroturfing pimps are behind the movement for decriminalisation – erases the reality of sex workers. No activist community is free from troublesome characters but this is no grounds to write off a global movement and decades of history.

Last weekend was a microcosm of a global phenomenon. When sex workers stood on the podium and revealed they were survivors, Dr Anna Cleaves – a non-sex working academic – told the room these were “not genuine survivors”; similarly, in the global sex work debate, those calling for decriminalisation are derided as “happy hookers”. When a Nordic Model proponent at the event compared sex work with “raping an animal” – her reasoning being that neither animals nor sex workers have agency and therefore cannot consent – it reflected the way in which workers are repeatedly told their claimed consent is irrelevant because money has changed hands.

These attitudes are given plenty of airtime: in the Guardian, Kat Banyard dismisses Amnesty’s two-year research project as a pimp party; see Julie Bindel here, and brace yourself for her new book. In 2014, when MEP Mary Honeyball introduced a bill at the European Parliament calling for the Nordic Model, she wrote off not one but 450 organisations which opposed her bill as “organisations comprised of pimps”.

More recently, pimp lobby mythologisers have been brought into check. Last December, National Ugly Mugs, a Home Office backed charity which sends out safety alerts to thousands of sex workers, threatened to sue after Nordic Model Now sent an open letter to the Home Secretary claiming the charity has “close connections with pimps”. Nordic Model Now retracted its accusation.

What’s really being claimed, when abolitionists sound the pimp lobby klaxon, is that they don’t believe sex workers. They don’t believe sex workers could be this organised, don’t believe they could be this united, don’t believe anyone in the industry could be clear-headed enough to understand misogyny, or racism, or the complexity of how these inequalities play out within the industry.

It’s a tidy way to discredit any labour movement. Claim the workers are puppets, that industry bosses are pulling the strings, and you can ignore all they say. Would it have been so easy to make such accusations though, I wonder, if sex workers weren’t overwhelmingly women?

Amnesty UK was right to reject the Nordic Model motion, with its offensive language about “buying women” and its utter lack of support from sex workers. Northern Ireland criminalised the buying of sex in 2015, despite a Department of Justice commissioned survey finding only 2% of workers in the local sex industry were in favour.

The sex workers who attended the Amnesty AGM were from the ECP, Sex Worker Open University, and Scot-Pep, all organisations run by sex workers and former sex workers, all surviving on a miniscule budgets, all doing life-saving work. To write them off as pimps goes beyond the disingenuous. It is a vicious, desperate attempt to deny the lived experience of sex workers, even when those sex workers are standing in full sight.

The author tried to contact Ruth Greenberg via Rad Fem UK but, at the time of publishing, hadn’t received a response.

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