William Ennis, an east Belfast loyalist and PUP member, pays tribute to sex worker, rights campaigner and activist, Laura Lee.
It was just before midnight when my phone rang. It was a dear friend. As soon as she spoke, I knew something was wrong. Her voice was broken, and she demanded to know if I was seated. I assured her I was. “Laura’s gone”, she wept. “Laura’s gone.” My voice simply failed me, and I could only listen to her sobs. When I finally could make a sound, I demanded that she check her sources and confirm that what she was telling me was true. She then apologised for having brought me this news. News she wouldn’t have brought me if she was not certain. It was only denial that had made me ask.
Laura Lee was a mother, a sex worker, a law graduate, a champion of worker’s rights, a feminist, a campaigner for equal marriage (EM), and one of the greatest, most fun friends a person could have. The word inspirational is used way too cheaply today, but it could have been coined for Laura Lee. This was a woman who educated and protected young sex workers, helped couples with disabilities to improve their physical relationships, took to the mainstream media to challenge prejudice on issues surrounding the sex industry. And, on her day off, legally, and literally, took on the Government.
I implore you, reader, to ask any person from within the progressive protest movement, of whichever grouping, to mention Laura’s name, and watch that person’s face become bright with resolve, and fired with pride.
Laura had already met several members of the PUP before I met her, and had presented to them her experiences of the abuse of sex workers, and the need to politicise against such injustice. I got to know Laura properly at first through our shared support for the growing campaign for equal marriage rights for gay people. She appeared before me during what was the first of two huge pro EM demos. We’d bantered on social media for quite some time, and when we first met in real life it was a wonderful moment on a scorching hot Belfast afternoon. The big hug was mutually instinctive, the joint selfie too…
She was a southern Irish lady and I was an east Belfast Loyalist. She embraced me as she embraced everyone, with not one iota of judgement. If you showed Laura respect, she showed it right back. With her dark hair, beaming smile and – more often than not – striking leather trousers, she always stood out from the crowd. At demonstrations she would be in demand with protestors, feminists, socialists, Marxists, LGBT rights campaigners, environmentalists, mainstream media, trades unionists, online media, politicos and people who’d merely seen her on television. They all wanted to chat with Laura, wanted to ask her questions. Questions they felt confident asking only her. One sensed they just knew that Laura would understand.
Laura had successfully pushed for a judicial review of the bill introduced by the DUP’s Lord Morrow, which has since banned the practice of paying for the services of a sex worker. This, Morrow claimed, would help eradicate human trafficking. Laura was livid, and she put this bill, which introduced to Northern Ireland the Nordic model, squarely in her cross-hairs.
Morrow’s claim, that banning an exchange of money for sexual services between two consenting adults would combat the appalling practice of human trafficking, is flawed. It does no such thing. One of the most potent assets in the exposure of cases of sexual coercion and/or exploitation of young people within the sex trade has been the phone call of the concerned client. A person who has left a sex worker and decided that all was perhaps not quite right in that apartment is now much less likely to alert the police for fear of arrest. The girls who are truly exploited and coerced, along with their exploiters, are now placed in the shadows of a criminalised industry. In Laura’s words,
A key part of rescuing them (women who are being coerced), is ensuring that men who buy sex are not scared off from reporting their concerns to the police.
Furthermore, the Council of Europe group of experts on action against trafficking in human beings (Greta) reports that,
The impact of criminalising the purchase of sexual services […] must be assessed in the light of all possible consequences. This includes ensuring that the measures taken do not drive victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation underground or make them more vulnerable, and also that they do not mobilise investigation units and prosecution authorities to the detriment of investigations of traffickers.
And let’s consider Morrow’s desire to shrink the industry itself. Here again the Nordic model was mis-sold. It has not made women safer. When introduced in Sweden, there was indeed a marked a decline in on-street sex work. But it did not equate to a decline in sex work in general. Rather there was an industry upheaval where sex workers – in line with the rest of the economy – re-directed their communications online, on tailored websites where the consumer knew where to find them. Criminalisation did not change the market. Their work continued, but with added danger, and undeserved stigma.
As a result, it should be no surprise that 98% of sex workers here opposed the bill.
But why should there be any concentrated effort to bring about a decline in sex work? Surely what goes on between consenting adults is their affair? Their bodies, their sex-life, and – yes – sometimes literally, their business.
Ana Lopes, President of Britains general union, GMB, Sex-workers branch, put it this way, in a 2011 article –
Sex work is legitimate work and problems within the industry are not inherent in the work itself. It is vulnerability, not sex work, which creates victims. Sex workers should enjoy the same labour rights as other workers and the same human rights as other people.
Following Morrow’s victory, the law in Northern Ireland now makes it difficult for sex workers to work together, a practice which once brought security. Because two or more sex workers working at one address, regardless of how independent and socially responsible these workers may be, can draw police attention, as the police would seek to arrest the customers. These workers, often now working alone, become tremendously vulnerable, not least due to the fact that unscrupulous (real) criminals would be aware of the fact that they are women alone with cash.
And what of the legalities of being the husband, wife, or partner of a sex worker? As their earnings now become gains of a criminalised industry, what impact will this have on such hard-working households?
In the unprotected darkness of a criminalised industry, consumers are now themselves more on edge, suspicious, less open about who they are. This places sex workers in tremendous danger, as the screening out of disrespectful, or dangerous customers becomes impossible.
Marjan Wijers, Chair of the European Commission’s expert group on trafficking, agrees that criminalising the sex industry “creates ideal conditions for rampant and exploitation of sex workers”. And that “trafficking, coercion and exploitation can only be stopped” when prostitution is “legal and the social rights of prostitutes are recognised”.
Or, in Laura’s words,
No one would ask an A&E nurse to work a Saturday night shift without any support, so why should we have to?
Somewhere recently I read sex work described as being made up of two elements. The free market, and sex. I wonder which of those two elements actually haunts those who choose to make a scapegoat out of people like Laura?
Laura’s fight will continue. Her mark has been left on so many of us who continue to fight back tears at her passing. The picture I rerun in my head most frequently, the one I most enjoy, is of my friend, holding court in the bustling, lively outdoor section of the Sunflower pub, breaking her young admirers into hysterics with her anecdotes and infectious laughter, between swigs of Guinness, and treating every single person she met with the kind of warm tolerance that this world so sorely lacks. But, as her fellow activist Jordon White declared, as the news broke our hearts, “Today we grieve, but tomorrow we climb back into the trenches.”
Thank you, Laura. Thank you for everything. We’ll take it from here.
William Ennis is a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, works in the electrical trade, is married, and a cat-lover… Tweets at https://twitter.com/WJProgressive