‘Money for prostitutes is money for Black women’: sex work, race and the English Collective of Prostitutes

Lucy Cann

March 6th 2024


Introduction


Formed in 1975 as an autonomous organisation within the Wages for Housework (WFH) movement, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) emerged at a time when prostitution resurfaced in feminist debate. They became the leading sex workers’ rights organisation in late twentieth-century Britain, embedding the understanding that ‘sex work is work’, coined by Carol Leigh in the US, into British conversations about sex work. Adding much needed nuance to the binary nature of the late twentieth century ‘sex wars’ between radical feminists who saw prostitution as uniquely exploitative and ‘sex-positive’ feminists who defended it as a socially valuable and empowering pursuit, the ECP viewed prostitution as a rational economic decision, recentring female agency. They explicitly rejected dominant characterisations of prostitute women as either ‘the perfect victim’ controlled by a pimp, or the ‘professional whore’ who ‘defends how much she loves her job’ and argued that, as spokeswoman Nina Lopez put it, ‘in most cases, it’s simply a means of making ends meet’.

Drawing on my wider PhD research into how race and sex work intersected in late twentieth-century Britain, this piece explores the hidden history of race in the sex work activism of this period. This blog draws on archived activist material and intellectual writings (which are collected in a bibliography at the end of the piece) to show how the ECP foreground race in their activism and how race became a central category of analysis in their construction of sex work as work. Drawing on the wider WFH ideology, they took an intersectional approach that recognised the particularities of how race shaped Black women’s sex work. By historicising the now well-established construction of sex work as work it shows how, from its very inception, this approach was raced as well as gendered. In doing so, it advocates for the inclusion of considerations of race in contemporary approaches to sex work and work more broadly. 

Sex work activism and ‘intersectionality’


The ECP foregrounded race in their work from its inception. Departing from the white-centric tendencies of many of their feminist contemporaries, the ECP identified Black women as a cohort of women in need of tailored support. They established themselves as ‘a network of prostitutes from all levels of the industry: Black and white, immigrant and British’. Summing up the ECP’s recognition of how race impacted women’s sex work, at the group’s twentieth anniversary event in 1995, a Black female sex worker and activist outlined that the organisation recognised that ‘there’s discrimination against all prostitute women, but Black prostitute women face an additional racism. It’s often hidden, and increases your workload. Dealing with it is a big part of sex work’.

In making these arguments, the activist captured the ECP’s approach to race over the previous two decades. Following the group’s 1981 survey of working women in King’s Cross, an area of London where sex work was highly problematised and contentious, Lopez concluded that issues ‘from rape to losing custody of children; from being refused the protection of police and courts to being evicted or exploited by unscrupulous landlords and others in authority’ were all ‘compounded by race if the woman was Black’. Lopez used her keynote speech at a WFH conference entitled “Bringing It All Back Home: Black and Immigrant Women Speak Out and Claim Our Rights” to reiterate that ‘the kind of treatment Black women get, that’s what prostitute women get and even double if you’re a Black prostitute woman’.

However the group’s approach was more nuanced than treating race as an ‘add-on’. They came to take what we would consider today to be an explicitly intersectional approach that was particularly impressive for their time, recognising race not only as a compounding factor, but something that was fundamental in shaping how women experienced selling sex. Writing in 1999, Lopez argued that ‘race is not a dimension added to an otherwise unchanged situation’ because ‘life itself is like a kaleidoscope: when one aspect changes, all others are transformed’. In other words, sex work was a fundamentally racialised experience.

For the ECP, one of the key ways race defined women’s experiences of selling sex was through the spaces in which they worked. Based at the Women’s Centre in King’s Cross, lead ECP activist Selma James claimed in her account of the ECP’s famous occupation of Holy Cross Church in the area, that in the 1980s, ‘about half of women working on the game in King’s Cross were Black’. While the figure has since been questioned by historians who have placed the figure closer to ten per-cent, it is clear that Black women were a visible minority on London’s street sex scene. Activists pointed to overt racism from other areas of the sex industry as the reason for their overrepresentation on the street, with Lopez arguing that Black women occupied ‘the bottom of the hierarchy’ because ‘many madams, escort agencies, massage parlours and clubs do not employ Black women and those who do keep a restrictive minimum quota’. Such sentiments were echoed by the speaker at the 1995 anniversary event, who drew on her personal experiences of selling sex to firmly situate Black women’s place in the sex industry within broader systemic racism. She argued that ‘because of racism in the sex industry, as in any other industry, Black women are least likely to work in agencies, parlours or higher-paying jobs’ and ‘are more likely to work on the streets, the poorer end of the sex industry’. The remainder of this post will demonstrate how in this context race became central to the ECP’s theorising of sex work as work.

Figure 2: ECP activists making clear that anti-racism was amongst their key demands at the November 1982 church occupation.

Sex work as gendered & racialised work


Seeking to theorise the over representation of Black women in street sex work that they observed in King’s Cross, ECP activists turned to the already established ideological perspective of the WFH movement of which they were a constituent group. Founded in 1972 by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Brigitte Galtier and Selma James, the International Wages for Housework Campaign’s key demand was that the state pay women for ‘housework’, which was broadly defined to mean all the caring, domestic, reproductive and sexual labour carried out primarily by women which underpinned wealth creation. As they put it, the movement was an ‘international network of women who want money for all their work – including sexual work – from the government for all women’.

Although the ECP described themselves as an ‘autonomous’ group within this wider movement, in reality the relationship of the various groups under the WFH umbrella that worked from the Women’s Centre in King’s Cross can be understood as a consortium that subscribed to the same ideology, adapting it to theorise the particular issue that their group was focussed on. Tellingly, key ECP spokespeople and theorists were drawn from the WFH movement. Although activists pointed out that the initial idea for a prostitutes’ group was proposed by two immigrant sex workers, they were unable to ‘come out’ into leadership positions and the selection of existing activists for these roles was deemed a crucial safeguard in the context of criminalisation and marginalisation. As Lopez put it, ‘we have chosen to invite certain non-prostitute women into our organisation because as prostitutes we are socially, economically and legally vulnerable, and therefore most often unable to come out and speak publicly for ourselves’. Most notably, Selma James who founded the WFH movement became the ECP’s first, and arguably most influential, spokesperson. 

They collapsed the perceived distance between prostitute women and other women, contending that ‘all work is prostitution’ and ‘all women are prostitutes’ because ‘whether we fuck for money, wait on tables, pack biscuits, type letters, drive lorries, bear children, teach in schools, or work in the coal mines’ women are ‘forced to sell our bodies and minds’ meaning that ‘our whole lives are stolen from us by work’.

Accordingly, the ECP interpreted sex work through the ideological framework of the WFH movement. They understood the wider issues associated with work, particularly women’s work, to be the ‘problem’ with sex work. Typifying their gendered analysis, their first official statement, ‘For Prostitutes, Against Prostitution’, positioned sex work alongside other women’s work and rejected the radical feminist suggestion that it was uniquely exploitative. They collapsed the perceived distance between prostitute women and other women, contending that ‘all work is prostitution’ and ‘all women are prostitutes’ because ‘whether we fuck for money, wait on tables, pack biscuits, type letters, drive lorries, bear children, teach in schools, or work in the coal mines’ women are ‘forced to sell our bodies and minds’ meaning that ‘our whole lives are stolen from us by work’.

Furthermore, they highlighted how many women relied on male sexual partners for money, with James noting the common ‘reluctance to admit the connection between sex and money in our own lives’ and emphasising that ‘there are many more financial considerations in our sexual relations than most of us are prepared to face’. In a way that complicated binary understandings of ‘work’ and ‘sex’, they argued that while sex is ‘supposed to be personal, always a free choice, different from work’ in reality ‘it’s not a free choice when we are dependent on men for money’ and that in this economic context ‘women are expected to be sexual service stations’ and ‘when any of us gets into bed, at least to some degree we are forced to consider what we are getting in return for giving’.

While this construction of sex work as gendered work is well understood, what tends to be forgotten is that the ECP also theorised it as racialised work. A race-based analysis was at the core of their ideological framework not least because of their close relationship with Black Women For Wages For Housework (BWWFH), the Black women’s section of the WFH movement. As James acknowledged in 1983, ‘the fact that the Center houses Black Women for Wages for Housework…ensured that the racism Black prostitutes faced would not remain invisible’.

Figure 3: English Collective of Prostitutes & Black Women for Wages for Housework campaigning together.

Sex work, race and anti-work


Firstly, considerations of race infused the ECP’s conceptualisation of sex work as women’s refusal of poverty and low paid work in the context of capitalism and racism. The ECP campaigned for ‘the abolition of prostitution laws’ on the grounds that they ‘punish women for refusing to be poor’. As Hester and Stardust have noted regarding present-day sex worker activism, many argue that ‘to choose sex work…may be to refuse to be swallowed by the alternatives and to resist the pressure to submit to more “respectable” forms of labour’. The ECP’s work on race not only demonstrates that these anti-work tendencies in the sex worker rights movement have a much longer history, but also that they included race-specific considerations from their inception.

Activists saw the understanding of ‘sex work as refusal’ as particularly relevant for Black women’s sex work, given their more acute experiences of poverty, low pay and poor conditions in postwar Britain. As global BWWFH activist Wilmette Brown recognised, Black women globally carry ‘the major burden of the world’s work and get the least wealth in return’ and argued that ‘the particular nub of our exploitation’ is ‘having the work but not having the money’. Showing how this global argument played out in the British setting, the ECP used a letter that would become their first public statement to argue that ‘women from other countries, when they come to England’ are ‘often forced to take on the lowest paid jobs – as canteen workers, cleaners, chambermaids, au-pairs, homeworkers’. They went on to explain Black women’s sex work as a rejection of this situation. As ECP activist Sarah Walker put it in a recent oral history interview, ‘people often don’t understand that women go into sex work because its often a better option than the other things offered to us, especially if we’re Black, if we’re working-class, if we’re immigrant’. Speaking from her place as both a sex worker and an activist, the 1995 speaker confirmed this interpretation, stating in no uncertain terms that ‘we do sex work not as a vice or because we love sex, but as a way of refusing poverty, including the low-waged, dirty jobs usually available to Black women’. Indeed, understandings of sex work as refusal for Black women in particular were deployed to make the case for the decriminalisation of sex work which was, and remains, the ECP’s key demand. In 1992, for example, they called on lawmakers to ‘end the criminalisation of prostitute women for refusing poverty and/or financial dependence on men, particularly Black and other working-class women who have fewer financial alternatives’.

Furthermore, Black women’s sex work was also explained in terms of their refusal to conform to the racialised sexual stereotypes that were forced upon Black women in postwar Britain. Brown, for example, positioned Black women’s sex work not only as a refusal of the poverty that was inflicted upon them by their lack of wages for their domestic work and their low-paid jobs outside the home, but also as a means by which they ‘refuse to be sex objects for free’. Similarly, in 1976 they outlined how women in England ‘find that the men who are native to the country regard us as fair game’ and ‘if men wish to see us as cheap sex objects, we will be sex objects and we will let them think we are exotic, but we won’t be cheap!’.

‘We do sex work not as a vice or because we love sex, but as a way of refusing poverty, including the low-waged, dirty jobs usually available to Black women’

Speaker, 1995 ECP Anniversary Event

However, this understanding should not be misconstructed as an endorsement of the sex industry as an avenue for empowerment for Black women, or indeed any women. Some scholars have voiced concerns that constructions of sex work as work risks doing just this. According to Kathi Weeks, for example, while not their intention, activists who push for the acceptance of sex work as work risk ‘shifting the discussion from one moral terrain to another’ from ‘that of a suspect sexual practice to that of a respectable employment relation’. In other words, it could be misinterpreted as suggesting that sex workers deserve rights and respect because of their status as workers, thus bolstering the broader idea of work as bringing value and dignity.

As the title of the ECP’s first statement that went on to become one of their key slogans makes clear, the group was ‘For Prostitutes, Against Prostitution’. Their conceptualisation of sex work as sitting alongside other women’s work, and their demand that the state pay women for their housework, was thought of as a first step towards the rejection of all exploitative labour, including but certainly not limited to sex work. In their first statement the ECP argued that ‘if we had wages for all the work we do at home, we would not have to go out and take on more work to earn money’. Positioning prostitution as amongst these ‘second jobs’ that women would be relieved of by remuneration for their domestic labour, they made clear that ‘unlike people who accept prostitution as a necessary evil or a necessary therapy, we are organising to put an end to prostitution’. They saw this wider demand as critical in terms of ending prostitution, arguing that by ‘coming together to redefine what we mean by work’ and calling on governments to ensure that women’s work is counted constituted ‘a first step towards refusing to do it [work], and therefore a first step towards the abolition of prostitution not only in the sex industry but in every other industry’. Their insistence on sex workers as workers was therefore seen as a stepping stone and was part of a wider anti-capitalist rejection of work. 

Wages for Housework: an anti-racist project


This formulation is well established in contemporary scholarship – as the work of scholars such as Hester and Stardust recognises, contemporary post-work thinking on sex work is in large part descended from the WFH campaign’s view that ‘the goal of sex worker advocacy is not to reify work, but rather to make visible under-recognised labour as part of a longer-term project to forcefully resist it’. What has evaded scholarly and popular memory, however, is how race was integral to this formulation. Most notably, the ECP used Brown’s US-based work as a blueprint for their approach to Black women’s sex work in Britain. In her seminal 1977 speech in the US entitled ‘Money for Prostitutes is Money for Black Women’, made at the very time when the fledgling ECP were formulating their ideas, Brown equated Black women and prostitute women as part of the same ‘struggle for money’. Commenting on the relationship between Black women’s place at the intersection of racism and poverty, she argued that ‘the struggle of prostitutes is the same struggle all Black women are making. It is the struggle to have the money’ and ‘it is the struggle to be paid for all the work we do as women, including sexual work’.

While Brown’s arguments were made in the US setting and it is important to recognise Britain’s very different history of race, the ECP’s theorising of sex work through an economic lens shows how the sentiment of her argument remained relevant to Britain. Brown argued that ‘prostitution is the work that Black women were forced to do on the plantations and that we are forced to do today’ [i.e. by poverty], highlighting how women ‘take on the second job of prostitution’ because ‘we are not paid for the first job we all do as women, housework, the job of producing and taking care of everybody so that we can all work and made profits’. Tying these ideas together, the Black female speaker at the 1995 anniversary event argued that by making sure women’s work is ‘recognised, valued, counted’ through wages, the ‘‘poverty, overwork, lack of money and choices that make prostitution one of the few options for millions of Black women and women of colour everywhere’ could be addressed. Through the example of sex work, therefore, the ECP demonstrated how WFH was simultaneously a feminist and anti-racist project. 

Conclusion


Analysing the history of the adage ‘sex work is work’ through the specific lens of race, this piece has demonstrated how race was central to the theoretical analyses that are the precursor to today’s understandings not only of sex work but also of post-work thinking more widely. Articulating ideas of intersectionality before this language was mainstream, the ECP showed how Black women experienced sex work in race-specific ways and how their experiences were rooted in their wider position as Black women in postwar Britain. Through their campaigning on sex work, they showed how the WFH project was not just a feminist endeavour but also an anti-racist one.

This therefore provides a lesson for contemporary thinking about not only sex work, but also post-work. While scholars are increasingly talking about this from a gendered perspective through discussions of reproductive labour, this piece has made the case for the more thorough integration of race into these discussions.  


Bibliography (order of appearance)

Archival sources

  • Susan Crosland, ‘Women of Convenience: Interview with Nina Lopez’, The Guardian (24 July 1987), p.14. Bishopsgate Institute (BI)/ECP/1.
  • ECP, ‘ECP – “The Girls’ Union”’, Network (July 1983), PAGE, BI/ECP/1
  • Anonymous, ‘The work Black prostitute women face dealing with racism, including from clients’ (29 June 1995) (uncatalogued)
  • Historypin, ‘Sarah Walker: Occupying the Holy Cross Church’ (2018), Access here: https://soundcloud.com/historypin/sets/occupying-the-holy-cross-church
  • ECP, ‘Who are the ECP?’, BI/ECP/1
  • ECP, ‘For Prostitutes, Against Prostitution’ (1976), BI/WFH/15
  • ECP, ‘Statement’ (October 1976), BI/ECP/19
  • ‘”Housework is Rape”: Interview with Selma James and Wilmette Brown’ (August 1977), BI/WFH/15.
  • ECP, ‘Letter to WFH first national conference’ (October 1976), BI/ECP/19
  • ECP, ‘The Abolition of the Prostitution Laws’ (10 November 1992), BI/ ECP/1
  • Wilmette Brown, ‘Money for Prostitutes is Money for Black Women’ (1977), BI/ECP/19

 

Academic sources

  • Nina Lopez-Jones, ‘Workers: Introducing the ECP’ in eds. Delacoste and Alexander, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry (Cleis Pres: San Francisco, 1998)
  • Teela Sanders, Maggie O’Neill & Jane Pitcher, Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy and Politics (SAGE: London, 2009)
  • Judith Walkowitz, ‘Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in King’s Cross in the 1980s’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol.30 (June 2019)
  • Helen Hester & Zahra Stardust, ‘Sex Work in a Postwork Imaginary: On Abolitionism, Careerism, and Respectability’, in ed. Jennifer Cooke, The New Feminist Literary Studies (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2020), pp.69-82.
  • Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke: Durham & London, 2011)

Lucy Cann is a CHASE-funded PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research explores the intersections of sex work and race in late twentieth-century Britain, looking at the experiences and representations of Black women who sold sex at this time. She is working on a project with Autonomy about the women’s movement and approaches to welfare.