A tribute to the fearless Laura Lee: freedom fighter for sex workers’ rights, and my friend

Laura Lee died on 7 February 2018. She was a leading activist who campaigned fearlessly for the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK.

Janine Ewen
8 March 2018

Flowers at the Scot-Pep Memorial for Laura Lee last month.

Flowers at the Scot-Pep Memorial for Laura Lee last month.

March is a month of special occasions that closely resonate with the person that Laura Lee was. Last Sunday (4 March) was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Today (8 March) is International Women’s Day. Coming up (11 March) is Mother’s Day, in the UK.

Laura died last month, on 7 February 2018. I will remember her as a leading activist who campaigned fearlessly to decriminalise sex work. She was a freedom fighter for sex workers, a feminist, a mother to a daughter and a needed friend to many.

I know that I spent time with one of the most intelligent, strong and inspiring mentors and mothers in the sex workers' rights movement. Among other things, Laura helped me to deal with my own frustrations at the positions that some women’s groups in Scotland have taken on sex work.

'I know that I spent time with one of the most intelligent, strong and inspiring mentors and mothers in the sex workers' rights movement.'

It was so disappointing that groups that focus on violence against women appeared to be blindly supporting the so-called 'Nordic model,' which criminalises the purchase of sex. Such legislation puts an already marginalised group of workers, sex workers, at further risk of harm by driving the industry underground.

Laura’s mentorship, and her words of wisdom, helped me to be challenging with respect and grace to those who don’t share our convictions and understandings of sex work. Everything she did in her day-to-day life, fighting for sex workers’ rights, aimed to also build the capacities of those around her.

Laura engaged fearlessly in media and public debates, seeking to protect and represent her colleagues in the fight for decriminalisation. She did endless press interviews, including on high-profile and well-known TV and radio shows, and spoke at events around the UK and abroad, from festivals to debates at universities.

At Laura's funeral, one sex worker described her as: “a woman who would walk through the door first to take the bullets.”

“A woman who would walk through the door first to take the bullets.”

The hatred directed at Laura was sometimes scarily atrocious, because she was a publicly self-identifying sex worker who refused ‘approved’ labels of victim, whore, or sexual deviant, and pointed out the detrimental effects that 'protecting' sex workers under criminalisation has had in Ireland.

In 2014, Laura confronted the Northern Irish Assembly on the Human Trafficking Bill brought by DUP Lord Morrow. It effectively imposed the Nordic model on the region, making it illegal to pay for sex. Laura gave evidence against this law at the assembly’s justice committee – and was quizzed on her personal sex life and her relationship with her father.

Laura said she was also accused of targeting vulnerable disabled men and, “in a final act of arrogance,” was told that some of the committee members “don’t need any evidence.” “Ignoring sex workers is bad enough,” she said, but this experience “took that one step further.”

Once, Laura told me that social services even contacted her to question her suitability as a mother to her daughter – who said: “she always put me first.”

Despite attacks from her opponents, intimidation tactics, and a hostile environment, Laura climbed on, challenging harmful legislation. She was not brought down by her opponents, but knowing Laura and remembering her means also identifying the challenges and vulnerabilities she faced to truly understand and appreciate her overwhelming strength.

Balloons released for Laura at her funeral.

Balloons released for Laura at her funeral.

Strong women like Laura are standing up for themselves and their communities and will not be restricted in their lives by the morality of others. Of course they will terrify the DUP, one of the most socially-backward political groups.

Despite the backlash, Laura continued high-profile campaigning while also, in the background, putting in place as many safety measures for sex workers as possible.

Laura reached out to support other sex workers in distress. She convinced the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to appoint sex work liaison officers in April 2015, to make it easier for sex workers to report crimes.

She also worked with the Northern Ireland justice department, convincing them to form a special sex work liaison group, so that sex workers could be involved in work against trafficking and other exploitation.

Laura showed in her devastatingly short life that individuals in the sex industry deserve to be recognised as workers deserving of rights. She advanced demands for decriminalisation, and felt and shared love with her friends, allies and a massive community which will continue her work – because that’s what we fucking do.

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