5 Reasons We Must Decriminalise the Sex Industry – And Fast

by Laura Connelly

21 September 2017


I am not a pimp or a trafficker. I am neither a rape apologist nor someone who excuses violence against women. I do not believe men have a right to buy sex, or that anyone, of any gender, should be forced to sell sex. One might have thought these things go without saying, and yet they are examples of some of the vitriol levied at us – those that advocate for the decriminalisation of the sex industry.

In recent weeks, the establishment media has provided a platform – an ‘everywhere-you-turn’ kind of platform – to anti-prostitution feminists. Julie Bindel does, after all, have a new book to publicise. Underpinning the arguments of many anti-prostitution feminists is the idea that the purchase of sex ought to be criminalised and sex workers understood as victims of male violence. They argue we should be doing more to eradicate the sex industry and rescue the sex workers within it.

These anti-prostitution advocates are right about one thing: our sex work laws require reform. Yet as the English Collective of Prostitutes, SWARM, and other sex worker-led organisations have said time and again, it’s only through the decriminalisation of all consensual aspects of the sex industry that sex workers can be adequately protected. A strong case for decriminalisation is provided in Eleanor Penny’s report for Novara Media, but the need is becoming increasingly urgent. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. Migrant sex workers are being targeted by the police.

There has in recent months been a spurt of police raids on brothels across England and Wales. These raids contravene the National Police Chief’s Council’s guidance which clearly advises that brothel raids and closures create a mistrust of all external agencies, including outreach services. As a result of these raids, migrant sex workers have been arrested, detained by immigration agencies, and even deported. Others are displaced, forcing sex workers to engage in riskier working practices. What purpose do these raids serve? If they are indeed to identify victims of trafficking as is often claimed, then a heavy-handed approach of this sort is certainly not conducive to helping victims come forward to access support. In fact, it reduces the amount of intelligence submitted to the police. Decriminalisation would allow (migrant) sex workers to work in collectives, to look out for one another in an indoor market that is far safer than its street counterpart. It would mean less fear of the police and of other agencies.

2. The Modern Slavery agenda is causing more harm than good.

There are, of course, people who are trafficked into and exploited within the sex industry. Without a doubt, this must be stopped and victims must be given adequate state-funded support. The current provision is inadequate: 45 days of support is in many cases nowhere near enough. But the government’s Modern Slavery agenda has other serious flaws. Under this agenda, voluntary migrant sex workers are being mislabelled as victims of trafficking and deported under the ‘noble’ guise of rescue. By shifting the blame for exploitation onto the individual – the evil trafficker – the state is able to divert attention away from the role it plays in creating and maintaining the socio-structural conditions that make migrants vulnerable to exploitation. Criminalising sex work will not prevent sex trafficking. Quite the contrary – when sex workers and clients fear their own arrest, they are much less likely to report to the police people whom they suspect to be victims of trafficking.

3. Violent clients are being allowed to act with impunity.

Sex workers continue to experience high rates of violence. Data collated by the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) charity, and analysed by Professor Teela Sanders and colleagues, highlights that at least 180 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2016. Violent clients see sex workers as ‘easy targets’ who will not report their abuse to the police. Indeed, NUM data indicates that approximately 20% of sex workers reporting victimisation to the charity are willing to engage directly with the police. 90% of sex workers agree, however, to provide anonymised details of their victimisation to the police when NUM acts as an intermediary. If all laws criminalising consensual sex work are removed, sex workers would no longer fear their own arrest and the closure of the premises they work in. They could engage with the police and expect to be treated as victims rather than offenders. The minority of violent clients would not then be able to attack sex workers with impunity.

4. Sex workers’ rights are not being recognised.

At TUC conference two weeks ago, delegates voted to reject Motion 39 on the decriminalisation of sex work put forward by ASLEF and supported by GMB. Harriet Harman spoke at the conference, claiming the sex industry is exploitative. It seems counter-intuitive that unions would refuse to offer protection to exploited workers precisely because the industry in which they work can be exploitative. It seems some people remain unwilling to accept that the vast majority of sex workers have made a rational choice to sell sex. After all, 70% of female sex workers are thought to be mothers and, like all mothers, they want to provide for their children. Since the government has shown no commitment to developing genuine alternative sources of income, it must grant sex workers the rights they deserve to work safely and without fear of arrest.

5. Anti-prostitution advocates are wilfully misrepresenting the sex workers’ rights perspective.

Anti-prostitution advocates are wilfully misrepresenting views like mine as “pro-prostitution”. In one fell swoop, all the nuance of our carefully considered and empirically-informed arguments is lost – an age-old tactic to delegitimise views that oppose one’s own. We know, of course, that the sex industry is not made up entirely of empowered escorts. We recognise there is a whole spectrum of lived experience within the sex industry. But the majority of sex workers today tell us that criminalising the purchase of sex will not make sex workers safer. What has to happen before the government listens?

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