HOLLY HUDSON presents the case for decriminalising sex work.
The global movement to decriminalise prostitution has been slowly but solidly gaining traction for 10 years. While it is still an uncomfortable coffee-table topic for some, the debate continues to gather favour and momentum in Britain. I recently attended an evidence-gathering symposium at the House of Commons discussing whether we should decriminalise sex work in the UK. I accompanied members of the Hampshire Women’s Institute. Unlikely bedfellows, you might think: ‘Jam, Jerusalem and Rights For Sex Workers’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. However, WI member Jean Johnson has been campaigning for this cause for many years and has secured the support of the Hampshire WI, who have become key advocates in the debate.
Some core issues needs to be clarified before the debate can grow. Firstly, charging for sex is not illegal in the UK; however there is a complicated nexus of laws that make it difficult and dangerous for the sex seller. You are allowed to be a sex worker, but not to share an apartment with another worker because of anti-pimping laws – and landlords are not legally allowed to know if tenants sell sex. Secondly, decriminalisation and legalisation are not synonymous. Sex work in New Zealand was decriminalised in 2003, but the government have emphasised that this employment is in no way encouraged or endorsed. The profession is heavily regulated and any breaches result in penalties.
Decriminalisation, in the case of sex work, can be defined as adapting the laws surrounding sex work in favour of the prostitutes: simply, it would allow them to work in safer conditions, with less fear of a criminal record, STIs, and emotional or physical abuse.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is the key campaigner in the UK decriminalisation debate and is adamant to see it through. They break this complex argument into three key areas:
Safety: because sex work is illegal, prostitutes do not report violence from clients. Negotiations often take place in secluded and unprotected areas, for fear of arrest or exposure.
Health: clients often refuse to wear condoms for fear of getting mixed up in legal cases – condoms are sometimes used as evidence in court cases prosecuting solicitation. Thus the risk of transmitting infections like HIV increases. Plus, because sex workers are stigmatised socially, their precarious legal status means that they avoid public health services: since a crackdown in Edinburgh, one speaker elucidated, sex workers use health clinics far less, use of condoms is down, and rates of STIs have increased. These demonstrate the immediate problems of prostitution’s complicated legal position.
Escape: current anti-prostitution laws prevent sex workers from changing profession; criminal or arrest records help to entrap vulnerable men and women in an occupation that few aspire to voluntarily. The Symposium heard the moving case of a woman who turned to sex work to support a heavily disabled daughter when she left an abusive husband – when she was later offered the job of a carer, she had to turn it down because the mandatory check of her criminal record could result in her daughter being taken away.
That is an extreme example, but throughout the world, sex work is usually not a choice. It is often the most vulnerable and desperate who enter into this occupation as recourse from extreme poverty. Despite the ‘Secret Diary Of A Call Girl’ idea that British sex workers are all empowered, rich business-women, in the UK sex work is often a last resort occupation. Decriminalisation would, at the very least, ensure a safe working environment for these individuals, and make it easier for workers to leave sex work if they wish.
So how should we proceed? It is worth looking at the ‘Swedish model’, that introduced a policy of criminalising the client, not the seller of sex. It sounds promising, but fails to tackle healthcare issues and in fact led to a rise of surveillance and policing that forced prostitutes underground anyway, enhancing not eliminating risks to health and safety. The failure of this policy is evident from its unpopularity, and the fact that the number of sex workers has not declined since its inception.
Obviously there is a mass of opposition to decriminalisation. It has long been the official standpoint of governments around the world that prostitution is synonymous with human trafficking, and decriminalisation would only lead to an increase in this. This was vehemently refuted at the symposium – with one speaker quipping that you could find more victims of trafficking at the local beauty salon than at the local brothel. To conservative types that remain unconvinced that decriminalising prostitution would reduce the presence of such a ‘harmful, social malice’, it is worth nothing that prostitution has not declined since it was made illegal in England and Wales in 1985. In fact during recent years economic difficulties prostitution has risen as low-income families struggle to make ends meet.
The rallying support from the Woman’s Institute is heartening. As wives, mothers, upstanding members of the community, and feminists, they provide a respected public advocate for the debate, calling for its legitimacy. This is despite it being scoffed at by law-makers around the world, and derided by feminists and high-profile women such as Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet, who signed an open letter to Amnesty International, calling on them to turn against the prostitution debate. It saddens me to think that these public voices of our generation are condemning an argument that seems completely logical: to safeguard the lives and welfare of many thousands of women across the world. This is why the work of the WI is so crucial in this instance. Jean Johnson continues to fiercely campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution, and has every faith that she will continue to change minds and eventually, policy on the subject.