Reuters: British prostitutes want their work decriminalised

British sex workers, facing the biggest shake-up of their profession for nearly 50 years, urged the government on Friday to decriminalise prostitution.

Citing the example of New Zealand , which decriminalised the world’s oldest profession last year, they said the move would destigmatise sex work and make prostitutes safer by allowing them to work at home rather than on the streets.

They urged Britain to shy away from the examples of Germany and the Netherlands — which have legalised some brothels and set up managed zones where prostitutes can work — or Sweden , which has tightened its laws on paying for sex.

“Decriminalisation is the way forward,” said Niki Adams of the British-based International Prostitutes’ Collective. “As they stand at the moment, the government’s proposals do not address any of the core injustices in the prostitution laws.”

The government said in July it plans to reform Britain ‘s antiquated laws on sex work — some of which date from Victorian times when prostitutes, or “fallen women” as they were often termed, were viewed as a social evil.

It said it was considering measures including new penalties against both pimps and clients and the introduction of managed zones, similar to those in the Netherlands .

However, it made almost no mention of decriminalisation, saying it was too early to assess the New Zealand example.

Under existing British laws, kerb-crawling, soliciting, pimping and brothel-keeping are illegal, although it is sex workers rather than clients who tend to be prosecuted.

“The prostitution laws in this country remind me of how things used to be at home,” said Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, which campaigned for the changes to the laws there.

“The laws here are not designed to help people in the sex industry. They are designed to clobber women,” she said, adding that changes to the law in New Zealand had allowed prostitutes to work together, set up brothels and advertise more freely.

“It has brought them on to the right side of the law. It has changed the dynamic,” she told a news conference.

Adams said legalisation along the Dutch or German model would work only for a small number of sex workers and would force those outside the system towards the margins of society.

“In Germany only 12 percent of women work within the system. Most prefer to work outside it and many, particularly immigrants, are pushed further underground,” she said.

She also condemned Sweden , the only country in the European Union where it is illegal to pay for sex.

“Criminalising men for buying sex has had a devastating effect. Women in Sweden tell us it’s driven away the better clients, the kinder clients, and left them with the more hard-core sadistic types who are better at avoiding the law.

“It’s brought with it a more repressive climate and it’s even displaced some sex workers from Sweden to Norway .”

The British government says around 80,000 women work as prostitutes, more than half of them under 25.

It says over 90 percent of them are drug users — figures hotly contested by the country’s prostitutes’ collectives.

By Gideon Long
Friday, 03 December 2004, Reuters