Statement: Decriminalisation of prostitution v legalisation

Since it was founded in 1975, the English Collective of Prostitutes has been campaigning for the abolition of the prostitution laws which criminalize sex workers and our families, and for economic alternatives and higher benefits and wages — no woman, child or man should be forced by poverty or violence into sex with anyone. 

Summary: Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal sanctions for prostitution as we see in New Zealand. Legalisation  is strict regulation through, for example, municipal and health acts with criminalisation for noncompliance as we see in the Netherlands. The ‘Nordic model’ criminalizes sex workers that work together plus all third parties, landlords and clients.

Decriminalisation means the abolition of all the laws on prostitution.  Although exchanging sex for money isn’t illegal, in practice it is virtually impossible to work without breaking the law. Women working on the street are charged with loitering and soliciting (and increasingly ASBOs and compulsory rehabilitation orders).  Two women or more working in premises can be charged with brothel keeping.  Anyone who associates with a sex worker (lover, friend, partner) can be done for controlling. Raids and prosecutions are increasing and hundreds of women who are working to survive and support their families are having their lives wrecked by a criminal conviction – as a result they will find it almost impossible to get any other kind of employment.  And most importantly, women’s safety is seriously undermined as sex workers are deterred from coming forward to report rape and other violence for fear of arrest (and for immigrant women, fear of deportation) – violent men know that and are quick to take advantage.

Prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003 and as a result: sex workers are more able to report violence to the authorities without fear of arrest; attacks are cleared up more quickly; there has been no increase in prostitution.  Any legislative change here in the UK has to, like New Zealand, include the decriminalisation of women working on the street who are most vulnerable to violence and arrest.

The English Collective of Prostitutes opposes the legalisation of prostitution because where it has been introduced (Germany, Netherlands, Nevada, etc.) it has not improved working conditions or safety and has further segregated sex workers.  Under a legalised system, sex work is legal only in certain zones or brothels.  If women work outside those areas they remain illegal.  Sex workers have to register with the police.  Most are mothers, mainly single mothers supporting families, and cannot afford to be public.  Women fear that once on a police or local authority computer, they will be stigmatised even further.  What if the school finds out, how might your children be treated?  How will they treat you if you are raped?  Where legalisation has been brought in most sex workers prefer to remain illegal than be subject to those conditions (only 12% of women in Germany work in the legalised areas).

The movement for decriminalisation is gaining ground. In September 2010, in response to a legal challenge brought by sex workers in Ontario, Canada, the court abolished the prostitution laws (which are modelled on the British ones).  Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled that sex workers’ constitutional right to “life, liberty and security” were being violated: “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”