Action Alert: Home Affairs Select Committee Prostitution Inquiry

February 9, 2016

Urgent, respond to Home Affairs Committee biased inquiry on prostitution

Deadline for submissions: midday on Thursday 18 February 2016

Dear Friends,

As many of you will know, the Home Affairs Select Committee has launched an inquiry into prostitution. The remit of the inquiry is entirely biased as it aims to: “assess whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it”. There is no reference to decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand with verifiable success.

We spoke to our supporters in parliament who said that despite the skewed questions, as many people as possible should respond to ensure that our views are reflected in the final report. They said that it was particularly important for sex workers to respond and ask to give oral evidence. We defeated attempts to criminalise clients in 2014 and this Committee is putting it back on the agenda. The government isn’t obliged to follow the Committee’s recommendations but we want to ensure that there is vigorous opposition so that it doesn’t gain any traction among parliamentarians.

When answering please remember two things that this Inquiry scandalously ignores:

  1. Amnesty International’s path-breaking vote in August last year in support of full decriminalisation (not just sex workers but also clients, indoors and outdoors), and its call on governments to review the prostitution laws and provide resources in the form of “state benefits, education and training and/or alternative employment” to help sex workers leave prostitution if they want.
  1. The prestigious evidence-gathering symposium on decriminalisation in Parliament last November attended by hundreds of people, where sex workers from 10 countries and a panel of academics presented a compelling case for the “burden of criminality” to be removed from everyone involved in prostitution on grounds of safety. A full report is being prepared but some of the key evidence is reproduced below so that it can be used to counter some common myths and misinformation.

This “inquiry” is almost a replica of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade inquiry (March 2014) – it was discredited after it refused to release the evidence on which its recommendation to criminalise clients was supposedly based on. We commented then:

“At a time when unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, lowering wages, increased homelessness, and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution, it is unacceptable for MPs to promote increased criminalisation. These proposals will further divert police time and resources from investigating rape, trafficking and other violent crimes, to policing consenting sex.”

In November 2014, the MP proposing an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill to criminalise clients was forced to withdraw it after hundreds of individuals and organisations, wrote to their MPs to protest. That campaign was co-ordinated outside Parliament by the Safety First Coalition (which includes the Hampshire Women’s Institute, the Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape, church groups, trade unionists, academics, lawyers and anti-racist and anti-poverty campaigners). John McDonnell MP, now Shadow Chancellor, who led opposition within parliament set the standard when he said: “We must listen to sex workers.”

Instead sex workers are being bypassed, disparaged and ignored. We have told parliament repeatedly that decriminalisation in New Zealand has made it safer for sex workers, and that parliamentarians who claim to want to abolish prostitution must say how else we are supposed to survive. Any Inquiry must first and foremost address that.

When Rose Alliance, Sweden, came to the UK they told UK parliamentarians:

We are still criminalised if we work together in premises, we risk eviction by landlords, condemnation by social workers and even losing custody of our kids because we are seen as ‘bad girls’ unwilling to change. This law should be abolished, not exported to other countries.” 

We want to stop this Committee in its tracks and make them listen to people who experience or witness the horrendous impact of unjust prostitution laws.

Thank you and best wishes,

Laura Watson

How to submit evidence: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/160114-new-inquiry—prostitution/

English Collective of Prostitutes Facts and Fiction sheet

Points you may find useful when answering the inquiry’s Terms of Reference:

1) ‘Whether criminal sanction in relation to prostitution should continue to fall more heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it.’ 

  • Why not remove the criminal sanction altogether? In the same way that gay sex was decriminalised in England in the 1960s, there is no justifiable reason for the continued criminalisation of consenting sex between adults where money is exchanged. See more info here.
  • New Zealand successfully decriminalised prostitution in 2003. The New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) is a good basis for any serious change in prostitution law and policy. It removes sex work from the criminal law, allows people to work together collectively, and distinguishes between consenting sex and violence and exploitation. Crucially, it has been shown to improve sex workers’ working conditions, while making it easier for those who want to get out, to do so:  “The majority (70%) felt sex workers were now more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.  It appeared that this was particularly true for the street workers.”  More recent research from the Christchurch School of Medicine review found over 90% of sex workers believed the PRA gave them additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. Many found it easier to refuse clients and said police attitudes to sex workers had changed for the better.
  • Criminalising clients undermines sex workers’ safety. One sex worker describes here how the Northern Ireland law criminalising clients has made it more dangerous for her to work. Criminalisation forces sex workers to work in isolation at greater risk of attack (The Scotsman, 2008).
  • Proposals to increase criminalisation are led by an “unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners”. This Inquiry follows in the footsteps of the discredited All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade which chose as its secretariat the homophobic charity CARE.

2) ‘What the implications are for prostitution-related offences of the Crown Prosecution Service’s recognition of prostitution as violence against women.’

  • This Crown Prosecution Service policy results in increased arrests of sex workers. For example, the criteria for brothel-keeping prosecutions doesn’t rely on whether women are being coerced or abused, only on how long they have been working and how much money is been made. So no distinction is made between small collectives, where women work co-operatively, keep their own money and set their own hours and establishments run by coercive bosses.
  • Women Against Rape comments: “We’ve helped thousands of rape victims and all have had strong views about when sex was consenting and when it was not, regardless of whether it was part of a long-term relationship, casual or paid for. Only 6.5% of reported rape ends in conviction — targeting clients further diverts police time and resources away from tackling the violence sex workers report.”

3) ‘What impact the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has had to date on trafficking for purposes of prostitution, what further action is planned, and how effectively the impact is being measured.’

  • A proposal to criminalise clients as part of the Modern Slavery Act was resoundingly defeated. See here.
  • The trafficking of men, women and children for labour exploitation is far more widespread than sex trafficking – ”for every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work” in other fields. See here. Why then disproportionately target the sex industry?
  • Trafficking is forced or bonded labour, abduction, kidnapping, false imprisonment, rape, grievous bodily harm, extortion.  Existing laws cover all these offences and could be used to prosecute the assailants of women and children, whatever work they are being forced into.
  • False claims that over 80% of sex workers are trafficked have been peddled by politicians looking to increase the criminalisation of prostitution. In fact, less than 6% of sex workers in the UK are trafficked (Mai, 2011). “Many migrants prefer working in the sex industry rather than the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs” (Evening Standard, 2011). 
  • Despite government claims about prioritising trafficking, most victims get no protection.  A parliamentary committee (2005) found they are frequently deprived of “protection, access to services and justice” and “treated as immigration offenders facing detention and removals.

4) ‘Whether further measures are necessary, including legal reforms, to:’ 

– ‘Assist those involved in prostitution to exit from it’

  • Women are the hardest workers yet are the poorest everywhere — why not address this “inequality”. Benefit sanctions and cuts, rising homelessness, domestic violence and low wages, have caused an increase in prostitution. Why aren’t these issues being addressed by politicians who claim to want to save women from prostitution?
  • Empower in Thailand spoke in the UK parliament recently and said that sex workers are earning at least twice the minimum wage. For some women exploitation in a brothel is an escape from destitution or more acute exploitation in domestic work, agricultural work, factories and sweatshops. 

– ‘Increase the extent to which exploiters are held to account’

  • Who are the exploiters? Brothel-keeping and controlling law claims to target those who exploit sex workers but in reality are used against women working together for safety. These laws criminalise consenting relationships between prostitute women and partners, family members, friends, working colleagues and others. Trafficking law also claims to target violent exploiters but the law is more often used to target immigrant women for deportation.
  • Women working on the street say they pay up to 80% of their income in fines — what exploitation! Proceeds of Crime (POCA) legislation is used to seize savings and assets (eg: a house, car, jewellery) from people convicted of prostitution offences. The burden of proof is reversed so the person has to prove the money did not come from criminal activity. Debts under POCA are the only ones which can’t be cancelled by a prison term.
  • If politicians were really objecting to exploitation they would object to the working conditions in those jobs which are usually the alternative to sex work and that create the conditions for prostitution to flourish. We’ve not heard them complain about Amazon, or other corporations which cut wages and work their employees into the ground – far from it they are rewarded for making fortunes at the expense of others.

– ‘Discourage demand which drives commercial sexual exploitation’

  • An example of a biased and presumptive question. Who is to say that prostitution is driven by men’s desire for sex rather than women’s need for money?
  • Research on the Swedish law which criminalised clients found: “no convincing empirical evidence that the law has resulted in a decline in sex work . . .” Under the constant threat of police interference, sex workers are forced to hurry the process of screening and negotiating with clients, which makes them take more risks. It also found that sex workers have often been prosecuted as ‘pimps’ when they band together for safety. Landlords have been pressured by police to evict sex worker tenants under threat of being prosecuted themselves. Police have also been known to report sex workers to hotels and – most devastatingly – sex work is frequently cited as a reason for refusing child custody. Rose Alliance, the sex worker organisation in Sweden, conducted their own research and found that 63% of sex workers said that the sex purchase law had created more prejudices.
  • Domestic violence, including rape, is the most common form of violence against women, yet no-one suggests that relationships between women and men should be banned.

Claims that violence, particularly trafficking, can be reduced by criminalising clients are disproven by a 2014 Vancouver study which found that “criminalisation and policing strategies that target clients… profoundly impacted the safety strategies sex workers employed.”