In years gone by, sex workers might have been viewed by society as people to be pitied, mocked or even judged, with whispered stereotypes about ‘fallen women’ dominating discourse. But recent cultural shifts have seen the tide turn towards viewing sex work as a human rights issue with workers’ safety the core concern. Now, it appears the UK may be on the cusp of making the historic decision to decriminalise prostitution.
Last summer, Amnesty International caused outrage around the world when the human rights organisation voted to give their backing to a ‘decriminalisation model’ which would mean it is no longer a criminal offence to sell sex.
Earlier this month, the hotly anticipated interim report from Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee about sex work in the UK also came to the conclusion that decriminalisation is the best way to protect workers.
When I meet Laura Watson, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes at the organisation’s headquarters in Camden, a few days after the Home Affairs committees’ announcement, she is relieved but cautiously optimistic. She tells me: “Obviously they’re just recommendations as it’s an interim report, rather than a final report but it’s from a prestigious institution, the most prestigious in Parliament when it comes to Home Affairs issues. So this is very positive news.”
Her view isn’t universally shared, however, with many politicians and activists fiercely opposing decriminalisation as they fear it could legitimise the sexual exploitation of thousands. They argue that sex work isn’t comparable to other kinds of work, and that to treat it as such dehumanises people and condones power dynamics which are inherently exploitative and abusive.
Yet tensions are growing about the sustainability of current legislation as a messy legal landscape appears to exist in which sex workers, who the laws claim to protect, are finding themselves hauled before the courts and put behind bars to the tune of around a hundred women in the UK every year.
Although having sex for money isn’t illegal itself, under UK laws a lot of the associated activity is a criminal offence, such as soliciting for customers on the street or running a brothel.
Ms Watson has seen first-hand how the laws can criminalise women and undermine their safety through her work with the English Collective of Prostitutes which advocates for sex workers’ rights. She says that while recent progress in debates around sex work are positive, the changes need to make it on to the statute books, and fast. In the meantime, she says, sex workers are still at risk.
She says a major concern is police officers unfairly using sex workers’ criminal records to contact them and blackmail them into having sex with them, in exchange for not getting further convictions.
She says: “We know that police officers are harassing women all the time. Some go after women looking for free sex in exchange for not arresting them. Cases have come to light where officers have been found to be using police records to look up sex workers’ details and harass them.
“They searched police databases and then contacted women that showed up as sex workers and said ‘We’re not going to come after you if you give us sex’.”
In April, a constable from Sussex Police was jailed for 15 monthsafter pleading guilty to obtaining the records of workers from police databases and then harassing women.
Women with immigrant or refugee status can be especially vulnerable, particularly from deportation orders. Under immigration laws, European nationals have to show that they are economically self-sufficient in order to be deemed ‘exercising treaty rights’ and therefore be able to stay in the UK. But as it is a grey area whether sex work counts as official economic activity, many women risk losing their right to remain.
Ms Watson says: “We are defending a few women at the moment, mostly from Romania, who are facing deportation orders on the grounds that they’re not economically independent, because sex work isn’t properly accepted as a job.”
“Nowhere in law states sex work isn’t a job, but nowhere states that it is. So it’s down to the individual immigration officer to decide each time.”
For the Romanian women facing deportation this means they have to risk their safety while evading police: “Violent men in the area where the women live have been threatening them, and the women can’t go to the police in case it shows up in police records that they are on deportation orders and they could get deported immediately. In the meantime, nothing is being done to stop the violent men.”
Ms Watson says another serious issue which sex workers in the UK have to contend with is confiscation orders, which enable police to confiscate their money and jewellery, while also freezing their bank accounts, upon arrest if they suspect the women may be ‘living off the proceeds of crime’. If a sex worker is convicted, her money and jewellery become state assets; shared between police, tax bodies and the Home Office.
In 2013, it was revealed in parliament that more than £12 million has been seized from sex work since 2002. Of this, just over £2 million went to police forces.
She says it’s “completely disgusting” and a clear conflict of interest that police forces can profit from convictions against workers: “When they raid brothels, they don’t ask ‘Are you being coerced, are there underage girls here?’, they ask ‘How long have you been here, how much money do you have.’ It just shows what they’re interested in.”
Sex workers should be given paperwork from the police to enable them to draw out up to £250 of their own money from the bank but Ms Watson says cases the English Collective of Prostitutes have been involved with show this doesn’t always happen. She says: “A few days ago we got a call from a woman who had been arrested- the police took her money, her jewellery and froze her bank accounts and left her with nothing.
“She has two small children and she needs to pay her bills, her rent. They didn’t give her the paperwork to draw out money from the bank and we’ve had to spend the last few days fighting on her behalf for them to finally give her it.”
Another concern is how current legislation makes it a criminal offence to know a brothel is being run, even if you are not the person running it. Ms Watson says the union are working with a woman who is currently in prison for “conspiring to run a brothel” as she was working as a sex worker at a property along with other women. Evidence reported in court was that she had “opened the door multiple times” and was seen wearing clothes on the premises, rather than just her underwear thereby implying she was culpable and aware of how the brothel operates. The union are hoping to appeal the case.
The Home Affairs Select Committee is expected to release its final report in the coming months. It is not yet known what their final recommendations will be, or how much appetite there is among MPs to enact any changes which are suggested. Regardless, how society and legislators view sex work appears to be undergoing historic change and gathering unprecedented momentum.