Vice: At last! MPs are calling for sex workers to be decriminalised

July 1, 2016

By Frankie Mullin

‘Sarah’, a sex worker in Leeds, which is home to the UK’s first ‘legal’ red light district. (Photo: Darren O’Brien)

At midnight last night, sex workers waited, fingers crossed, breath held, as the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report into prostitution went online. There was reason for apprehension: the inquiry’s initial terms of reference seemed geared towards recommending more criminalisation. During the inquiry itself, moral crusaders were given as much air time as sex workers to say their piece.

But no, in the midst of the UK’s current political turmoil came an injection of sense. The HASC, made up of a number of influential cross-party MPs, recommends the immediate decriminalisation of sex workers, with criminal sanctions against brothel-keeping and soliciting lifted. Make no mistake: this is huge. The committee’s report, which is the result of a seven-month inquiry, marks an unprecedented step towards ensuring better, safer working conditions for the UK’s 72,800 sex workers.

Notably, the committee has rejected the Nordic Model of criminalising sex buyers, as implemented in Northern Ireland last year and, most tantalising of all, has acknowledged that full decriminalisation has verifiable success.

Here are the report’s key points.

Sex workers should be decriminalised
The HASC notes that pretty much everyone – from abolitionists to sex workers themselves – at least nominally agrees that those selling sex, the workers, should not be criminalised. Sex workers have been shouting ’til they’re blue in the face that working alone is dangerousand that being slapped with a civil order or criminal record simply traps them in the industry.

The HASC report recommends that “at the earliest opportunity, the Home Office change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers.”

In fact, maybe the whole industry should be decriminalised
Sex worker-led organisations around the globe are calling for full decriminalisation of the industry. As a legal model that prioritises the rights of sex workers, decrim has been backed by Amnesty and a load of other NGOs and health authorities. The HASC is tentatively supportive, suggesting more investigation is needed but conceding that evidence for the model’s success exists.

“We received evidence that the model of decriminalisation implemented in New Zealand has worked successfully,” read the report. “Research suggests that it has resulted in a number of benefits, including a clear policy message, better conditions for sex workers, improved cooperation between sex workers and the police, and no detectable increase in the size of the sex industry or exploitation of sex workers.

“In our continuing inquiry, we will evaluate the extent to which elements of the New Zealand model might be implemented in England and Wales.”

The Sex Buyer Law, on the other hand… bit scpetical
The abolitionist lobby, which believes that sex buyers (AKA sex workers’ clients) should be criminalised, made a number of high profile submissions to the inquiry. But after reviewing evidence from Sweden and Norway, where the law already exists, the HASC says it is not yet convinced that the law is effective in “reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers, either in terms of the living conditions for those who continue to work in prostitution or the effectiveness of services to help them find new ways to earn a living.”

Further to that, it added: “There are indications that the law can be misused to harass and victimise sex workers, who are the very people whom the law is seeking to protect.”

The HASC was critical of people who want to abolish sex work
The abolitionist lobby has clout: a group called End Demand was this year commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution to produce a report into the law, something it managed with a panel that contained not a single current sex worker.

Meanwhile, although only one current sex worker was asked to give spoken testimony at the inquiry, “Pimp State” author Kat Banyard was called to the first oral evidence session, at which she too admitted not having actually consulted current sex workers. The HASC was apparently unimpressed.

It’s worth repeating: ignoring sex workers when you’re trying to make laws about them is bullshit.

“We also note that the sex buyer law makes no attempt to discriminate between prostitution which occurs between two consenting adults, and that which involves exploitation. Much of the rhetoric also denies sex workers the opportunity to speak for themselves and to make their own choices,” the committee said.

It goes on to note the essentially moralistic nature of the Sex Buyer Law: “The sex buyer law is a fundamentally different legislative approach to prostitution from that which is currently in place in England and Wales. It is based on the premise that prostitution is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal, whereas at present the law makes no such moral judgement.”

Sex work and trafficking: not the same thing
This may seem obvious but selling sex is not the same thing as being trafficked from abroad by exploitative organised criminals. But in the murky depths of debate, the two are frequently conflated. The HASC draws a clear distinction and suggests directing efforts of help towards those who actually need it.

“Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution between consenting adults […] It is essential that information on trafficking for sexual exploitation is collected and published regularly. The Government should also consider how changes to legislation and policies relating to the sex industry might better support the prevention of trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

There aren’t as many underage sex workers as some would have you believe
In its submission to the inquiry, End Demand claimed that “approximately 50 percent of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old”. This statistic has been endlessly discredited, but the HASC was obliged to do so again, quoting the sex work support service, National Ugly Mugs: “Much of the research is old (six of the nine sources are pre 1999, and the report itself is 12 years old), the sample sizes of the sources vary and at least one source only had participants under the age of 18, offering a foregone conclusion.”

The report supports the Children Society’s recommendation that the government develop guidance for the police and local authorities on how young people identified as being victims of child sexual exploitation should be looked after.

We need more data
It may seem as though there are gobby sex workers talking about their lives every time you venture online, but it’s fair to say that only a small number are in a position to be “out”; most exist in a state of extreme paranoia about being discovered. When talking about your job could mean anything from being disowned by your family to ending up in jail, this is understandable.

As a consequence, while good data on the industry exists, there are gaps. The HASC said it was “dismayed to discover the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales” and concluded that “Without a proper evidence base, the government cannot make informed decisions about the effectiveness of current legislation and policies.”

So what next?
The HASC is recommending that the Home Office commissions further, in-depth research. In the meantime, the report’s urgent calls for an end to the criminalisation of sex workers are vital and are being welcomed by sex worker-led organisations across the UK.

It’s hard to say how the situation will unfold. Sex work is an emotive subject and those on both sides of the debate passionately believe they’re right. The reality is, we’re still a long way from lifting the danger and stigma of sex work. Sex workers’ issues are enmeshed with migrant’s issues, women’s issues, trans issues, race, class, poverty. Decriminalisation is a holy grail but, while borders slam closed and frontline services are cut, its glow will be dimmed.

@frankiemullin

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