Briefing on Unison Motion to Decriminalise Sex Work – Answering Nordic Model Now Misinformation

Support Motion 127 – “Decriminalisation for safety”, brought by Lambeth to the Unison Delegate Conference 2018. Read full motion here.

Facts and information on the decriminaisation of sex work.

By English Collective of Prostitutes
020 7482 2496 • •

The ECP is a self-help organisation of sex workers, working both on the street and in premises, with a national network throughout the UK. Since 1975, we have campaigned for the decriminalisation of prostitution, for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to.

Decriminalisation promotes safety as sex workers can collectively assert their rights to improve their working conditions.

It is not true that violence and exploitation of sex workers has increased in New Zealand since decriminalisation. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, which has thousands of members, spearheaded the campaign which won the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (which decriminalised prostitution) as part of a coalition which included a wide range of groups and professionals.

The PRA removed prostitution from the criminal law, allowed people to work together collectively, and distinguished between violence and consenting sex. It reinforced offences against compelling anyone into prostitution, stating a specific right for sex workers to refuse any client. A comprehensive five-year government review[i] found: no increase in prostitution, no increase in trafficking; drug users treated as patients not criminals; sex workers were more able to report violence and leave prostitution if they choose. Since the law change, over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. One important measure of this is that prior to decriminalisation 47% of brothel workers had refused to see a client in the previous 12 months, after decriminalisation 68% of brothel workers had done this. 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.[ii]

Pimps, in the commonly understood way, are men who take money from sex workers with threats and violence. New Zealand didn’t decriminalise exploitation, rape, extortion, threats, trafficking and other violence.

Criminalisation, whether of sex workers or clients, drives sex workers further underground, making it more dangerous and stigmatising to work.

Attacks on sex workers doubled in Scotland after kerb-crawling laws were introduced which criminalised clients.[iii] A 2014 survey from National Ugly Mugs found that where arrests of sex workers and clients were high, only 5% of sex workers who were victims of a crime reported it. This compared to 46% of victims in areas where police adopted a harm reduction approach.[iv]

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.”[v] Sex workers continued to mistrust police, had to rush screening clients and were displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex.”

Ireland introduced the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill to criminalise clients in 2017. Attacks on sex workers have increased dramatically since the law change. Reported incidences of violent crime against sex workers, from threats to assaults with weapons, have risen by almost 50% from 900 in the year preceding the change, and more than 1,300 since.[vi] Sex workers are now less likely to report dangerous clients to Gardaí.[vii]

Norway introduced a law to criminalise clients in 2009. Amnesty International conducted thorough and comprehensive research[viii] into the impact of this law in 2016. It found that sex workers are still criminalised, including for working together for safety; forced evictions, investigations, surveillance, prosecutions and increased stigma are prevalent with migrant workers particularly targeted; “police are using sex workers’ reports of violence and crimes against them as evidence to facilitate their eviction and/or deportation”; “sex workers were routinely evicted from their homes under so-called ‘pimping laws”. One woman commented to the press:

“Before we did not go far with the customer: we would go to a car park nearby. But now the customer wants to go somewhere isolated because they are afraid,” she said. “I don’t like it. There is more risk that something bad happens.”[ix]

France introduced a law criminalising clients in 2016. In April 2018, Medecins du Monde published a two-year evaluation report[x] of the law penalising clients which found that since the law was introduced 63% of sex workers have experienced deterioration of their living conditions, more isolation and greater stress; 42% of sex workers are more exposed to violence (with all kinds of violence on the increase: insults in the street, physical violence, sexual violence, theft, and armed robbery in the work place) 38% of sex workers have found it increasingly hard to demand use of condom; 70% of sex workers observe no improvement or a deterioration in their relations with the police.

Sweden – introduced the Sexköpslagen law which criminalised the buying of sex in 1999. Evidence shows that since the law change, sex workers face increased stigma, are more at risk of violence, and are less able to call on the protection of the police and the authorities[xi] as this can lead to police harassment, the loss of custody over children, or deportation.[xii] Likewise, clients are less willing to report any violence or coercion they have witnessed, since this would require them to incriminate themselves.

In a 2014 survey, 63% of sex workers said the sex purchase law had created more prejudice from the authorities; over a quarter (29%) had reported violent attacks from clients but only two said they would report an attack in the future.[xiii]

Comprehensive field work and research[xiv] over three years, reported that there is “no convincing empirical evidence that the law has resulted in a decline in sex work in Sweden, which was the law’s principal ambition. It also countered the claim that sex workers have been decriminalised: sex workers can be prosecuted under procuring laws when they band together for safety. Landlords have been pressured by police to evict sex worker tenants under threat of being prosecuted themselves.

Harm reduction initiatives have been undermined. Giving out rape alarms, condoms and a safer sex-selling guide are now opposed by the authorities on the grounds that they encourage prostitution and are futile because sex work is considered to be immutably dangerous.[xv]

The cross-party Home Affairs Committee (HAC) is the most prestigious parliamentary body to have scrutinised the prostitution laws in recent times. 

The report recommended that sex workers on the street and working together in premises be decriminalised. Specifically, the Committee recommended that:

“ . . . 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.

The Committee’s report also recommended legislation to provide for the deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers”. If these recommendations were implemented it would immediately improve sex workers’ safety and welfare.

The HAC report addresses decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 acknowledging 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”.

It also addresses other legal models specifically the law introduced in Sweden in 1999 to criminalise clients. It acknowledges that this 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”. It also cites evidence that the law has been used to harass and victimise sex workers.

On trafficking the report is equally clear: ” . . . trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution between consenting adults”.

The most reliable recent research found less than 6% of migrant sex workers been trafficked, many said they prefer working in the sex industry rather than the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs”.[xvi]

Gender inequality can have a major influence on women’s entry into sex work; but criminalisation does not address this—it just makes women sex workers’ lives less safe.

The sex industry is not the only industry which is male-dominated, and which degrades women, but it is an industry based on sex which tends to unleash repressive tendencies. Prostitution is labelled uniquely exploitative and degrading but are women less degraded when they have to skip meals, beg or stay with a violent partner to keep a roof over their heads?

The claim that “prostitution is inherently violent because, by definition, it involves unwanted sex” is insulting and demeaning to sex workers. It denies that we, like other people, can distinguish between the sex we consent to (for money or not) and that which violates our bodies and our will.  Like other workers, sex workers’ consent is conditional: if we don’t get paid, it’s forced labour.

The sex industry is also an industry where workers are illegal and therefore struggle to defend publicly their rights both to their jobs and against their employers. To deny that sex work is work on the grounds that prostitution is “harmful” is a moral judgement and denies sex workers the same rights as those in other industries. Where would that leave Trident workers or miners?

Amnesty International’s policy to decriminalise sex work recognises that cis and trans women, LGBTQ people and migrants are overrepresented in sex work because of discrimination and it demands that states take action to improve and support their situation and not “devalue their decisions, compromise their safety and criminalise the context of their lives”. It calls on states to combat discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes, empower women and other marginalised groups, and ensure that no one lacks viable alternatives for making a living.

Exiting Services

Sex workers in countries where the Nordic Model has been introduced are still waiting for the money promised by the state as part of “exiting services”. If trade unionists have an interest in helping sex workers exit prostitution and reducing levels of prostitution in the UK join us to address government policies which promote prostitution. 86% of austerity cuts since 2010 have fallen on women[xvii] As poverty rises, more women, particularly single mothers, are turning to sex work to survive and feed their families. In some cities massive rises in prostitution are being directly attributed to policies such as benefit sanctions.[xviii] Measures that would help women exit prostitution include: repealing universal credit, benefit sanctions, the benefit cap and bedroom tax; reinstate Income Support for single mothers.

[i] Ministry of Justice. (2008). Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.
[ii] Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L. & Brunton, C. (2007). The Impact of the. Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers.
[iii] The Scotsman, 16 April 2008.
[iv] Data provided by National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP). (2012-2015).
[v] Krüsi A, Pacey K, Bird L, et al. (2015). Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada—a qualitative study. BMJ Open 2014.
[vi] New Statesman, 26 March 2018.
[vii] The Irish Times, 4 September 2017.
[viii] Amnesty International. (2016). The Human Cost of ‘Crushing’ the Market: Criminalization of Sex Work in Norway.
[ix] The Independent, 27 April 2014.
[x] Medecins du Monde. (2018). What do sex workers think about the French Prostitution Act?
[xi] Levy, J. and Jakobsson, P. (2014). Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers, Criminology and Criminal Justice.
[xii] English Collective of Prostitutes. (2016). Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence.
[xiii] Jakobsson, P. & Edlund, C. (2014). Another Horizon; Sex Work and HIV Prevention in Sweden.
[xiv] Levy, J. (2015). Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Mai, N. (2011). Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: ESRC Full Research Report.
[xvii] The Guardian, 9 March 2017.
[xviii] Doncaster reports a 60% increase with charities saying: “Women are being forced to sell sex for £5 because of benefit sanctions” (The Star, 19 March 2014), Sheffield reports a 166% increase (The Star, 1 June 2014) while charity workers in Hull report: “ . . . women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves.”