Vice: How prudish laws from the 1950s make sex work dangerous today
By Frankie Mullin
And here we are in 2016, discussion raging once more. Sex workers sidelined, once more. When the current UK inquiry gathered oral evidence there were three main witnesses: just one current sex worker, Laura Lee; a former prostitute and survivor of abuse within the industry, Mia de Faoite; and UK Feminista’s Kat Banyard who admitted not having actually worked with prostitutes but “with women with involvement in prostitution”.
Summer, a 28-year-old London sex worker, is pissed off. She wants to know why, despite outcry from her colleagues, the UK may be lurching towards legislation that would criminalise buying sex. Or why a high-profile report into implementing the law was carried out by a team that didn’t include one current sex worker, off the back of an ongoing inquiry into sex work law that felt skewed from its outset.
“It’s a joke,” she says to VICE. “Those on the side of the Nordic model [which makes it illegal to pay for sex] talk about giving ‘a voice to the voiceless’, but won’t listen to those of us who are shouting at the top of our lungs, who these laws will directly affect.” Summer moved to London from England’s south-west and turned to sex work as a way to provide for her two children. She says she’s been having “sleepless nights” thinking about the threat of a new form of criminalisation.
“Criminalising my clients would make a massive difference to my personal safety. Right now I’m able to ask for detailed screening information. I can check clients are who they say they are, request deposits, and make sure my security buddy knows where I am and who I’m with. Under criminalisation, insisting on strict screening every time wouldn’t be an option.”
Already, Summer’s working conditions leave plenty to be desired. She can’t, for example, work together with a friend as this would be classed as a brothel and is illegal. Her colleagues who work outdoors can be charged with soliciting. These are major stumbling blocks when it comes to creating a safe, fair working environment. So how did we end up with such awful laws? And are we about to stumble into making more?
It’s worth noting, you’d think, that most current legislation was created without consulting the workers themselves. The main laws governing prostitution in the UK are still the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, which makes brothel-keeping an offence, and the 1959 Street Offences Act, which criminalises solicitation.
The Street Offences Act was created on the back of a 1957 document called the Wolfenden Report, best-known for its calls to decriminalise homosexuality. Setting a precedent we still see today, the report didn’t include testimony from a single working prostitute. In fact, the committee behind the report found the words “homosexual” and “prostitute” so distasteful they substituted them – “for the sake of the ladies on the committee” – for “Huntleys and Palmers”, a 1950s biscuit manufacturer.
The result was the 1959 Street Offences Act, put to immediate use in a crackdown on street prostitution. This triggered an increase in off-street sex work such as massage parlours and escort services, says Dr Julia Laite, a lecturer in British history at Birkbeck, University of London, and an expert in the history of UK prostitution law. More worryingly, she says, it also led to an increase in violence against sex workers.
“In the 1960s, there was a rise in violence and a rise in the police being unable to find perpetrators of violence as women moved into more clandestine work,” Laite says. “There was also a rise in the prevalence of sometimes-exploitative third parties [AKA pimps].” Laite says it had all happened before. “It may have been only a coincidence that three years after the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 instigated a crusade against so-called brothel keepers, Jack the Ripper became known as the first serial murderer of prostitutes,” she has previously written, “but it is a symbolic coincidence.”
Since sex workers began to demand a voice in law-making, there have been victories – the 1984 defeat of a dangerous bill; 2014’s quashing of another – but the pattern of legislating over their heads continued.
“The 2003 Sexual Offences Bill consultation largely ignored what sex workers had to say,” says Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes. “It increased sentences for working together in premises and introduced an offence to stop the consensual movement of people across international borders, disguised as an anti-trafficking measure. Immigrant sex workers were targeted for raids and arrested as a result.”
“We’ve had 150 years of this bullshit,” Laite says. “And there’s a depressing pattern to it all. Ironically, while calls to criminalise are predicated on the idea that prostitution is harmful, what I’m seeing is that the more criminalised it gets, the more harmful it becomes.
“What really bothers me is that these people present the idea of criminalising buyers as a brand-new, feminist, revolutionary idea. Really, the idea is very old. It wasn’t originally considered feminist; it was far more connected to the moral reform movement.”
Then again, if this wasn’t really about moral reform, the aim would be improved working conditions and safety, not abolition. Those already working under similar laws tell us repeatedly that criminalising sex buyers means that they too are criminalised and endangered. In Northern Ireland, since the Sex Buyers law was passed last year, three sex workers – but only one buyer – have been arrested.
We’ve been here before. In 1898, an amendment to the Vagrancy Act made “living off the earnings of a prostitute” an offence. But, lo and behold, in 1900, only 165 pimps were sentenced while 7,415 women were convicted under the solicitation laws.
By legal definition, under the Street Offences Act, Summer can still be classed a “common prostitute”. “I feel powerless,” she says. “Nobody is advocating for me and my colleagues throughout this. We are being silenced.”