The English Collective of Prostitutes is an organisation that campaigns for sex workers’ safety and the decriminalisation of prostitution. It’s run by sex workers, for sex workers and is dedicated to supporting women who choose to earn a living in the sex industry, as well as those who want to get out of it.
Legislation surrounding paid for sex is a contentious issue and one that draws strong opinions from all sides. To find out what the sex workers themselves feel about the current state of affairs and to understand more about what decriminalising prostitution would mean; we spoke to Cari Mitchell, a member of the ECP.
What do sex workers want in terms of decriminalisation?
“Sex workers the world over are campaigning for decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 with verifiable success. The New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (2003) removed prostitution from 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 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 chose (Ministry of Justice, 2008).
“Decriminalisation has received vocal support from World Health organisation, Amnesty International, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women and 100s of other organisations worldwide.”
What’s the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation?
“Decriminalisation is distinctly different from legalisation. Decriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws and allows sex workers and sex work businesses to operate within the laws of the land as other businesses.
“Under legalisation the sex industry is controlled by the government and sex work is legal only under certain state-specified conditions, creating a two-tier system where the most vulnerable sex workers remain illegal and outside of the protection of the law.”
Does decriminalisation protect sex workers?
“Decriminalisation promotes safety, as sex workers can collectively assert their rights to better working conditions. Since New Zealand introduced the PRA in 2003, over 90% of sex workers said they had additional legal employment and enjoyed health and safety rights.
“Removing the fear of arrest has meant that sex workers, particularly street based workers, feel more able to work during the day and in well lit, safer locations. This is unlikely to be true if clients were still criminalised.
“New Zealand did not decriminalise exploitation, rape, extortion, threats, trafficking and other violence. Pimping, commonly understood as taking money from sex workers with threats and violence, is still a crime.
“By contrast, in the UK, police crackdowns break up safety networks. Sex workers on the street are running from the police fearing arrest and have little time to check out clients. It is 10 times safer to work inside with others, but the brothel-keeping law expressly forbids this.
“Fear of arrest, and for immigrant sex workers, fear of deportation, are the biggest obstacles to reporting rape and other violence. Violent men take advantage of the legal vulnerability of sex workers and deliberately target them.”
What is the view of the Norway model (where the purchaser of the service is criminalised but the sex worker isn’t)?
“In all the countries which have introduced laws criminalising clients there is strong opposition from sex workers and sex worker organisations; backed by academics, health professionals, NGOs and community organisations because of the risk of increased violence, stigma and discrimination.
“Sweden – Criminalised the buying of sex (Sexköpslagen law) in 1999. This law known as the “Nordic Model” is touted as feminist because it criminalises men (i.e. the clients) rather than women (i.e. the victims). But its effect on women has been disastrous.
“Since 1999, 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 as this can lead to: police harassment; the loss of custody over children; or deportation. Clients are less willing to report any violence or coercion they have witnessed as they would incriminate themselves by coming forward.
“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.
“Incredibly, the Swedish government’s 2010 official evaluation argued that the increased stigmatisation and risks faced by sex workers was a positive result of the Sex Purchase Act; in other words, endangering sex workers helps ‘fight’ prostitution.
“Norway – Introduced a law to criminalise clients in 2009. Amnesty International conducted thorough and comprehensive research 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.”
“Scotland – Attacks on sex workers doubled after kerb-crawling laws were introduced which criminalised clients. 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.
“France – Introduced law criminalising clients in 2016. In April 2018, Medecins du Monde published a two-year evaluation report 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.
“Ireland — Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill to criminalise clients introduced 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. Sex workers are now less likely to report dangerous clients to Gardaí.”
For more information see: Briefing: Why the “Nordic Model’ Undermines Women’s Safety and Rights.
What is the evidence that decriminalisation is the right way to go?
“Decriminalising sex work would enable women who work in the sex industry to insist on the same labour rights as other workers and report violence without fear of arrest.
“A comprehensive five-year government review of the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act found that over 90 per cent of sex workers said they had legal, health and safety rights, including 64.8 per cent who said they found it easier to refuse clients — a key marker of exploitation. Seventy per cent said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.
“A 2016 Home Affairs Committee report looked at decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 and acknowledged 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”.
“Decriminalisation is supported by other prestigious organisations such as: Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and internationally by Amnesty International, World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women among others.”
For more information read: Open Society Foundations 10 Reasons to Decriminalize Sex Work.
What to do about trafficked sex workers? Would decriminalisation help or hinder trafficked sex workers?
“Trafficking is: forced or bonded labour; abduction; kidnapping; false imprisonment; rape; grievous bodily harm and extortion. Existing laws cover all these offences and should be used to prosecute the assailants of women and children, whatever work they are being forced into.
“Traffickers escape prosecution not because of a lack of applicable laws, but as with domestic violence and rape, because protecting women is not the priority. Instead, police time and resources are directed towards prosecuting rather than protecting sex workers.
“This is also reflected in our own experience organising for sex worker rights and safety. At the time when the police were repeating claims that “every single foreign woman in the ‘walk-up’ flats in Soho had been smuggled into the country and forced to work as a prostitute”, we were holding meetings in the basement of a café, of over 60 women who worked in the area, to organise against raids and deportations. Women spoke out in Parliament, met the local vicar, and gave interviews to the press about how “being foreign doesn’t mean we are forced”.
“As far back as 2003, the BBC reported Soho sex workers saying: “All this talk of Balkan gangs running the Soho girls is rubbish. We are freelances, working for ourselves” (BBC, 2003).
“Trafficking law also claims to target violent exploiters, but the law is more often used to target immigrant women for deportation. In December 2013, 250 police officers, with the stated aim of saving victims of “rape and human trafficking” broke down doors, handcuffed women and dragged at least one woman out in her underwear to the waiting media.
“No victims were found, but 20 flats where closed and migrant women were taken against their will to a so-called ‘place of safety’ and then, when they insisted they were working independently, dumped onto the street in the middle of the night.
“One Brazilian mother in our network was convicted of trafficking and imprisoned for three years for running a flat where other immigrant women worked. Yet the judge agreed that: “None of these women were, in fact, coerced by you into acting as a prostitute […] you treated them in a kindly and hospitable way”. All her possessions, built up over many years of hard work, were confiscated and she faced losing custody of her seven-year-old child. Her British citizenship was withdrawn despite her having lived in the UK for 25 years and she narrowly escaped being deported.
“Through all the misinformation and sensationalist reporting about trafficking, one stark truth emerges; despite millions of pounds of funding, victims of trafficking get little or no help from the authorities.
“An effective anti-trafficking strategy has been to strengthen women’s hands. Decriminalising sex work would enable women who work in the sex industry to insist on the same labour rights as other workers and report violence without fear of arrest. Ending the hostile immigration environment and ensuring that women have access to money and resources so that they can feed themselves and their families would make them less vulnerable to those ready to exploit them.”
Are male buyers of sex using female sex workers misogynistic? Does it matter?
“Prostitution has always been connected to women’s poverty.
“86% of austerity cuts, since 2010, have fallen on women and 88% of sex workers are women, this means that men that are the most common buyers of sex. It is like any other job, a purchase of a service. Do we consider emotional labour performed for men by female therapists as something misogynistic? Sex work is a job. Does making the choice to enter sex work in order to gain financial freedom & autonomy mean we are victims of misogyny?
“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. Does it attract particular approbation because the workers are illegal and can least defend publicly their rights, both to their jobs and against their employers?”
See why moral objections to sex work are hypocritical: Is Feminism Failing Sex Workers?
How does sex work relate to feminism?
“Feminism should be about fighting for women with the least power in society. This includes sex workers.
“Often the Nordic Model is hailed as feminist. However, it has a detrimental impact on women working in the sex industry. How then, can it be considered feminist? Sex worker organisations the world over are campaigning for decriminalisation – why are we being ignored or dismissed? Do we not count as women and as workers?
“With rare exceptions, prominent feminists have concentrated on attacking attitudes, not power relations. In this way they avoid a confrontation with the economic, political and physical violence against women perpetrated by the State.
“These same feminists, and the politicians that back them, have focused unduly on condemning sexist images of women and paid less attention to the fact that women have got poorer. Not money, not housing, not even non-sexist, non-racist, non-violent policing, but an end to the sex industry becomes the key to our welfare.
“If these feminists spent as much time looking at what we have in common as women as they now spend distancing themselves from us, feminism would be less arrogant, repressive and out of touch. And feminists in government would worry about our rights rather than our “rehabilitation”.
“However, things are changing. The demand for the ‘feminism of the 99%’ in last year’s International Women’s Strike, is an encouraging sign that times are changing. It has opened the way for us to be able to forge a feminism that attacks the violence and immorality of poverty rather than attacking the means through which the impoverished survive, a feminism that sides with sex workers against the police and with “bad” women against bad laws. In this way we can refuse to be divided from other women and other workers.
As our sister organisation Empower in Thailand said:
“Sex work is our means of resistance and our refusal to remain in the places of poverty assigned to us. It is our mothers who work the land; our sisters in the sweatshops; our aunties who are the street vendors; our daughters cleaning the houses of the wealthy. We are the same women. Together we are refusing poverty and demanding a better fairer and kinder world for everyone.”
What motivations for choosing sex work are there other than financial, or is financial the main motivation?
“Prostitution is about money! The majority of people who decide to sell sex do so in order to escape poverty or to achieve a better standard of living for themselves. Everywhere women are “choosing” between destitution, domestic work, sweatshops and prostitution. Most sex workers are mothers working to support families. 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children” (Home Office, 2004). More than 70% of UK sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector.
“Government austerity policies have caused prostitution to increase. Since 2010: 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women; four million children are living in poverty; 1.25 million people are officially destitute and asylum-seekers are barely surviving on £36 a week. As poverty rises, more women, particularly single mothers, turn to sex work to survive and feed their families. In some cities massive rises in prostitution are being directly attributed to benefit sanctions.
“If the rise in prostitution is to be stemmed, austerity and its disproportionate impact on women, must be addressed. Measures that would help women exit prostitution include: repealing universal credit; benefit sanctions; the benefit cap and bedroom tax and reinstate Income Support for single mothers. To criminalise an industry without giving the workers viable financial alternatives is to exacerbate the dangers some politicians claim they want to prevent.”
What proportion of sex workers freely choose the work vs those who are trafficked?
“Trafficking is distinct from prostitution, which is the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money. Sarah Champion MP recently falsely claimed that trafficking of women into the sex industry is happening on an “industrial scale”.
“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”. Figures that claimed to show that over 80% of sex workers are trafficked or pimped have been proved to be false.
“Under the current definition, everyone becomes a victim of trafficking. Any movement of people voluntary or not becomes trafficking. The figures go up, the funding goes up and there is a momentum, an incentive to increase border controls and criminalise sex work.”
Are there any other issues the ECP would like to get across to our readers?
“Instead of addressing the increase in poverty caused by its economic policies, the response from the government (both national and local) and the police has been to increase arrests and organise crackdowns on sex workers.
“In addition, prostitute cautions and convictions show up with a criminal record check which can bar access to other jobs, effectively institutionalising women in prostitution, preventing them from ever leaving.
“Proceeds of Crime laws appear also to be corrupting priorities and fuelling arrests. Police get a percentage (18 per cent in 2013) of all assets and cash seized and therefore have a vested interest in raiding brothels and prosecuting sex workers.
“The prostitution laws are implemented in a racist and discriminatory way with people of colour, migrant and trans people being targeted for arrest. Statistics from the US show that Black people are 13.2% of the population but make up 42% of all prostitution arrests.
“Trans women, particularly women of colour, are targeted for arrest under the prostitution laws whether or not they are actually working.In a survey of Latina trans women in Los Angeles, 60% said they were profiled by officers. Qualitative evidence from the UK indicates a similar story of discrimination, but this has not yet been quantified.”