A controversial new proposal could make paying for sex a criminal offence and protect women from violence, but workers, activists and charities argue it will have the opposite effect, writes Rachel Hagan
Paying for sex could become a criminal offence in England and Wales if parliament approves a new bill which has been put forward by Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North. Johnson has put the bill forward in a bid to protect women from potential sexual exploitation and trafficking, but the proposal could have the opposite effect.
The bill is opposed by sex workers and groups including the Royal College of Nursing, Amnesty International and many harm reduction and women’s rights charities. It’s argued that those calling for criminalisation are driven by ideology and not evidence, and sadly sex workers are often removed from the conversation in the hallowed halls of parliament.
Currently in the UK a lot of the work is already criminalised. You can sell sex, but you can’t solicit it in a public place, and you essentially have to work alone because of laws against running brothels – two prostitutes working together constitute a brothel in the eyes of the law.
Johnson’s bill would impose what is known as the Nordic model. Sweden’s 1999 legislation – which decriminalises the seller of sex and criminalises the client – is often dubbed as a progressive solution to prostitution and is built on a feminist definition of prostitution as a form of male violence against women. To radical liberal feminists, what’s not to like – punish the men who buy sex in this patriarchal world. The Nordic model is legislated in Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, Sweden and Northern Ireland in a bid to reduce demand and ultimately abolish the trade.
But the idea of the model is misleading and in fact evidence shows it has led to more violence against prostitutes in all of these countries. Attacks against sex workers in Ireland alone have risen by 92 per cent, since the introduction of the model in March 2017. Politicians in favour of the model often point towards Scandinavia as beacons of light, but Sarah (surname protected for confidentiality) an organiser for sex workers’ rights campaign Decrim Now and a member of her local Labour Party branch says the reality is that “none of those countries are socialist paradises”.
Criminalisation will diminish a prostitute’s client pool meaning they’re less likely to turn down clients, including dangerous ones, when other income options are scant. Reduced demand means workers’ screening processes are likely to become less stringent. A client who is risking arrest is much more likely to meet in an unsafe or unfamiliar place so they aren’t caught by the police.
Lydia Caradonna, a sex worker and founding member of Decrim Now, says the pandemic has effectively been a trial run of what could come. Explaining that most prostitutes see men “who are somewhat responsible for their health and who wants to go to a brothel in a pandemic or get slapped with a Covid fine”? So in the last few months, most sex workers haven’t been seeing their regular clients and instead, they can’t afford to say no.
Diana Johnson has put the bill forward in a bid to protect women from potential sexual exploitation and trafficking </p> Diana Johnson has put the bill forward in a bid to protect women from potential sexual exploitation and trafficking
Caradonna says the pandemic has forced herself and fellow workers “to not work and struggle financially and be starving”. Or be forced to see clients who don’t care about anyone’s safety.
A 2016 study by Médecins du Monde found that “violence of all kinds” and poverty increased since the introduction of the Nordic model in France and in the space of six months in 2019, 10 sex workers were killed in France. The more desperate for money, the more likely to break the law and accept dangerous clients. Research by the BMJ on Canadian street-based sex work found that “without the opportunity to screen clients or safely negotiate the terms of sexual services … sex workers face increased risks of violence, abuse and HIV.”
Many people have noted how it was particularly shameful for Johnson to welcome this bill during the pandemic, at a time of economic despair for many, leaving prostitutes with nowhere to turn. There is a constant erasure and misrepresentation of sex workers, but people should be questioning and addressing the reasons for entry into the industry instead of demeaning the trade – often the answer is poverty.
Keira (name changed for confidentiality), who was in the sex worker industry for eight years, believes there is a cruelty in causing sex worker activists to panic and spend “the energy we’re already burning through trying to stay afloat during a global pandemic, to fight to ensure we still have a livelihood at the end of it”. Particularly by an MP who has been largely, economically, unaffected. “Attacking workers rights when we need them most seems antithetical to the supposed party of working people.”
Nobody is saying this is a great and glamorous job, but it is a job that women are doing because the other jobs available are not well paid
In Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s book Revolting Prostitutes they write that “if a politician downplays the extent to which sex work is about generating a decent income and instead emphasises the extent to which it is driven by a ‘criminal underworld’, they can sidestep awkward questions about the connections between prostitution, poverty, and government policy”. Ending demand means we need to take more risk to address the needs that saw us into prostitution in the first place.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), tells The Independent she is “disgusted” and “furious” at the bill. Continuing, “nobody is saying this is a great and glamorous job, but it is a job that women are doing because the other jobs available are not well paid”. The ECP carried out a study comparing different areas of work with prostitution and they found that sex workers earned the most per hour, in comparison with bartenders, cleaners, hairdressers, midwives, retail workers, waitresses and teachers in state schools among others. Higher wages were the primary reason women gave for entering the sex industry.
Keira says when she graduated in 2012 her full-time job only paid £4.98 an hour which wasn’t enough to live off, so “sex work became apparent as basically the only job where there were no barriers to entry, flexible hours and a liveable wage”. Benefit sanctions alone have driven thousands to prostitution, as Ken Loach’s acclaimed film I, Daniel Blake illustrates.
A largescale Bristol University study proved that women are mainly selling sex to get by financially, given different constraints in their lives around caring responsibilities, physical and mental health, lack of access to social security benefits and support services, workplace discrimination, or other reasons. Concluding that their “situation is compounded by stigma”.
Adams says the government would save more women from prostitution if they abolished zero-hour contracts and made sure that everybody had a living wage. Keira recognises that “it’s an incredibly shitty safety net for us to have in a society where people are being left to fall through the cracks by their governments; paying for sex feels like an exploitation of that”. Sex work is often treated as a problem in itself, rather than a symptom of normative failures and many believe clients inflict themselves on workers, rather than workers doing it as a means to survive. Around 86 per cent of the burden of austerity, in 2017, fell on women – a statistic which speaks for itself.
For Maeve (name changed for confidentiality), who is disabled and has severe PTSD, her entry into the industry was a matter of “life or death”, she tells The Independent. Maeve says she is “not compatible with most of the world” and has no access to family support. For Caradonna, it is a similar story too. At 17 she fled domestic abuse and due to a disability cannot work long hours in traditional employment. “I had absolutely no other way of surviving.”
While universal credit is on offer, Caradonna says it is a “pittance” and doesn’t make up for the income loss that people have. Since the pandemic hit there have been reports of women turning to sex work to bolster the benefits they receive and a parliamentary paper has shown inadequate universal credit drives dependency on sex work in the first place. Emily Kenway, former adviser to the UK’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner, says we need to look at why women need to sell sexual services, the answer to which is “resoundingly clear – it’s a livelihood strategy”.
Yet on the front lines of unjust systems, grassroots organisations and prostitutes are showing glimmers of hope by supporting one another. Swarm, the sex worker-led collective, launched a hardship fund via donations from private individuals and others in solidarity. There were more than 4,000 individual donations, which gave grants to nearly 1,300 in-person sex workers across the UK. Swarm reported that 41 per cent of people used the money for bills, 39 per cent said they were able to get food shopping and 20 per cent used it towards rent.
Caradonna is unequivocal in her wish to stay home, but sadly doesn’t have the choice and has to work to feed her kid. “We need to be financially supported to be able to stay at home. There should be no point at which people don’t have the option to make the best decisions for their health and for public health.”
One justification that comes up for the bill is how it will decrease trafficking. Johnson says the UK has become a trafficking destination, but Kenway says “there is absolutely no evidence to support this”. She says the government should be ashamed of using trafficking survivors as political pawns.
You don’t have to support the concept of sex work to support sex workers, but there is nothing feminist about a position that makes the most marginalised women’s lives harder
Andrew Wallis, CEO of Unseen, the charity working to end modern slavery and human trafficking, mirrors Kenway’s refutal of Johnson’s claims, saying the evidence is “very flimsy” and that actually the Nordic model drives things further underground, making it more difficult for victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation to either be identified or to exit from that situation.
Why the Nordic model is appraised as a way to curb trafficking is arcane. Ending demand in the textile, car washing, nail and agriculture industries has not been recommended and they too have high levels of trafficking.
The Nordic model claims to treat sex workers as victims and aims to honour prostitutes’ welfare, but in reality, that is not what happens. Instead, Adams says the state is scrutinising and investigating who they can prosecute for prostitution offences, immigration offences and who they can deport.
Adams says just last week one of their Romanian members got issued with deportation and what the Nordic model does is “give the police and immigration authorities greater power against sex workers who are in a vulnerable situation”. Many fail to remember that trafficking itself is already a criminal offence and anti-trafficking laws are in place. The conflation of sex work and trafficking is disingenuous and “disrespectful to trafficking survivors themselves who have had horrific experiences completely at odds with someone choosing to enter sex work as a livelihood option”, Kenway remarks.
Those in favour of the Nordic model shun evidence of decriminalisation, which has had positive impacts, such as in New Zealand and New South Wales in Australia. The Prostitution Law Review Committee reported in 2008 that the safety of Kiwi women had increased and trafficking hadn’t. The report read: “Information received from Immigration Service NZ indicates that no situations involving trafficking in the sex industry have been identified.”
Amnesty International, the Royal College of Nursing, the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and many other human rights organisations advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, they’ve all concluded it gives the highest level of safety, protection and justice.
Five years ago the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the government fully decriminalise sex workers as the best means of ensuring their safety, but the Home Office blocked a change in legislation.
Diana Johnson said in the House of Commons that men are “fuelling a brutal sex trafficking trade and causing untold harm to victims”. Adams doesn’t deny that sex workers suffer a lot of violence, but so do domestic workers and many other women too. Two women every week across England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner, so if “violence is your justification for criminalisation, then the government better be doing something about marriage, because it’s clearly a very dangerous activity”.
Last year just 2.6 per cent of reported rapes resulted in convictions and that’s the reported rapes, let alone cases that won’t ever come to the attention of the police. Adams asks: “What is happening with violence against women generally?” Why are we pinpointing prostitutes as the only women who face violence from men? It is not acceptable “to throw sex working women under the bus in the name of a moral crusade”, says Kenway.
Johnson’s bill will take away the last option for many women who are working to pay rent, put food on the table and buy school uniforms for their children. As Adams said, this isn’t an ideal job – preferably women wouldn’t need to sell their bodies to fight austerity but sadly we aren’t living in an idyll. This law will only deepen inequality and poverty “among women already struggling to make ends meet”, says Kenway.
There is a huge struggle for prostitutes that goes beyond physical barriers and that is how we can move people past their sense of what prostitution symbolises. Kenway says that people with more livelihood options should not judge and criminalise the sector. “You don’t have to support the concept of sex work to support sex workers, but there is nothing feminist about a position that makes the most marginalised women’s lives harder.”
Sadly, many still valorise work as your identity and status in society. As Mac and Smith say in their seminal book on sex work: “We struggle with shit jobs, falling wages, and the correct suspicion that what many of us do for money all day contributes nothing of real value to our lives or communities. Instead, we mostly just make profits for people further up the chain. In this confused and confusing context, to do what you love is deeply aspirational, a lean-in fantasy that gives an individual the illusion of control, a daydream of power in the office – and, in reality, a significant class marker.”
Despite the wealth of evidence against the Nordic model and proof that it is dangerous, sex workers are continually removed from the conversation and lobbyists for the law ignore many in the sector. Kenway says until people drop their moral posturing and listen to sex workers, “we won’t solve this debate”.
Caradonna says she yearns to have an opinion on the sex industry “based on a philosophical debate about whether it’s good or bad”, but she is simply just trying to pay rent and feed her kid.