If progress is to be made now an amendment to the modern slavery bill has been defeated, MPs must invite us into the discussion
‘Swedish sex workers have said that since clients have been criminalised, they have been treated worse by the authorities.’
This week, the tide turned against attempts to attack sex workers by criminalising their clients. An amendment by the Labour MP FionaMactaggart to the modern slavery bill (based on Swedish prostitution law) was dropped, despite cross-party support.
This came after a plea from sex workers that mobilised hundreds of individuals and organisations, including the Hampshire Women’s Institute, Women Against Rape, the Royal College of Nursing, church groups, trade unionists, academics, lawyers and anti-racist and anti-poverty campaigners, to write letters urging MPs to oppose the legislation.
The English Collective of Prostitutes argued that criminalising clients would undermine women’s safety, drive prostitution further underground and sabotage sex workers’ efforts to keep safe by displacing us to remote areas.
Others questioned a crackdown on people who are trying to survive in the face of austerity policies which have increased poverty and therefore prostitution.
LBGTQ groups called for an end to this “last vestige of Victorianmoralism”, asking why some feminists had allied themselves with evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage, sex outside marriage and abortion.
Mactaggart’s justification for attacking “demand” (clients) is that “prostitution is an extreme form of exploitation”. But exploitation is rife in many industries, including the agricultural, domestic and service industries, particularly at a time of increasing poverty, decreasing wages and insecure employment, and no one suggests that domestic work or fruit-picking should be banned. Efforts to address exploitation have focused on empowering workers to insist on their rights. Why this double standard with sex workers? And why not decriminalise women working collectively from a premises (a brothel), where it is 10 times safer than working on the street?
Mactaggart’s claim that “80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp, or their trafficker” had already been discredited, including by the BBC. Another claim that France has agreed a similar policy was undermined by evidence that the French Senate, having conducted a thorough investigation which concluded that criminalisation would endanger sex workers, has stalled on any further action.
In the past it’s been hard for sex workers, burdened by illegality and stigma, to speak up. Not this time. Scores of women, trans and male sex workers wrote to MPs, outraged that their views, and the experiences of Swedish sex workers in particular, were being ignored. Swedish sex workers have said that since clients have been criminalised, they have been treated worse by the authorities; as the stigma attached to prostitution has increased, women have become less able to report violence to the police, some have had their children taken away and there have been reports of suicide.
Many people objected to the conflation of prostitution and violence which presumes that sex workers don’t know the difference between a consenting sexual transaction and forced sex. Women Against Rape pointed out that: “To target men who have not been accused of violence just because they purchase sexual services, diverts police time and resources away from reported rapes and sexual assaults.”
Speaking in the Commons debate, Labour MP John McDonnell, who co-ordinated opposition within parliament, mirrored many of these concerns, saying: “We must listen to sex workers.” He was backed by the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.
Without taking sex workers’ experience into account there can be no protection, only repression. The raids on Soho flats last year, done in the name of freeing victims of trafficking, are one example. Two hundred and fifty police broke down doors and dragged handcuffed immigrant women in their underwear onto the streets. Women describe daily humiliation, bullying and threats: “The police wait outside my house to catch me when I leave … they jeer at me, and make sexually explicit jokes. I’m strip-searched and they sometimes leave the door open so the male officers can see in.” Is it feminist to ignore the views and experiences of the women most affected by any legislation you propose?
Full decriminalisation of prostitution, as in New Zealand with its proven record on health and safety, is now on the agenda for public debate.