You don’t have to take a Hobbesian view of the world to conclude that one of the first duties of a state to its citizens is to keep them safe. Not just some, but all of its citizens.
Yet there’s one group of people in Britain for whom this seems to be a priority so low as to be off the official radar altogether: sex workers. Officials want to keep them off the streets, ensure that “decent” women aren’t harassed by being mistaken for them, make sure they don’t leave lying around any debris like condoms or syringes, and then, just maybe, to worry about keeping them safe, as the last priority on the list.
That might sound like an extreme statement, but what other conclusion could be drawn after hearing a social worker explain that the murder of one of her clients in Ipswich could have been counted as a “success” since the official measure of her project’s work was how many sex workers were taken off the streets?
That social worker was speaking last week at the launch of a new campaign, Safety First, coordinated by the English Coalition of Prostitutes. Its primary demands are the end of all criminalisation of sex work, an end to the use of Asbos that make prostitution de facto a jailable offence, and an end to the deportation of trafficked sex workers, so that they can testify against their traffickers.
It is a brave campaign, one that is seemingly fighting against the tide. In Europe, there’s pressure to extend the “Swedish model”, the criminalisation of “the punters”, despite evidence (pdf) of the danger it presents to the sex workers; in Ipswich, where the killings of five sex workers briefly led to an approach that focused on women’s safety, there’s a return (pdf) to punitive treatment of “persistent sex workers.”
It is worth restating, since it seems even the police aren’t clear on this point, that prostitution is not illegal in the UK. But many of the actions normally associated with it – such as soliciting – are, and they bring female and male sex workers within the law-enforcement system and all too frequently to jail.
And that’s likely to get worse if clause 72 of the 54th criminal justice bill introduced by Labour since 1997 becomes law. It amends the provisions for the offence of loitering for the purposes of prostitution allowing courts to order that offenders attend meetings “to promote the offender’s rehabilitation by assisting the offender … to address the causes of conduct constituting the offence” and to “find ways of ceasing in such conduct in the future”.
It is wording that a spokesperson for the National Association of Probation Officers described as “appalling”. And there’s no explanation of how already overstretched services could deal with such an extra influx of work.
Yet despite the apparent difficulties for campaigners, the fact that the issue is being discussed at all does present an opportunity for change – for driving home the point that only decriminalisation can produce safety. As the Labour MP John McDonnell said at last week’s launch, even the new criminal justice bill, with its “terrible” elements, does provide a platform for rational debate about the issue.
And there is out there in the world, working effectively, a successful model that has improved safety, that of New Zealand. There sex work has been totally decriminalised, and it is amazingly refreshing to read the legislation for its sheer practicality – it is concerned with health and safety, with the protection of workers, and with licensing brothel operators.
The sad thing is that again and again those who’ve carefully considered the issues and heard the evidence, from the Royal College of Nurses to the Safer London Committee of the London Assembly (pdf) that said the safety of women is ill-served by current criminalising approaches, and yet still, in Ipswich, and nationally, through clause 72, the state proceeds down this path – a path littered with the bodies of women. But perhaps eventually, if we keep pointing at the facts, basic human rights will triumph over moral squeamishness.