The union representing Britain’s nurses will start lobbying governments across the UK to decriminalise prostitution in order to safeguard sex workers and improve their health.
The Royal College of Nursing voted by an overwhelming majority at its annual conference to ask ministers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to make the change.
Lou Cahill, the nurse who proposed the policy, said decriminalising prostitution would make it easier for sex workers to ensure clients wore a condom and reduced their risk of HIV.
“As nursing staff, we have a responsibility to call for what is in the best interests of public health and the patients who entrust us with their care. Nurses rightly chose to follow the evidence which shows that criminalisation undermines sex workers’ health and welfare,” said Cahill after the vote at the RCN gathering in Liverpool.
“Decriminalisation would mean that sex workers can better negotiate safer sex. HIV risk and other vulnerabilities can be greatly reduced. Lending our voice to support a stigmatised and marginalised group was not only the right thing to do but will lead to improved health outcomes”, she added.
Sexual exploitation and sex trafficking would remain illegal even if prostitution itself was decriminalised, stressed Cahill. Her motion stated that: “There is no reliable evidence to suggest that the decriminalisation of sex work would encourage human trafficking. In fact, several international anti-trafficking organisations believe that decriminalisation of sex work would have a positive role to play in the fight against trafficking.”
The decision by the 3,000 nurses at the conference mandates the union’s ruling council to “lobby governments across the UK to decriminalise prostitution”. The RCN already supported decriminalisation but will now be much more active on the issue.
Margaret Devlin, from the RCN’s southern branch in Northern Ireland spoke in favour of the resolution. “Decriminalisation would be a start,” she said. “But what needs to be examined and dealt with are the reasons that may make prostitution an option of last resort for some, and a brilliant business opportunity for others.”
However, not all nurses present supported the decision. Abigail Lawrence, from the RCN’s eastern region, said: “The sex industry is by its very nature exploitative, manipulative and based on coercion. The model not only decriminalises prostitution but also brothel owners, pimps and buyers.”
There are 72,800 sex workers in the UK, of whom 88% are women, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).
As things stand, prostitution – someone buying sexual services from a sex worker – is legal in England, Scotland and Wales. However, a range of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, and more than one sex worker working together, are all criminal acts. Northern Ireland has a different legal regime in which paying for sex is illegal.
Backers of the motion, proposed by the RCN’s Greater Bristol branch, highlighted that the World Health Organization in 2012 recommended that countries make moves towards decriminalisation, and that Amnesty International support it too.
And they cited research last year by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that found sex workers who had been arrested or imprisoned were three times more likely to be the victim of sexual or physical assault and twice as likely to have HIV or another sexually-transmitted infection. Sex workers in New Zealand have been able to insist more often that clients wear a condom, speakers said.
The Commons home affairs select committee recommended in 2016 that soliciting by sex workers working together should no longer be a criminal offence.
Cari Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the ECP, said laws preventing women working together to ensure their safety were unjust.
“Austerity cuts, 86% of which have fallen on women, have increased prostitution as more women, particularly single mothers, are turning to sex work to feed their families. Women are forced to choose between possible arrest and keeping themselves safe or avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger”, she said.
• This article was amended on 21 May 2019. An earlier version incorrectly implied Margaret Devlin had spoken out against the decision. The text has been updated to say she spoke in favour of the decision, and to add a quote from her address.