The lockdowns imposed in most European countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought to the forefront a reality that sex worker collectives have been highlighting for decades: the criminalisation of sex work puts lives at risk. In the past weeks, grassroots organisations have been working to raise funds and provide essential products to sex workers who, from one day to the next, found themselves with no income. However, the pandemic isn’t the only one to blame for this, as governments have continuously undermined sex workers’ human rights and ignored their demands to ensure their safety and health.
This, in spite of major organisations such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health urging countries to follow the steps of New Zealand in their decision to decriminalise sex work on a national scale. These recommendations come from the fact that other measures regarding sex work have been found to be ineffective in reducing the number of people involved in the industry and have actually been detrimental to the health and safety of adults practicing willingly. While some continue to argue that decriminalisation would lead to an increase in sex trafficking, the evidence on this suggests otherwise.
Campaigning for policy change: demanding the decriminalisation of sex work
On the 13th April 2016, France changed from an approach that partially criminalised sex work – in which the buying and selling of sex was legal, but the surrounding activities like soliciting in the street, were not – to one that criminalises people who buy sex. With this move, it adopted what is known as the ‘Swedish model’ of criminalising demand. And kept a very expansive definition of ‘pimping’ that includes anybody who benefits from the income of a sex worker, including friends and family.
The Syndicat du Travail du Sexe (STRASS), a union for and by sex workers, was created in 2009 and has been campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex workers and their clients ever since. It has fervently opposed the 2016 prostitution law. As Anaïs de Lenclos, a STRASS spokeswoman explains, “the idea of the law, essentially, was that if we were left without customers, we would have to do something else. So, first of all, this thinking demonstrates a lack of understanding of sex work. If we wanted to or could work somewhere else, we would have started doing so already – there is no need to take away our customers. And, if we want to leave the sex industry, but can’t, that’s because there are other barriers that exist. Taking away people’s customers doesn’t get rid of the obstacles they are facing.”
She points out that understanding what leads individuals to go into the sex industry is absolutely essential. For STRASS, the goal is not only “to ensure that everyone can work in good conditions, but also to ensure that if someone wants to stop working in this industry, they have the ability to do so.” This entails understanding the obstacles that specific groups face: “often, what we see is people who end up having to practice this work due to a lack of better options resulting from the stigma surrounding their gender identity, their nationality, or because they do not speak the language, etc.”
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has a policy of partial criminalisation, where the buying and selling of sex are legal, but surrounding activities, like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street, are banned. In practice, this means that sex workers are only allowed to practice alone and behind closed doors, which puts their safety at risk.
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), explains that since being founded in 1975, the aims of the ECP have been the decriminalisation of sex work, and the granting of the same rights and entitlements to sex workers as other workers, to ensure their safety and financial alternatives. Adams points out that this is essential for people to be able to leave sex work if they want to. The goal isn’t to glamorise sex work, but rather to underline that it is “often the best choice out of a set of pretty bad options”.
Like de Lenclos, Adams points out that it is essential to use an intersectional lens when advocating for sex workers. With migrant women and women of colour being hit particularly harshly by austerity measures, many turn to sex work to support their families and themselves. As a result of both austerity and in the case of migrant women, the ‘hostile environment’ policy, “a lot of people end up in very low waged work, or unemployed – they go into sex work because it’s one of the few things they can do to get an income, to survive.”
The role of mainstream feminism in maintaining criminalisation
According to de Lenclos, mainstream feminist groups in France that have a lot of influence on government policies hold very traditional views and are pushing an abolitionist agenda. These groups, she argues, are completely closed off to perspectives on women’s rights that don’t align with their own. “Women who follow their vision of the world are empowered, and the rest are victims. And an easy way to erase someone else’s voice is to say ‘they don’t even realise that they are victims, they don’t even know and we need to bring them back to the right track.”
With these abolitionist groups being quite strong lobbyists in the French public sphere, de Lenclos underlines that “policy is based not on scientific research and facts, but on the opinion of these groups. It is shocking that people have not taken into consideration the advice from big international organisations”. In this vision, sex work is seen as inherently violent. De Lenclos argues that “this is not the case: the industry in itself isn’t violent, it’s the conditions under which we are made to work that are violent. It’s not the same thing”.
In Adams’ view, the opposition of mainstream feminists to decriminalisation “is rooted in an elitist view that they know better than us what is good for us as grassroots women and as sex workers. That is rooted in a moralism that distinguishes between sex work – which of course isn’t a great job – and many other abusive, low wages jobs that we are forced to do. They make a distinction between sex work and other women’s work. And frankly, most of the work in the world that women are doing is low paid, exploitative and often injurious to our health. And sex work is no different, and no worse.” When workers’ rights are overlooked, most industries can become violent and dangerous for those involved. So, the problem lies in a lack of protections and rights, more than anything else.
She underlines that the criminalisation of clients in actuality “comes down to calling the police on us, increasing police powers against us, increasing police surveillance, increasing criminalisation, and increasing the plight of sex workers under the guise of gender equality”.
Precariousness and vulnerability
In the UK, the austerity measures that have been implemented over the past 10 years have led to an increase in destitution. Adams explains that “the thing about the austerity cuts is that it was a deliberate government policy, it was not an economic necessity. 86% of the austerity cuts have targeted women. In some areas of the UK, it led to increases in street prostitution of, for example, 166% in Sheffield, and 60% in Doncaster.” As a result of an increasingly punitive benefits system, “some women were cut off totally from their income and left completely destitute, so of course they went into prostitution in massive numbers”.
Most sex workers in the United Kingdom are women, with the majority of them being mothers working to support their families. Adams explains that the ECP has focused on this reality in its advocacy work to underline the “lack of support, including financial support, given to those who take up the work of caring for and raising children. Really, it is a condemnation of a society that leaves mothers so unsupported that they have to go into sex work to feed their children”.
According to de Lenclos, the current prostitution law in France has led to a major reduction of the number of clients and has inverted the power relations between them and the workers. This is due to the fact that, knowing that sex workers have fewer clients and thus, fewer options, they can negotiate prices and the services they want workers to provide. In practice, the law has removed sex workers’ ability to choose what services they want and do not want to provide, and at what price. This has exposed them to increased violence.
Hence, the new law is completely ineffective. Not only has the number of sex workers not been reduced, but the majority of them are living more precariously than before. De Lenclos says: “before the 2016 law, people could make a decent living from sex work while working in fairly good conditions, while now it’s become increasingly difficult”. Many sex workers have been left without a financial buffer to deal with emergencies.
In the UK, it is Adams’ belief that the situation is the way it is because the politicians in government “have no concern for human life and happiness” and they do not “want to deal with the fact that police have an enormous power, and they have used that power to persecute people, including sex workers”. For instance, brothel-keeping laws which are claimed to exist to protect women against pimps “are mostly used against sex workers for working together to stay safe.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous effects on sex workers
In both countries, while many sex workers have been living on the edge for years, their one source of income has suddenly been cut off with the lockdown. While they want to stop working, they are only continuing or going back to work because they absolutely have to – when it’s a matter of losing their house, or being unable to feed themselves.
Adams points out that “the fundamental reason that sex workers are particularly suffering is that we are not entitled to the same benefits as other workers – there are other workers that are facing difficult situations, but we’re not even entitled to get government support. When you look at what people are entitled to in New Zealand, sex workers are in a much better position. They can get wage subsidies of $350 per week (£170) for 12 weeks.” In the context of the pandemic in the UK, sex workers cannot register as self-employed to receive support, and the ECP has only been able to tell people to apply to Universal Credit, which has been criticised for being discriminatory and stigmatising, and which doesn’t provide enough money for people to live on (£79 per week).
De Lenclos explains that in France, from the very beginnings of the lockdown, funds were created to support sex workers in need, providing them money and essential products. As time has gone by, though, more and more people have found themselves needing assistance. While sex work in itself is legal in France, people are faced with stigma and do not declare their activity – or cannot do so because of their irregular migration status – and as a result cannot get access to the government’s scheme for the self-employed. She explains that one of the biggest tragedies is the fact that “the definition of ‘pimping’ is so wide in France that it is hard for sex workers to rent a flat legally, as landlords could be prosecuted as pimps. As a result, sex workers are often in unstable living situations – they are subletting or not renting in their own name, living in hotels, staying long term in Airbnb properties, etc. Consequently, they are not covered by the government’s protection against evictions during the lockdown, which pushes them into homelessness”.
The COVID-19 crisis is illustrating that it is only through a full decriminalisation of sex work, along with the regularisation of undocumented workers, a real dedication to fighting poverty and to ensuring gender justice that will allow for a comprehensive protection of sex workers. Ultimately, decriminalisation increases the rights of people involved in the sex sector, makes the industry less permeable to traffickers, and both workers and clients become more willing to flag abuse to the authorities if they do not fear prosecution.