Decriminalisation would make sex workers safer

Comment: Want to know how to make sex work safe? Ask sex workers

Comment: Want to know how to make sex work safe? Ask sex workers

By Niki Adams

When sex workers from nine different countries get together, there's always going to be a buzz. But invite them to the houses of parliament and ask them to tell politicians what needs to be done and it'll turn into a roar. Nearly 200 people poured into a parliamentary committee room earlier this month for a sex work symposium, well exceeding its capacity and forcing a crowd to wait outside while a one-in-one-out door policy was put in operation.

We've been given a significant boost by the elevation of John McDonnell to the Labour front bench. McDonnell, a dedicated and principled politician with a strong concern about sex workers safety, welcomed the event and expressed his hope that his parliamentary colleagues would listen to the evidence.

Anyone who took his advice and heard the array of speakers and vast amount of evidence would have been struck by how compelling the case for decriminalisation is. Take Catherine Healy. She's a founding member and coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, which succeeded in decriminalising prostitution in her own country in 2003. She came to Westminster to address common lies and misconceptions.

Prior to decriminalisation, police would round up, photograph, arrest and often harass sex workers in New Zealand. Now the focus is on our health and safety. Her evidence, from sources such as the Prostitution Law Review Committee, showed that five years after the law was changed there had been no increase in prostitution or trafficking. Sex workers are more able to leave prostitution and secure other work because they aren't registered and convictions have been cleared from their record.  The law decriminalised sex work both on the street and in premises, making it much easier to report violence and club together for safety.

The Christchurch School of Medicine review found over 90% of sex workers believed the Prostitution Reform Act gave them additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. Many found it easier to refuse clients and said police attitudes to sex workers had changed for the better. 

The research was interspersed with accounts of women exercising their rights. Last year a sex worker took her boss to the human rights review tribunal for sexual harassment and was awarded NZ$25,000 (about £10,000). Others described being able to talk more openly with healthcare professionals – a vital step in ensuring appropriate care.

We also looked at more draconian legal approaches, including the one operating in Sweden, which is often celebrated by feminists opposed to sex work. Dr Jay Levy, who had conducted comprehensive field work and research over two years, reported that there is "no convincing empirical evidence that the law has resulted in a decline in sex work in Sweden, which was the law's principal ambition". Under the constant threat of police interference, sex workers are forced to hurry the process of screening and negotiating with clients, which makes them take more risks. 

Despite assurances from the special rapporteur on prostitution and trafficking that police no longer target sex workers, they have often been prosecuted as 'pimps' when they band together for safety. Landlords have been pressured by police to evict sex worker tenants under threat of being prosecuted themselves. Police have also been known to report sex workers to hotels and – most devastatingly – sex work is frequently cited as a reason for refusing child custody. Levy concluded that criminalising the purchase of sex has had a devastating effect on the rights, health and safety of sex workers in Sweden. But then, this is hardly surprising. Harm reduction is deemed pointless when sex work is seen as inherently violent. 

Frustrated by the lack of data, Rose Alliance, the sex worker organisation in Sweden, conducted their own research which was brought to the UK Parliament by Pye Jakobsson. The research surveying 124 sex workers is still being translated into English but Jakobsson gave some hot-off-the-press statistics including that 63% said that the sex purchase law had created more prejudices.

Professor Nicola Mai of Kingston University examined the relationship between sex work, policing and migration. In his survey of 100 migrant sex workers, he found only "six per cent of female interviewees felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they had no share of control or consent".

This statistic is perhaps the most significant of all. For years politicians, including female Labour MPs, promoted the figure that 80% of sex workers are trafficked or coerced. That fabrication must finally now be put to rest.

This has policing and policy implications. Most raids on sex workers premises are done in the name of saving victims of trafficking but in reality few victims are found, genuine victims rarely get help and migrant sex workers are targeted for deportation. Dr Mai's research found that anti-trafficking raids, closures and evictions have been a vector for gentrification in areas like Soho, central London.

Stew Cunningham of SCOT-PEP, a sex worker led group in Scotland, reported that since police raids in Edinburgh in 2013, condom use among sex workers had fallen, the prevalence of STIs had slightly increased and, for the first time in eight years, the number of sex workers attending a specialist NHS clinic had fallen – by nearly ten per cent – with no corresponding evidence to suggest that the number of women selling sex has in itself reduced. 

Cuts to benefits and public services have a direct effect on sex workers and serve to prevent them leaving the industry, or going back into it. One woman at the meeting, who had retired from street work, broke down in tears as she described how £100 a week was going to be taken from her disabled daughter's benefits. "I'm too old to go back out there to get the money to support her," she told us.

Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes, recounted the example of a survey showing a 60% increase in street prostitution in Doncaster. In the words of a charity worker: "Women are being forced to sell their bodies for sex for just £5 because of benefit sanctions. People are turning to prostitution to pay for gas and electricity because they are being left without enough money under current regulations."

But even amid the cries of despair there was a real sense at the meeting that public opinion is now more interested in safety than in prosecution. After all, if New Zealand has been able to decriminalise prostitution, then so can the UK. The evidence presented at the symposium will now be published and lodged in the House of Commons for MPs to reference. It only allows for one conclusion to be drawn: decriminalisation makes sex workers safer.

Niki Adams is a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which has campaigned for decriminalisation and safety for sex workers since 1975.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.