Comment: Criminalising sex workers’ customers just puts them in greater danger

By Laura Connelly

On Monday the Conservative MP Fiona Bruce published an article on ConservativeHome urging the home affairs select committee – which is currently conducting an inquiry into prostitution laws – to criminalise the purchase of sex. Her core argument was that criminalising the client would help end the exploitation of vulnerable women. It's fundamentally flawed. The laws she so vociferously calls for are likely to have disastrous consequences for the safety of sex workers.

Bruce joins a growing body of (typically female) MPs who have denounced the sex industry as inherently abusive. Fuelled by dogmatic radical feminists and ideologues from the religious-right, anti-prostitution sentiment transcends traditional party politics. On this issue, Bruce even finds allies in MPs from the left including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and Labour MPs/MEPs Fiona Mactaggart, Harriet Harman, and Mary Honeyball. Each one supports what has come to be known as the Swedish or Nordic model – a form of regulation which criminalises the client, whilst positioning the sex worker as a victim. 

Bruce's piece offers an oversimplified and paternalistic argument in favour of the Swedish model. She argues that prostitution – the sale of sex between two consenting adults – represents "sexual exploitation". In so doing, she dismisses a wealth of evidence that many women choose to sell sex and enjoy their sex working. It is not uncommon for advocates of the Swedish model to argue that sex workers who claim to sell sex of their own volition suffer from 'false consciousness' – they hold a distorted image of their own social situation. They are victims without knowing it.

Yet Bruce appears to have reached her conclusions without meaningfully consulting sex workers, key organisations such as the UK Network of Sex Work Projects and the English Collective of Prostitutes, nor the overwhelming body of academic research at her disposal. She has ignored, for example, research we conducted at the University of Leeds in 2015, which indicates that sex workers typically have high levels of job satisfaction, with 66% of the 240 surveyed sex workers describing their work as fun and 50% emphasising its empowering nature. If she had consulted this research – which is the most recent large-scale study of internet sex work in the UK – she would be aware that not one of the sex workers we surveyed supported a move towards the Swedish model.

Bruce joins a group of self-appointed saviours who have concerned themselves with the noble task of standing up for "vulnerable women". It seems counterintuitive then for Bruce not only to ignore the experiences of sex workers but to also undermine their agency and prioritise her own moral assessment over the lived experiences of those working in the sex industry.

In addition to casting the woman firmly in the role of victim, Bruce also vilifies and stigmatises those who pay for sex: men. This demonstrates her woeful lack of knowledge of the sex industry. Contrary to Bruce's argument, it involves male, female and transgender sex workers and caters to a range of clients, including women who buy sex and couples who buy sex. She notes that "sex buyers are a critical link in the human trafficking chain". She suggests that people who buy sex are an inherent threat, yet we know from reliable academic research that clients of sex workers rarely have a criminal record. Although most clients are in fact respectful, sex workers do experience some violence. This is attributable, however, to the inadequacy of laws borne out of a neo-abolitionist perspective, like that which Bruce supports.

Some clients are lonely, often because they work away from home or because they find it difficult to engage in a conventional sexual relationship, perhaps because of a disability. Others prefer the simplicity and convenience of buying sex over forming traditional relationships. Others simply desire the intimacy a sex worker can provide. While the motivations for purchasing sex are varied, it is clear that clients are not usually the monsters Bruce paints them to be.

Like many anti-prostitution advocates before her, Bruce also positions the consensual sale of sex as something that is as reprehensible as sex trafficking. In doing so, she demonstrate little awareness of the complexities of trafficking. She fails, for example, to address the issue of consent; the spectrum of choice and coercion that is involved in the sex industry. She fails to acknowledge how trafficking intersects with migration, how without legitimate migratory routes into the UK, women are forced to engage in risky practices that make them more vulnerable to trafficking.

When she uses the term "sexual slavery" – and in so doing implies parallels with trans-Atlantic slavery – she fails to acknowledge the role Britain continues to play (through its imperialist strategies) in perpetuating socio-economic disparities between the global north and south. These disparities facilitate the exploitation of migrant women. And she fails to recognise that anti-trafficking efforts ought not to be shaped by perceptions about the morality of commercial sex.

Bruce’s intentions may indeed be well-meaning but if the select committee recommend the introduction of the Swedish model, it will impact negatively on the safety and wellbeing of sex workers. The go-to argument for proponents of the Swedish model is that it will help in the "fight against human trafficking". But it's entirely plausible – and is indeed continually evidenced – that driving the industry underground will allow trafficking to flourish.

While clients may once have provided information to the police about any person they suspected may have been trafficked, the Swedish model will act to prevent this practice as clients fear their own criminalisation. When clients are criminalised, sex workers are forced to work in spaces that are away from police scrutiny. Displaced to secluded areas, sex workers are more vulnerable to violence and rape. With declining trade, sex workers are forced to charge less and accept aggressive or drunken clients. Criminalising clients also reinforces the idea that sex work is morally wrong and with it, the notion that sex workers have no recognised worker's rights.

The government is right to review British prostitution policy. The confusing web of existing laws no doubt encourages violence and exploitation. Yet it is the decriminalisation of the sex industry, rather than the Swedish model, which will have the greatest positive impact upon sex workers. It will allow sex workers to work together. It will reduce the prevailing stigma of commercial sex and give sex workers employment rights. It will improve sex worker-police relationships, leading to better crime-reporting practices. And it will lead to the easier exposure, and investigation, of cases of trafficking.

So while Bruce calls upon "MPs of all parties" to "support the proposed sex buyer law", I call upon them to review the empirically-rigorous evidence we, as academic researchers, present. This body of evidence demonstrates that any form of regulation short of decriminalisation will be unlikely to improve the safety of the diverse group of people working in the sex industry. But perhaps more importantly, I ask MPs to listen to sex workers and to consult them, as experts, on how best to regulate the industry they work in.

Laura Connelly is a researcher at the University of Leeds. She specialises in research on human trafficking, violence against sex workers, and the criminalisation of migration.

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