While sex work is criminalised, the risk of exploitation is much greater

By Decrim Now

Earlier this year, Diana Johnson MP tabled a Private Members’ bill attempting to introduce the ‘Nordic Model’, a legislative approach criminalising the purchase of sex (and many other aspects of the sex industry, such as sex workers’ advertising). When the bill fell, she then tabled amendments to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in an attempt to achieve the same. 

These legislative changes were proposed during Covid-19, when social restrictions remained high and vaccination levels low, so that sex workers were struggling to financially survive.The pandemic has perfectly demonstrated what happens to the industry when a big fall in demand occurs: sex workers become endangered and impoverished.

During the height of the pandemic, many sex workers spent months unable to meet clients because of concerns for their own and others’ safety, leaving many unable to pay for rent or food. Some continued to work, despite the risk, while others entered the industry for the first time after being laid off. Those who continued working in person found themselves increasingly isolated, and more at risk of violence and exploitation. As is to be expected, the pandemic was particularly harmful to the livelihoods of the most vulnerable workers – those working on the street, people experiencing homelessness or substance abuse, people with irregular migration status or no recourse to public funds.

In April, Decrim Now published an open letter to MPs asking them to reject attempts to further criminalise sex work in Great Britain. The letter was signed by Zarah Sultana, Nadia Whittome and Rebecca Long-Bailey, as well as MPs from the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, both of which already have decriminalisation as party policy. The letter was also signed by a wide range of national NGOs, unions and others, demonstrating the widespread support for decriminalisation and against the Nordic model in civil society.

Decrim Now campaigns for the decriminalisation of sex work because we know from international evidence that it is the best model for protecting sex workers, the majority of whom are women. We also work to raise awareness of what the rules are around sex work in the UK. Currently England, Wales and Scotland have a model of ‘partial criminalisation’, where activities surrounding selling sex, but not the act itself, are criminal offences. This includes ‘brothel-keeping’, which is defined in law as two or more people selling sex from the same indoor premises. By defining ‘brothel-keeping’ in this way, the law prevents women from working together to increase their safety.

Because indoor sex work is criminalised in this way, the risk of exploitation is made much worse. Women who work alone are much more vulnerable to attack and when women do work together, they are less likely to call the police to report violent clients, for fear of being arrested for brothel-keeping. As the English Collective of Prostitutes’ ‘Make All Women Safe’ campaign highlights, “The UK law puts 70,000 women’s lives at risk by forcing them to work alone”.

Proponents of the Nordic Model claim that it criminalises the buyer and decriminalises the worker, but this is not true. In all countries where it has been applied, the Nordic Model maintains ‘brothel-keeping’ laws. If two women cannot legally work together from the same premises for the benefit of their own safety, then selling sex is not decriminalised. In many of the countries which have imposed the Nordic model (including Sweden, France, and Northern Ireland), sex workers are targeted by the state for fines, evictions, and deportation. 

Even more concerningly, reports of violent crimes against sex workers almost doubled in the two years following the Republic of Ireland’s introduction of the Nordic model. In France, the law has led to 42% of workers feeling more exposed to violence, 78% losing income, and 63% experiencing a deterioration of their living conditions.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Full decriminalisation is accepted by international health and rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organisation, as the best framework for securing human rights and improving safety and health outcomes for sex workers. The WHO stated in its comprehensive global research on different legislative models around sex work that “All countries should work towards the decriminalisation of sex work.”

In New Zealand, which decriminalised sex work in 2003, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective reports that, “Since decriminalisation there are strong indications that sex workers are more able to address violence in sex work. For example, managed workers in brothels are more able to refuse clients they previously felt they had to accept.” In New Zealand late last year, a sex worker took her brothel manager to court for sexual harassment, and won her case: this is only possible because of decriminalisation. You can’t have workers’ rights in a criminalised workplace.

United Sex Workers, a branch of the United Voices of the World union, is organising sex workers to fight for better working conditions and to change the industry from within. They’re already winning important battles, including a landmark legal victory proving that strippers are workers, not independent contractors. And a full service sex worker branch member made UK history this year by challenging a client’s non-payment of fees, and winning. Sex workers don’t need their clients to be criminalised, they need to be able to build their power by working together to demand change.

Decrim Now is a coalition of different allies, led by people possessing a wealth of lived experience within the sex industry, who know that the key factor underlying people’s entry into sex work is poverty. The decimation of our welfare state and the growth of badly paid, insecure, precarious and exploitative work is what pushes more and more people into sex work. This is particularly the case for women, who are most affected by benefit cuts, unliveable wages and inflexible working. If we want to decrease the number of people working in the sex industry who would rather not be there, the primary solution is to combat poverty.

There are lots of things that Labour members can do to help bring about the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK. Labour4Decrim campaigns to try and make decriminalisation Labour Party policy: you can bring a motion in support of decrim to your CLP, which more than a dozen CLPs have already passed. You can lobby your MP to support decrim and to meet with Decrim Now, as well as sex workers’ collectives like SWARM and ECP, to discuss it. You can donate to fund the work of these sex workers’ organisations, which support the most vulnerable sex workers with financial assistance and legal advice.

More simply, you can talk about decrim with your friends and family. We need everyone to join with us to break down the stigma faced by sex workers, and to fight for decriminalisation. When we say that sex work is work, we don’t mean that work is good: we mean that sex workers deserve workers’ rights. The right to safety, to respect in the workplace, and the right to organise. That’s something that everyone in the Labour Party should be fighting for.

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