This is our truth, tell us yours
Firstly may I thank you for your long standing support for one of the most marginalised groups in our society. People have frequently spoken for, and over sex workers, but very rarely actually listened to what sex workers want. As a sex worker with disabilities I am reminded of the slogan “nothing about us, without us” which revolutionized how disability rights was seen. It is my hope, and belief that future generations will see the paternalistic way in which sex workers have been treated as similarly wrong to the “does he take sugar” approach to people with disabilities.
I know it takes a lot of courage to speak out for sex workers, those who oppose our fight for rights can be vicious, and have no qualms about using personal abuse and threats to silence people. One of their many lines of attack is to say that people should “listen to survivors” as if it is impossible to be a sex worker and a survivor.
Victim v Survivor
I am a survivor, I am a survivor of sustained and severe childhood sexual abuse. This however is hardly a surprise. Radford (2011) (1) estimated that 1 in 20 children in the UK is sexually abused. More recent research suggests that only 1 in 8 victims of child abuse is ever identified by the authorities (1a) . To make that something everyone can understand, it means in the average primary school class, there is one child who is being sexually abused. As the NSPCC (2) says all abuse is under reported, and while the trend is upwards when it comes to reporting, it still seems safe to assume 1 in 20 is a minimum estimate.
So, being a survivor of childhood abuse, whether sexual or not, is going to be the experience of many sex workers, not because they are pathologised by their childhood (although this may be the case in certain situations) but because it is the experience of a significant proportion of the population. One does no service to either current victims of abuse, or survivors with abuse in their past, by linking, without evidence two things simply in order to make those who sell sexual services further marginalised.
A recent tactic of those opposed to the decriminalization of sex workers, and sex workers rights generally, is to use the experiences of survivors of childhood sexual exploitation to further their cause. As Baroness Jay made clear in her report into Rotherham (3), even whilst money did on some occasions change hands this was not sex work. The use of money as a tool to further humiliate and control the victims of childhood sexual exploitation is in fact only possible because of criminalization and the stigma associated with sex work (4). She made very clear that the mistaken perception that these children were sex workers by police and social services actually led to a blind eye being turned to abuse. My personal feelings about those feminists who would feed this idea that the victims of CSE are sex workers are perhaps too strong to be voiced in this submission.
Underage sex workers( in this context underage means between the ages of 16 and 18) do of course exist. As the John Jay (5) report demonstrated they are very often escapting abusive backgrounds, rarely have “pimps” and feel themselves to be making a choice within extremely limited options. Underage sex workers are far more likely to be street workers, many are LGBTQ youth made homeless because of their gender/and/or sexuality. Research consistently shows that providing help and support to marginalised young people is made more difficult by criminalization, of any form (6). Those who work with homeless young people consistently speak of the need to build trust and relationships, a situtation made difficult by policies such as Hulls anti prostitution zones.(7)
I am also a survivor of rape. This again is not a unique situation for a female bodied person in the UK (8) I was raped by a client. I reported it to National Ugly Mugs, however like many others, I chose not to go to the police. This is a direct result of criminalization and the laws around sex work. I feared that a police investigation would see my partner arrested (as my pimp under UK laws around controlling) and the removal of my children by social workers. I was also concerned that I would be left homeless as I rent from a housing association. So whilst sex work is legal in the UK the current situation means I was unable to report my rape to the police. It is also worth mentioning that the support of Rape Crisis for criminalization, and their attitudes towards sex workers means I could not access psychological support.
Many sex workers feel that the police are “the enemy” and that crimes against us will not be taken seriously. The experience of New Zealand shows that post decriminalization while stigma still exists sex workers are more likely to report crimes against them (9)
Harm Reduction – lone working
This brings me to the heart of why decriminalization matters. Sex work does involve a certain amount of risk, although risk in itself is not a reason to criminalize a job. Currently laws exacerbate the risk however. One of the most dangerous laws is the ban on us working together for safety. The definition of a brothel is so broad that traditional methods of protection (such as the employment of maids) has been criminalised. Two or more sex workers working together should not be illegal. When Suzy Lamplugh(10) was murdered advice was given to women who work alone, it is standard for all other professions to have rules about lone working, and many ban it for women. However our current laws deny this basic safety to sex workers. It is important to note that sex workers can even be prosecuted for controlling each other (as in sex workers working together are prosecuted as each others pimps.) If society recognises it is dangerous for some women to work alone, then it must extend that recognition to sex workers.Again the New Zealand model provides a good working example of how this can be achieved. Up to four sex workers can work together as a co-operative. More than this is a brothel when normal planning, zoning and employment laws apply.
Harm Reduction – HiV
Criminalization, especially towards street workers, makes outreach harder. The English Collective of Prostitutes have gathered evidence around how police actions have further marginalised an already vulnerable group. (11) Georgina Perry of Open Doors, in her response to anti trafficking measures around the Olympics (12) demonstrated how outreach for sexual health purposes was made more difficult by the disruption and displacement of the communities she worked with. As the Lancet (13) showed, criminalization increases HiV rates, and decriminalization is needed globally to reduce them. The recent use of condoms as evidence in Scotland is especially worrying in this context.(14). Only the full decriminalization of sex work removes the possibility of condoms being used as evidence. Scot Pep has already discovered that the actions of the police have led to an increase of STI rates (15). Whilst sex work is criminalized in certain contexts we run the risk of this getting worse.
Harm Reduction – trafficking.
Trafficking is an issue which must be tackled, however current laws and attitudes make it almost impossible to provide support and identify genuine victims of trafficking. Migrant women who chose to sell sex are faced with declaring themselves trafficked or incarceration.(16) After the soho raids migrant women who had lived in this country for years were sent to Yarls Wood, and declared to be victims of trafficking. Organisations who work with the victims of trafficking highlight how domestic work and agriculture are the sectors people are far more likely to be trafficked into, but because of the actions of those opposed to sex workers rights these violations are ignored. (17)
Unless laws that falsely define trafficking are removed (for example if another sex worker pays my train fare to London, they are trafficking me) we will not be able to identify victims. This would also mean recognising that migrant, and especially migrant women of colour have agency, autonomy and are able to make decisions about their own lives. (18)
The conventional view of a sex worker is a street worker, a woman who waits on a street corner for clients, and provides sexual services in their cars. The rise of the internet and mobile phones has changed forever how sex work is conducted. It is impossible to know how many sex workers are street workers, versus indoor workers, and the distinction is more and more false. A street worker may use a phone to arrange meets, an indoor worker may do car meets.
It is the case though that the highest rates of violence exist against those who predominately meet their clients on the streets (19). There are a number of reasons for this. They may exist on a number of intersections such as race, substance use, gender, disability, which make them more vulnerable. They may be undocumented migrants so unwilling to risk contact with the police. The criminalization of both soliciting and kerb crawling mean that these sex workers exist without protection, outside of the law, and so are very obviously deliberately targeted. The case of Anita Kapoor is currently going through the courts (20), and it is very telling that when she was attacked and made a phone call for help, she did not call the police. Decriminalization is a first step towards some of the most vulnerable in our society feeling able to do that most basic of acts, call the police when they need help.
Many people worry that decriminalization means an increase in anti social behaviour in their neighbourhoods, and there is a tension here which must be acknowledged. However the usual methods of community engagement and conflict resolution are not accessible when one group is criminalized and exists only on the margins. All models of community conflict resolution show that equality between all partners is a vital component of reaching successful solutions. Currently street workers face ASBOs, jail sentences, criminal records, all of which have a hugely negative impact. It is worrying to see research which shows the incredibly high suicide rates of people recently released from prison. (21)
This is a good moment to point out that decriminalization does not mean no regulation. It is common for people to make hysterical claims about mega brothels opening on every corner, when planning and zoning laws will still exist. Nor would women be forced by the state to take sex work jobs. There are already exemptions for adult industry jobs which mean benefit claimants cannot be sanctioned for not applying for sex work jobs, this would simply remain the case. In New Zealand an added protection was added. It is usual for there to be a gap in payment of benefits if someone leaves a job. This is also the case in the UK. For sex workers a special category was added which means there are no sanctions or delays when someone leaves employment in a brothel.
It is important to mention a worrying new development from those with an ideological objection to workers rights. Some extremists are now claiming that the Swedish Model of criminalization decriminalize sex work. It does not, nor was it ever intended to. Sweden sees the rights of some workers as incompatible with its societal norms and beliefs. The Swedish Model of criminalization was designed to make sex workers lives so difficult they stopped being sex workers, (22) it is state violence and harassment enshrined in law. (23) Not a single law criminalizing sex work is removed by the Swedish Model. It is important this appropriation of the word decriminalization be challenged whenever it occurs.
For many years members of the LGBTQ communities fought for the right for consenting sex between adults not to be criminalized. It was finally seen to be none of the states business what consenting adults did in private. It is no different when one looks at sex workers without the lens of prejudice or bigotry. Those opposed to sex workers rights make similar apocalyptic claims about the world if sex work were decriminalized. Their language is almost identical to those who claimed decriminalizing homosexuality or equalizing the age of consent would lead to wide spread abuse of children and the vulnerable. In the same way Amnesty was attacked for supporting the human rights of LGBTQ people so it is now under attack for supporting the human rights of sex workers. Decriminalization of sex work is an intersection of human rights and harm reduction. A combination of the basic belief that the state must not make laws around the behaviour of consenting adults which informs so many of our laws on sexual behaviour, and the long battle for workers rights. It has always been the case that those jobs which are gendered as female have been undervalued and underpaid. It is only in the past ten years that equal pay has been given to a number of jobs where women predominated.(24).
Sex work is a job which is carried out by people of all genders and none, but which is particularly coded as female. This means historically it has been treated as both unskilled (as dinner ladies were deemed to be less skilled than bin men) and not real work (as caring is not seen as real work). Patriarchal attitudes towards sex have also fed the belief that a woman who is having sex outside of a state sanctioned relationship (marriage) is either mentally ill or in need of rescue. Modern opponents of sex workers rights use all of these arguments against us, it is indeed the case that sex workers are assumed to be mad, bad and dangerous to know. However the fight for workers rights has never been about whether the work was “nice” or considered suitable for ladies. Rights must apply equally to all members of our society, regardless of individual feelings about the validity or propriety of their work.
By the same token harm reduction means taking a calm, dispassionate glance at a situation and without prejudice or beliefs about mythical utopias consider what is needed to protect those in danger of harm. Just as so many are realising the war on drugs simply harmed those most vulnerable, so the war on sex work simply leaves sex workers as casualties, acceptable losses in the pursuit of a non existent feminist dystopia.