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Why the UK needs to decriminalise sex work

The impact of Covid-19 on the UK workforce has been catastrophic, not least for the sex work industry. Of the 72,800 sex workers in the UK, 88% are women. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes about two-thirds of sex workers have suffered violence.

With lockdown restrictions impacting regular client-bases, sex workers have been forced to take riskier avenues to maintain work.

  • Why the UK needs to decriminalise sex work
    The impact of Covid-19 on the UK workforce has been catastrophic, not least for the sex work industry. Of the 72,800 sex workers in the UK, 88% are women. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes about two-thirds of sex workers have suffered violence. With […]

It is against these increasingly harsh conditions that the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, Dame Diana Johnson, is attempting to push through the Sexual Exploitation Bill, which falls under The Nordic Model for sex work. The Bill purports to “criminalise paying for sex; selling sex; to create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation; to make associated provision about sexual exploitation online; to make provision for support services for victims of sexual exploitation; and for connected purposes”.

Hull MP Dame Diana Johnson 'on the mend' after coronavirus battle - Hull  Live
Hull North MP Dame Diana Johnson

Currently in the UK it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex but soliciting sex and working in groups is outlawed. The Nordic Model criminalises the purchase of sex, seeing sex work as a result of men’s oppression of women, centering the client within the legal policy. This model has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Ireland and Finland, and has been hailed as a neo-abolitionist policy. Yet it has been met with widespread criticism, with arguments that it is inherently flawed to attempt to criminalise one part of the transaction and not the other. In fact, since it was introduced in Ireland in 2017, violent crime against sex workers increased by almost 50%.

Criminalising the purchasing of sex does little to alleviate the common harms cited within the sex industry, such as assault, low wages and exploitative work conditions. In fact, criminalising the client is likely to remove those clients who are deemed ‘safe’ by workers, instead pushing them into more precarious situations. On top of this, sex workers are likely to be subjected to interrogation by law enforcement to gain access to the clients that would be prosecuted under these laws.

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The UK organisation DecrimNow are calling for decriminalisation, now. For them, decriminalisation means that sex workers are able to work without threat of criminal sanctions and administrative penalties, with adequate regulation through employment law. Such regulations would grant sex workers’ employees’ rights, allowing them to form trade unions which would hold their bosses to account.

In one tweet the activist group Labour4decrim writes “We are Labour members and many of us are sex workers. Sex workers are women too. We don’t have to love our jobs to have the same rights as all other workers. We are on the side of labour, worker and working-class solidarity”. This framing is crucial for understanding the improvement of sex workers rights as the key tool to improving work conditions.

In a recent open letter to UK MPs, the organisation outlined the importance of providing support for the most marginalised identities working within the sex industry. The Nordic Model increases violence against migrant workers, who already face precarity within the industry due to a stigmatising association with trafficking.

While reports of a sex work crisis run rife, activists try in vain to disrupt the harmful narrative surrounding sex worker’s rights. The sex work industry has been plagued by a common conflation with so-called ‘sex trafficking’ that positions sex workers as exploited victims whilst simultaneously criminalising their actions. Such associations fuel the political fire surrounding sex work discourses, granting bills such as the Sexual Exploitation Bill the political salience they do not deserve.

Anti-trafficking laws are a crucial weapon in law enforcements arsenal for deporting migrants who are selling sex. Such laws have been at the heart of police raids of suspected brothels, which legitimise the seizure of money earned through sex work. The police actively profit from raids, arrests and convictions for prostitution. In one case in October 2016, the Metropolitan Police raided six massage parlours in Chinatown, London, under the guise that they were “bringing to justice those who seek to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people”. The police seized money from the women’s lockers, arresting 24 people, none of which were charged with anti-trafficking offenses, and deporting 13 people, most of whom were women.

With concerns for women’s safety making the headlines, it is imperative to discuss the harms created by restrictions on sex worker’s rights in the UK. Whilst the current legislation deems sex work to be legal, there are still major restrictions on how they can work. The legal framework surrounding sex work restricts women from working together, which is crucial for ensuring the safety of individuals. The use of anti-trafficking laws to legitimise targeted police raids contributes to the marginalisation of migrants and the precarity of sex worker’s rights.

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It may not come as a surprise that New Zealand have already successfully decriminalised sex work without any notable increase or decrease in numbers of workers. After these measures were implemented, over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights.

Yet whilst this utopian idea may provide crucial support for those identities who are visible within the industry, New Zealand still fails to support undocumented migrants and marginalised communities through decriminalisation. The Nordic Model goes some way towards positioning the harms of sex work within men’s oppression of women, but the reality is that sex work arises out of necessity. The decriminalisation of sex work must be enacted alongside policy that attempts to alleviate economic necessity.

The pandemic has brought into focus the acute need for workers’ rights within the sex work industry, with 1 in 20 people already struggling to find a job. In fact, Covid-19 has led to an increased demand for the sex work industry, with the website OnlyFans reporting 77 million new users in July 2019. Public opinion is on the side of decriminalisation, according to a poll from 2019, which found that more Britons supported the sex law reform than opposed it. As it stands, the UK is ready for decriminalisation. Now we’re waiting for our politicians to catch up.

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BEFORE YOU GO...Have you read: Women’s charity founder: “Return of Taliban will leave women vulnerable to traffickers"
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