Sex-workers' rights activists marching in Soho in 2014 (Photo by Jake Lewis)
On Friday the 15th of January, the Home Affairs Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, announced that it will hold an inquiry into how sex work is treated in legislation. So far, so good. We badly need this. Ask most UK sex workers and they'll tell you the current law is dangerous and shambolic.
So bring on reform. Finally, some evidence-based policy! But not so fast, harlots. If you think your safety lies at the heart of this debate, you'd be mistaken. The inquisitors have already decided what they are looking for. Their aim is this: to find out "whether further measures are necessary, including legal reforms, to discourage demand".
"In particular, the inquiry will assess whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it," reads the launch statement.
So this will be the scope of the investigation: it's not a question of if someone must pay the price for the sordid transaction, it's just a matter of whom. It's like launching an investigation into the legislation around weed and framing the debate as: "We all agree that cannabis is evil. So should the dealer or the smoker go to jail?"
Before the inquiry even begins, its terms of reference are so loaded with assumption that objective debate has already been stifled. And this is a tragedy because real change is desperately needed.
At present, fucking for a living is legal, but you can be arrested for brothel-keeping. Unfortunately, "brothel-keeping" could simply mean your friend hangs out in the next room to keep you safe. Meanwhile, it's perfectly legal to exchange blowjobs for cash, but touting for business on the street can land you a record for soliciting (unless you work in Leeds' new regulated zone).
This bullshit legislative situation, which doesn't put workers' safety as a primary concern, has real implications. Since 1990, 151 sex workers have been murdered in the UK and an estimated two-thirds have experienced violence at work. This is your ducking stool, hookers: how much danger and persecution can you take until you realise what you're doing is an affront to the moral order?
But maybe it would be fairer to blame the people paying for sex rather than those selling it? However, criminalising clients (the so-called Nordic model) isn't going to make anyone safer. It doesn't take a genius to work out that paranoid, jumpy men make dangerous clients. Paris Lees hammered that point home in her piece about making sex work safer here, and I discussed it here, and here's a study from Norway where clients are criminalised showing that trafficking cases are on the rise, and here's a British Medical Journal Study showing that criminalisation of clients in Vancouver increased the risks of violence. In December last year, sex workers, outreach workers, NGOs and academics from ten countries gave evidence in parliament decrying the Nordic model and calling for full decriminalisation.
But such is whore-hatred that, according to the inquiry's launch statement, all of this is rendered invisible.
The inquiry will focus heavily on trafficking, which would be all well and good if it weren't for the fact that UK's biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anyone into prostitution. London's last two big police operations – one in the "clean up" before the Olympics, the other in Soho – similarly failed to find the expected trafficked women. That leaves a lot of sex workers outside the focus of this inquiry.
The committee is calling for evidence around "what the implications are for prostitution-related offences of the Crown Prosecution Service's recognition of prostitution as violence against women". This is a weirdly worded sentence but one which clearly owes its worldview to abolitionist radical feminists, in whose eyes no woman could willingly choose to sell sex. The thing is, they do.
Prostitution isn't violence against women. Violence happens within the industry but suggesting that every transaction is rape obfuscates the real dangers. By extension, if every lost, sex-selling wench who believes they've actually chosen to do this work is simply deluded, then what's the point in listening to them?
Sex workers have been screaming into the void. Had the Home Affairs Committee paid attention, they'd have heard – again and again – that some people like their job, some hate it, but neither condition renders them incapable of making choices. It seems though that anyone who doesn't self-define as a victim has been ignored; their voice treated as white noise.
The inquiry's terms of reference contain not one mention of working conditions, not a breath about decriminalisation, the model which Amnesty International and sex worker-led organisations around the world are calling for.
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Despite this, James Berry, Conservative MP for Kingston and Surbiton, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, has said he's keen to hear all points of view and denies that the initial terms are biased, telling VICE:
"A Select Committee inquiry is very broad – it does not start with a premise and tries to explore all the arguments before reaching a conclusion. So there is no 'end goal' for the inquiry and since the select committee has members from the three main parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP) there is likely to be a variety of different views once we have heard all the evidence."
I want to believe him, but from where I'm standing the inquiry doesn't start from a neutral place and therefore its conclusions have already been nudged along a particular path.
In this, the inquiry is reminiscent of last year's All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution, which relied on dodgy statistics and was called out for repeatedly misquoting sources. Sex workers successfully defended themselves then and now they must do so again.
But for a parliamentary inquiry to use such loaded terms of reference should worry you, whatever your stance. It's not debate. It's a myopic circle jerk of prejudice. The inquisition has already decided that prostitution is heresy and they will, no doubt, find confirmation.
The inquiry is calling for submissions, so if you have something to say, you can send it here.
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