"Decriminalise sex work, for safety’s sake.”
This was one of many slogans being hurled at the House of Commons Wednesday afternoon, by a roughly 200-strong collection of sex workers and activists. They’ve come out to Parliament Square in protest to oppose a debate on the UK outlawing of online prostitution platforms, as brought forward by Labour MP Sarah Champion.
The debate follows an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, which published an official report into sexual exploitation in England and Wales in May. The inquiry focuses on the uptick in ‘pop up brothels’ – sex work conducted out of Airbnbs and hired accommodation, basically – and their alleged links to organised crime groups that the APPG says are exploiting “huge numbers of women, particularly from Eastern Europe”. The report concludes that prostitution platforms like Vivastreet and Adultwork are "the most significant enabler of sex-trafficking in the UK" and “key to the typical 'business model' used by the organised crime groups and third-party exploiters who dominate the UK's off-street sex trade."
As a result, Sarah Champion is urging the Government to change the law to make paying for sex illegal everywhere, not just in public spaces. But while Champion’s views are backed largely by the APPG report, APPGs themselves are informal groups with no official status in Parliament. The report claims to take evidence “from those that sell sex”, but the majority of evidence comes from half of all police forces across England and Wales. The APPG did not take evidence from any current prostitutes or support sex workers' organisations, the vast majority of whom would tell them: this is a fucking dreadful idea.
Prostitution will go on regardless of legality. You can’t just legislate an entire profession out of existence. What further criminalisation will do, though, is make working conditions for sex workers far more dangerous. Taking down advertising websites – instead of, say, working with and regulating them more closely – will push sex trafficking deeper underground while also forcing sex workers back onto the street, where the risk of violence is far greater and the chances of facing legal charges that will keep them locked out of “straight” jobs far higher. Criminalising online adverts and clients would also massively undermine sex workers’ safety by limiting a set of already slim options: if sex workers can’t do their jobs independently online, they will be pushed into the hands of exploitative bosses who know they have no working rights and no alternative. Speaking to sex workers and activists at Wednesday’s protest, there is anger and concern that further criminalisation will strip mostly women of their livelihoods by banning all sex work. Rather, attitudes within the industry overwhelmingly favour full decriminalisation, but that’s a risky campaign for some sex workers to undertake. To fight for their rights means identifying themselves as doing work that is currently illegal.
“They’re saying they’re doing it in the name of ‘safety’, but if their actual aim is to ban prostitution by making it hard and harder for us to work and criminalising the people around us that we associate with, then that’s not true,” Niki Adams, a spokesperson for The English Collective of Prostitutes tells me. “They’re taking a moral, ideological standpoint against prostitution and we’re saying that’s not good enough. Because if you want to talk about immorality, let’s talk about poverty. The biggest problem that women face is not the fact that some of us have gone into sex work in order to survive, it’s the fact that most women in this country cannot survive, pay our rent, feed our kids and live a bit of a life. We are subjected to grinding poverty and overwork.”
Those issues seem don’t seem to have crossed Champion’s mind. Speaking to BBC Woman’s Hour ahead of the debate, Champion said we are facing “a crisis of commercial exploitation in this country” that she believes to be “facilitated by the ease of access that websites are enabling”. She went on to compare paying for sex with “ordering a pizza” and claimed there was “no evidence” that advertising sites make sex work safer. This attitude suggests a push for the UK to adopt The Nordic Model, a legal framework in which the selling of sexual services is legal but the purchase of those services is criminalised. The model has been largely panned by sex workers, activists and researchers as ineffective.
“If [Champion] was prepared to sit down and talk with sex worker rights organisations, what she would find is that The Nordic Model and where it’s being implemented in other countries, abysmally fails,” says Camille Barbagallo, who organises with The Women’s Strike Assembly, at the protest. The assembly, which includes sex workers, trans women, paid and unpaid women workers, has helped to initiate the national decriminalisation campaign. “We know that criminalisation doesn’t work. It doesn’t increase safety and it does fuck all to address exploitation in the industry. All it does is make the lives of sex workers more precarious and more vulnerable, and further affects those who are already precarious and vulnerable – i.e. migrant sex workers and trans sex workers and workers of colour.”
The proposed legislation bears resemblance to the hugely controversial recent FOSTA/SESTA bill in the US. Like FOSTA/SESTA, this proposed ban is ostensibly about the prevention of sex trafficking but actually conflates sex trafficking with any kind of sex work. Although it’s intended to target trafficking, FOSTA/SESTA has led to the eradication of free or low-cost advertising platforms that allow sex workers to screen clients, negotiate services and access bad date lists – actions that are essential to the safety and wellbeing of those who have entered the profession consensually. The debate in the UK has taken an even more overt ethical shift, with Champion pushing to make it “illegal to buy sex” full stop.
The main issue here is that trafficking and prostitution are being treated as two sides of the same coin. They’re two completely separate things; it’s contempt for sex workers thinly veiled as anti-trafficking legislation. Champion believes that paying for sex, under any circumstances, should be a crime. In Wednesday’s debate she made sweeping judgemental statements like “prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls”, while Jess Phillips MP read out several minutes of bad client reviews from UK escort directory and escort review site Punternet and said “think about your daughters and mothers”. The language used in the report by the APPG's chair, Gavin Shuker MP, describes the all sex work as consent being purchased – none of which is anything to do with sex trafficking or immigration patterns.
“We’re talking about women who are very well paid and sitting in secure jobs telling working class women what they can and cannot do with their bodies,” Barbagallo says. “I’d ask Sarah Champion to think about how the politics of trafficking in this country has led to the sex industry being understood as a hostile environment, and a hostile environment for migrants.”
For Wednesday’s protestors, the obvious way forward is full decriminalisation, which would help protect the rights of sex workers regardless of why they entered the industry. Champion’s criticisms are ignorant to the fact that some migrants in prostitution have ended up there not through trafficking, but through lack of options. Addressing the crowd at Parliament Square, one protester – a migrant from Romania – says “the majority of street-based sex workers are migrants trying to put food on their tables. Nobody wants to be in prostitution for their entire life, but what started as a one-night gig ended up being a full time gig because we ended up having a criminal record.”
As Barbagallo, of the Women’s Strike Assembly puts it: “Despite what you think and feel about it, sex work isn’t going to go away while capitalism is in place. So if you want to end the steady stream of workers who move into the sex industry, then you need to pay people a decent living wage, you need to stop benefit sanctions, and you need to fix the housing crisis. That’s how you actually take away the material conditions that mean women end up making decisions around how they want to earn a living.”
On July 4, the day of the debate, three Labour councillors joined sex workers and activists in calling for full decriminalisation. Writing to Champion in a personal capacity, Margaret Corvid (a Plymouth councillor, former sex worker and VICE contributor), Alex Feis-Bryce (a Lewisham councillor and founder of National Ugly Mugs), and Aisling Gallagher (a Lewisham councillor who has worked with Leeds University on sex work and austerity research) say: “If people wish to reduce demand for sex work, or to protect sex workers, the answer is the same as it is for every other type of worker in the UK and across the world. It is to end austerity, to provide real security for precarious workers, to welcome and respect migrants, to strengthen workers’ rights across the board.” The group points to New Zealand as an example, where sex work has been fully decriminalised since 2003, sex work has not increased and health and safety outcomes for sex workers have improved.
Speaking to VICE, Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International UK’s Women’s Rights Programme Manager, echoes criticism of the proposed legislation. Amnesty’s research shows that criminalising the buying of sex exposes sex workers to violence and human rights abuses. “Sex workers’ safety is very much dependent on them being able to manage and make choices about their own sex work and screen their clients,” Capraro says, “Human trafficking and exploitation is of course an abhorrent human rights abuse and the government must do all it can to eradicate it, but a blanket ban on all websites where sex workers can manage their own work is not the answer.”
The dangers facing sex workers are compounded by the fact that, in addition to being the group affected by a policy that threatens to decimate their livelihoods overnight, the very act of speaking out against policy-making comes with its own dangers. As it stands, strippers and dancers are the only legalised sex workers in the UK – and even those professions are heavily stigmatised and policed online. But elsewhere in the industry workers face greater risks when it comes to outing themselves.
It is peak government policy to address a problem by simply removing access to it, rather than addressing it systematically. Which is fine when it comes to something like sugar tax, but absolutely barbaric when it has a deadly and immediate effect on people’s right to earn a living. In simply shutting down online advertising websites, the government would directly endanger the lives of the very people they say they’re looking to protect.
“The only thing that will address exploitation is workers coming together and fighting for their collective rights in their own voices,” says Barbagallo. “Self-determination and body autonomy is at the heart of any feminist project that doesn’t want to throw women under the bus.”