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How to Make Sex Work Safer in 2016

For former prostitute Paris Lees and many other pros and former pros, the answer is pretty simple: Legalize sex work.
Ilustration by Sam Taylor

Crazy hours. Chasing dollars. Constantly laying yourself open for strangers. Freelance journalism is pretty similar to prostitution, and I should know—I've had better careers than you in both. I start every article I write about sex work by outing myself as a former pro because there are so few people in the media with firsthand job experience of the issue. See what I did there? It was a joke about handjobs. Because I used to do them. For money. When I was a prostitute. Anyway, I've asked some current sex workers how the game could be improved. Obviously, I was hoping to interview a real expert on the matter—someone like Lena Dunham, or Emma Thompson, perhaps, but they were busy.



I've been drinking in Laura Lee's Dublin tones for half an hour. Even over the phone, she's a tour de force. "I was at this debate about sex work a few years ago in Glasgow and sitting there listening to the lies they were putting out." She was incensed. "I thought, 'You're speaking a load of drivel that has nothing to do with my life or any of the women I've worked with.'" A sex workers' rights activist was born. This is an increasingly vocal community of campaigners.

Over the last year Molly Smith—a pseudonym—has pushed for sex work to be decriminalized in Scotland. "One of the things I find striking about this debate is that the other side don't seem very interested in acknowledging how the laws they're proposing harm and criminalize sex workers." The "other side" would like to see laws like those in Sweden and Norway, but as Smith points out, "People who sell sex there are still criminalized for working together and migrant sex workers are deported. It's not a feminist utopia." Compare this with New Zealand. Prostitution is legal there, and sex workers say they feel safer at work and have better relations with the police. Last year was the first case of a sex worker in New Zealand taking forward a case against her employer under labor laws and winning.

"You have people with broad platforms using those platforms to call for harmful laws," says Lee, "but they need to speak to the people those laws affect." Last year a bunch of actors, including Dunham, Thompson, and many more well-meaning and well-to-do ladies, urged Amnesty International to oppose decriminalization of sex work. Amnesty came out in support of legalization based on two years of intense research and listening to sex workers around the world. "We have a phrase in sex work activism," says Lee, "'Nothing about us without us.'" It's a phrase I hear transgender activists use a lot, too.


"There's a certain type of feminist," says Smith, "who has a 1970s-ish understanding of what womanhood is, that seems to have this profound and irrational hatred of sex workers and trans women." I suspect they see both matters as things that people "do"—and if only they could only campaign hard enough, people would stop having sex for money or sex changes and all the other naughty things that upset the fancy ladies of White Feminism. They are modern day missionaries, white-gloved and disapproving, here to save everyone by, um, trying to stop us doing things with our own bodies.

Lee is more diplomatic. "I have no doubt that some of them have good intentions at heart, but at best they are very ill-informed." Do they really believe they can end the oldest profession going? "There's never been a society without prostitution," says Lee, "and there never will be either. For me it's about how we manage the most vulnerable people." Of course there are vulnerable people working in the sex industry. Just as there vulnerable people in showbiz. And banking. And politics. "You're not protecting them by taking away their income," Lee adds. "What you need to do is give them safety in the workplace."


Lee is challenging Northern Ireland's sex work laws through the courts next month. It's the only occupation in which UK law compels people to work on their own, and she says that sends a message to would-be attackers that "we're vulnerable, we're alone, we probably carry cash, and we're highly unlikely to report it to the police," though she insists the industry isn't inherently dangerous. "It's the conditions in which we're forced to work that are dangerous." Every sex worker-led organization that I speak to agrees.

Soliciting laws criminalize people who work on the streets, but rather than end streetwalking, Lee says they just make the job more dangerous. "When the tolerance zone was removed in Edinburgh, the number of assaults against sex workers shot up by 95 percent. The police pulled back from patrolling the area whereas before they were there to protect the girls. Now they were there mainly to nab clients, if they were there at all. It happened in Dublin in 1993 as well. Violence against sex workers sky rocketed because clients knew they could get away with it."


Smith adds: "When you criminalize curb-crawling, the client is jumpy and saying 'Get into my car quickly. We'll have a conversation about services and prices and condom when we drive off, because I don't want the police seeing you leaning in.' So sex workers, who've got to pay their rent like everyone else, have to acquiesce." She also points out that, conversely, soliciting laws actually prevent people from leaving sex work. "If you have a criminal record for soliciting, that makes getting another job much harder." Hard as a fucking dick, I'm guessing.

Many anti-sex work feminists say they merely wish to target clients and end demand—as though this would happen in a vacuum. In reality, it just makes sex workers desperate. As Smith says, it's all very well being told "Amazing, no more clients! Patriarchy's over!" but what about when your rent is due and you haven't seen a john all week? "If someone calls you up and says 'Hi luv, I see you're advertising sex for $100. I have $60 and was wondering if I could get oral without [a condom]?' you have less power to say, 'Fuck off. I don't want to negotiate my prices or condom use.'" And you should always have power to tell someone to fuck off. It's a basic human right as far as I'm concerned.

Then there are the brothel laws, which criminalize two or more people working together. "You're always in danger of having the police turning up to raid the flat and arrest you," says Smith, "and you will each be prosecuted for brothel keeping the other." Um. OK. What's the most legal way to do it? "Work alone and advertise online." I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty risky to me. "Even then you're subject to stuff like anti-pimping laws," says Smith. "So if your landlord knows you're a sex worker, he can be done for pimping. That puts people like me in the vulnerable position of possibly being evicted at very short notice."



I'm tired of the anti-sex work lobby saying sex work when they mean trafficking. Tired as a hot whore, frankly. Do they even understand the difference? Seriously. Choosing to do sex work is not the same as being forced into it—in the same way that sex is not rape and a cleaning job isn't slavery. Hello, anti-sex work lobby—there's this thing called "consent." Which feminism is supposed to take seriously? Lee agrees that conflation of sex work and trafficking is a common red herring in the debate. "I constantly see horrendous statistics trotted out in the press that simply aren't true. The women I know working throughout the UK and Ireland, to refer to them in any way as coerced, or trafficked, or even feeble-minded is just hysterical. Sex workers are some of the strongest people you will ever meet. Because we have to be."


Researching this article, I spoke to lots of working girls, and they all agreed that making sex work legal is the thing that would improve their lives most in 2016. Apart from Fiona, bless her. She just wants bigger tits. Having listened to everything these women have to say, I can't help but see the "sex work debate" as just yet another waste of time. Like the "war on drugs" or the "climate change debate" there isn't really anything to discuss—the evidence is undeniable. But the arguments just carry on and on, endlessly, like a client that never comes. And it's depressing. Because of course we should decriminalize sex work. So of course we probably won't. Because some people are fucking idiots.

And all the smart people are fucking for money.

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