We need to fully decriminalise prostitution now. The debate is often impaired by disapproving people and legislators stomping over the facts on an arbitrary moral high horse. Although the law agrees that it should not tell consenting adults what to do with their own bodies – the act of selling sex itself is legal in the UK – surrounding laws still serve to criminalise the workers.
In the UK, brothels are illegal and classified as more than one person selling sex on a property. This means sex workers have to work in isolation to remain legal, which is a lot less safe than if they have a group or partner. It makes them an easy target for abuse. Thus, wholesale laws prohibiting brothels serve to endanger and criminalise sex workers. The law should be refocused on preventing abusive pimps and traffickers.
Other aspects of prostitution are also criminalised, creating a hazy legal fog around sex work. Both picking up prostitutes on the street – ‘curb crawling’ – and soliciting sex are illegal, along with most forms of advertising. So, you cannot offer or seek paid-for sex in a public space without breaking the law. The outcome of this is that sex workers are less likely to report exploitation and abuse to the police for fear of being prosecuted themselves. Or if they do, police can be more concerned with targeting the victim – the sex worker – than whoever they reported.
The ‘Nordic Model’, which seeks to reduce demand by criminalising the buying of sex but not the selling, only exacerbates these problems. It pushes the sex industry further underground, making it less likely prostitutes will report violence against them. Also, it castrates the (often) woman of her basic right to agency and autonomy. Author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill says
(men) are defined as morally superior to the woman
Not only does it unjustly criminalise the man, but the woman also cannot legally give consent, so it’s far from being the feminist solution it’s hailed as.
Further, the total eradication of the industry is a pipe dream and criminalisation just wastes police resources chasing it. Resources that should be redirected on the real crimes of violence and abuse.
Fundamentally, it is down to the individual to choose what they do with their body. It is very authoritarian to tell two consenting adults what they can and can’t do privately. However, the socioeconomic conditions in which people make decisions is important. Under this government, we have seen a huge fall in wages and a rise in people having to work a 48 hour week to get by. Reports show that austerity measures can push young people into prostitution for financial security.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, just held a meeting in Westminster for sex workers and academics to give evidence for decriminalisation. Catherine Healy, co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, said:
I will be putting before UK parliamentarians the most up-to-date, comprehensive information which demonstrates the measurable improvements in sex workers health and safety since the Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised prostitution in 2003.
The New Zealand model of full decriminalisation has been an improvement for who it should serve: the sex workers themselves. According to an independent review, 90% of sex workers feel it gives them real legal, employment, health and safety rights. The industry has not increased in size, as opponents feared.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and Amnesty International have all called for decriminalisation. Both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are long term supporters. There could be a promising future for sex workers under this Labour opposition. Meanwhile, the current government will stick their noses into all manner of people’s private lives, but let the financial sector run amok. As observed by one blogger, the Tories will regulate wanking before they regulate banking.
In any debate, the most important people to listen to are those experiencing the issue. In this Novara Media video, Eleanor Penny interviews leading sex worker activists in the UK. Here, the need for full decriminalisation as a means of harm reduction crystallises. Workers give first hand accounts of how UK prostitution laws function to criminalise and endanger them.
Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons.
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