Corbyn says we should decriminalise prostitution. Here’s what the women on the front line think

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Recently Jeremy Corbyn reaffirmed his longstanding support for the full decriminalisation of prostitution, propelling the debate into the media and public discourse.

In this article, The Canary will seek to shed some light on the debate around prostitution through exclusive interviews with sex workers, feminists, authors and academics. This article will not take a position, but simply allow space for experts and sex workers themselves to express their views.

This debate examines even the language used in its discourse. Does the term ‘sex work’ “obscure harm and damage”, or is it an “acknowledgement” of the rights of those in the industry?

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Corbyn said:

I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don’t want people to be criminalised. I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people.

Corbyn is expressing support for the New Zealand Model. The New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act fully decriminalised prostitution in 2003. In New Zealand it is legal for anyone over 18-years-old to sell or purchase sexual services. Selling sex on the street is legal, as are brothels and third parties (such as managers).

Generally speaking, the New Zealand Model represents one half of the debate. The other half supports the Nordic Model, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services with the motive of ending demand. Countries such as Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland have adopted this model.

In the first part, this article will be sectioned by the questions. Each interviewee’s answer will be provided in succession. This will allow the reader to enjoy a panoramic insight into each issue though answers from both sides of the debate.

In the second part, the interviewees will be split into those who advocate the Nordic model (the criminalisation of the buying of sexual services) and those who support the New Zealand Model (the full decriminalisation of prostitution). There will then be a different set of more specific questions for each group. There are three interviewees for each side of the debate.

Where do we stand currently in the UK?

The UK adopts neither model. Here, both sides of the transaction made in prostitution are legal. However brothels are illegal and classified as more than one person selling sex on a property. Other aspects of prostitution are also criminalised. Both picking up prostitutes on the street – ‘kerb 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.

Now, without further ado, onto the interview questions.

Would you refer to prostitution as ‘sex work’?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

I wouldn’t dream of using the deliberately obscurest term ‘sex work’ and you will find that only those who wish to deny prostitution’s degrading nature will do so. Terms that exist to obscure harm and damage have no place in any conversation about human rights. Anyway, the phrase ‘sex work’ falls at linguistics first hurdle since it describes a situation that doesn’t exist. Prostitution cannot be described as either sex or work; what is bought in prostitution is not sex, which contains mutuality as a marker of its nature. What’s sold in prostitution is sexual access, which is another matter entirely. As for the ‘work’ fallacy, inhumane and degrading treatment is not tolerated under international human rights law, never mind considered ‘work.’

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Yes. I think it’s an important distinction to make as I feel sex work needs to be recognised as work. Without this acknowledgement, it is harder to push for sex workers to have access to the same rights and safeties afforded to other types of workers. In addition, the term ‘prostitute’ is an incredibly loaded, emotive, and political term, with a lot of stigma attached to it – stigma that can be hugely damaging to women, men, and transfolk working in the sex industry. I have no objections to it per se, but I think we have to be very careful about when, where, and how we use it.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

No, because it isn’t work like any other; it is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality and one of the oldest forms of oppression of women.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Yes, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), like 100s of organisations globally, talk about the experience we have earning a living as sex work. With that we make a claim that we want human rights, we want labour rights and full protection of the law for everybody in the sex industry.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

No – that language seeks to sanitise and normalise oppression, exploitation and abuse, playing into the myth that prostitution is just like any other job. It also suggests that women and girls in prostitution are safe and in control, which is a dangerous myth.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Yes, simply because your job is something others look down upon, sometimes dangerous, physical, stigmatised, does not stop it being a job, I am not ashamed of being a prostitute, but, in the current, stigmatised world we inhabit, it’s good to emphasise sex work is work.

Do you agree with the current UK laws?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

I do not support the current UK laws, which criminalise prostituted women and all others exploited in this system. It is a ridiculous travesty to criminalise people for their own exploitation.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

No. The current laws only allow for sex work to happen in such narrow parameters that it is difficult for sex workers to ensure their safety. For example, it is illegal in this country for two workers to operate together out of flat, despite the clear benefits of working alongside a colleague as opposed to on your own. The police often adopt a fairly laissez faire approach towards policing off-street sex work, as they also tend to accept it is much safer than (lone) street based sex work. However, they are not always able to act with discretion – for example, there was a big, top-down initiative before the Olympics in 2012 to shut down known brothels and saunas in North and East London to “clean up” the area. Sex workers I spoke with at the time talked about how unsafe this made them feel, as they were forced to work in unfamiliar areas with unfamiliar people.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

No because I think all those in prostitution should be decriminalised while demand is criminalised instead. I don’t support the criminalisation of those people involved in prostitution.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Current UK laws make life more dangerous for everyone in the sex industry. They create systemic human rights abuses by making it illegal for us to work together and because of this we do not have the full protection of the law.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

No – the current laws still penalise those who sell sex, most of whom have little choice or alternative. Simultaneously, the current laws do not go far enough to tackle demand for prostitution, which is what allows this abusive trade to exist.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

No, they endanger us, because it’s illegal to work together for safety, or even have someone else on the premises (they risk being prosecuted as our pimp even if we are paying them). They mean street workers, the most vulnerable, can be arrested even just for having condoms, they place us at risk of exploitation by the police, they put our partners and children at risk of prosecution, they define sex work as “violence against women” which not only ignores all non-female sex workers, but takes away my right as an adult to decide which sex I do (and don’t) consent too.

Do you support the decriminalisation of pimps?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

Of course not. The decriminalisation of pimps, a central feature of the New Zealand model our political opponents call for, is an unthinkable proposition. It has caused large scale misery in New Zealand, and we know this from groups that work with prostituted women and girls there and from several of the women who have contacted us themselves.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Yes. Current pimping legislation in the UK is all encompassing. If I exchange sex acts for money, and contribute towards my mortgage, my partner could be prosecuted as a pimp simply because they benefit from my industry. In addition, some sex workers prefer to work with a manager, who can handle bookings and safety screenings on their behalf. We don’t call such managers ‘pimps’ in other industries. I would support legislation that criminalises cases of exploitation, abuse, and coercion – just as I would for any other industry.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

No of course not, pimping is a criminal act where someone profiteers from the exploitation of others.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

To create effective policy, we need to move away from  dramatic, sensationalised terms like ‘pimps’  and start looking at the reality of the sex industry, including the role of third parties. Rights-led campaigns, such as the 100s of sex workers organisations that are members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), oppose “all forms of criminalisation and other legal oppression of sex work (including sex workers, clients, third parties, families, partners and friends).”

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

Of course not; it makes no sense to empower the violent organised criminals who manage an abusive supply chain and pose a deadly threat to the lives of women and girls under their control.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Pimp is a loaded term, what do you mean by pimp? Under UK law, if I work with another sex worker, we can both be prosecuted as each other’s pimps; if I share a house and contribute to the bills, my housemates become pimps; same if I live with a partner. So do I think people who received money for the rape of others should be decriminalised – no, no one does, but lots of people who are called ‘pimps’ don’t fit that definition.

Do you support the full decriminalisation of prostitution?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

No. The full decriminalisation of prostitution involves the full decriminalisation of pimps, brothel owners and punters, so no, of course I do not support the full decriminalisation of wholesale sexual exploitation. Amnesty International have destroyed their international reputation with that recommendation and the worst of that scandal has yet to break. It has already been uncovered that their policy was designed with significant input from Alejandra Gil, a convicted Mexican sex trafficker, and Douglas Fox, an English pimp.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Yes. It is only with full decriminalisation that sex workers can operate safely – with recourse to legal rights, healthcare, and with the opportunity to develop a non-antagonistic relationship with the police, who could then act to protect their interests. Decriminalisation is also the legal framework most widely supported by active sex workers themselves. As an academic and a researcher – someone with social capital and a great deal of privilege – it is not my job to tell people what is best for them. It is my job to listen to them, and advocate for their rights.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

No. I support the decriminalisation of all those involved in prostitution but I believe that demand should be criminalised, by which I mean punters should be criminalised. It should be a criminal offence to buy sexual access to another person’s body; this would reduce demand and so ultimately reduce the numbers of people involved in this exploitative and dangerous industry.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Yes. The IUSW, like 100s of sex worker organisations globally, calls for the full decriminalisation of sex work, for support services that treat sex workers with respect and listen to us when we talk about our experience rather than services that promote an ideological view. For example, there are services in Sweden that assist only people who say they want to “exit”, and treat others with contempt. (Source: UNAIDS Guidance Note HIV and Sex Work April 2007; Jay Levy on Sweden)

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

No. I support the decriminalisation of anyone selling sex but not the decriminalisation of punters or pimps – which includes brothel owners –  or anyone else who profits from selling others for sex.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Yes, as New Zealand shows it protects the most vulnerable; it means street workers can take the time to assess customers; it means we can work together; it means we are protected by employment law if we work in a brothel; it removes all the laws which make sex work more dangerous, and stops police from being able to rape and abuse us (as Daniel Holtzclaw did). It’s not the state’s job to decide how consenting adults should have sex, and it is most certainly not the state’s job to make someone’s life more dangerous.

What specific model do you support?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

I support the Nordic Model, or the ‘Sex Buyers Law’ as some people have begun to call it. I think that’s unfortunate phrasing to be honest because this law does not solely focus on sex buyers, as the title suggests. It also decriminalises prostituted people and offers viable exit strategies in the areas of housing, childcare, addiction services, counselling, education and training. It is the only social justice model of dealing with prostitution on this earth.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Full decriminalisation, as has been adopted in New Zealand. The Nordic Model (criminalising clients, not workers) may seem like a good option, but it supposes that the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients is separable, when in reality it is not – research that has been conducted in countries where this model has been enacted (including research carried out by the governments themselves) shows that criminalising clients effectively criminalises workers too, creating a number of additional risks, especially for sex workers who are already marginalised. I think it is very telling that the Head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit, one of the architects of the Nordic Model, is on record as saying: “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law”.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

I support the Nordic model. This, over time, has led to a change in perspective amongst Swedish people – for example, where both women and men view prostitution as a human rights issue, not as a business or a job. I think the Nordic model sends a powerful message that society has drawn a line in the sand over what it considers acceptable, and it has said that women are not for sale, that turning others into goods is not acceptable. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, it means that society has said it does not see it as tolerable.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

We support the New Zealand model, the only place full decriminalisation has occurred on a national scale.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

I support the Nordic model; the decriminalisation of the sale of sex, the criminalistion of the purchase of sex and the provision of fully funded exit and support programmes that offer viable support to help women get out of the sex trade.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Only one model decriminalises sex work, the New Zealand one, recently anti-decriminalisation supporters have started appropriating the word ‘decriminalisation’ and saying the Nordic Model does. It does not: not one single law around sex work is removed. All the Nordic Model does is add more criminalisation, endangering us, making us less likely to report abusive clients because all clients could be arrested. Then we would end up without any income.

Intersectionality is the view that different kinds of oppression (class, race, xenophobia, homophobia, etc) are intertwined and cannot be analysed separately from each other.

How far is intersectionality applicable to prostitution?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

It depends what you mean by that. If by ‘intersectionality’ you are talking about the intersection of various forms of marginalisation and oppression I would say prostitution is clearly riven with it. No matter where you go in the world you will always find the most marginalised people grossly over-represented in prostitution, from black women in the UK to Indigenous women in Canada to impoverished working class women in the white communities of Europe. Also migrant women and homeless children like my younger self. Prostitution feeds on social vulnerabilities and it exists because many men are prepared, for the sake of an orgasm, to capitalise on that.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Extremely applicable! Many of the laws governing sex work disproportionately target women of colour, immigrants, trans men and women, and sex workers with existing mental health and/or substance abuse issues. We should be listening to what they need and want, and acting to help keep them safe and healthy. Instead too many people allow their personal, emotional, and moral feelings about selling sex (and their own conceptions of vulnerability) to drown out those voices.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

Around the world poor people, black people and first nation or indigenous people, young people, mothers, carers, children, homeless people are disproportionately represented in prostitution. The global multi billion dollar industry of prostitution thrives on inequality, and marginalisation including racism and sexism.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Looking at intersections of oppression is relevant in every situation. Absolutely, in the sex industry, there is the intersection of all kinds of different experiences: you have migrants, within that you have people who are undocumented, or people who are working in breach of their visa. You have issues of gender, race, class and sexual orientation, as well as migration, drug use, homelessness, and other kinds of disadvantages. Intersectionality is an essential way to examine what is really happening, of acknowledging and honouring diversity of experience.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

Intersectionality is important; there are so many factors that affect individual women’s experiences of oppression and exploitation. Simultaneously, the fact that the bodies of women and girls are traded as commodities in the sex trade speaks volumes about the position of women in society. That has an impact on all of us.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Intersectionality, as far as I can make out – and I am not a WoC (woman of colour) so I am even slightly uncomfortable with the question – is about understanding “people do not live single issue lives” (Audre Lorde). I am not just a sex worker; I am a woman, disabled, a mother, a carer – and maybe if you changed society, treated disabled people better, introduced basic income, I might not be a sex worker. However, you are never going to stop sex work by treating it as a single issue (male demand for sex) because that’s not why we sell sex, we sell sex because of our lives, our issues, our needs: to pay the bills, to feed our kids, to keep a roof over our heads.

While the interviewees are fundamentally divided on the solution, there is a consensus here: current UK laws are dangerous and effectively criminalise the sex workers. The law defines brothels 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.

Other aspects of prostitution are also criminalised, creating a hazy legal fog around the industry. The outcome of this is that sex workers/prostitutes 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.

Questions for supporters of the Nordic Model (Rachel Moran, Dr Finn Mackay and Janie Davies)

Does criminalising the buying of sex not effectively criminalise the act itself?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

It criminalises the infliction of the act, not the receiving of it, and in that way operates legislatively exactly like any other bill that deals with violence. Making physical assault illegal never suggested it was illegal to get beaten up.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

Hopefully it will decrease demand, by reducing the numbers of men buying sexual access to the bodies of others in prostitution. Those involved in the prostitution industry will not be criminalised.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

No; there would be no legal provision for criminalising the sale of sex. However, criminalising the purchase of sex is designed to reduce demand and shrink the sex trade, helping more women to exit and making it easier to prosecute those who cause harm.

Does criminalising the buying of sex not push the industry further underground, making it less likely prostitutes will report violence against them?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

Swedish police say, and studies from Sweden indicate, that women are much more likely to report now, and that violence is much less likely to happen in the first place. The prostitutors (people buying sex) know they are on the wrong side of the law to begin with, and the women they’re prostituting are safer as a result of it. This is in line with conversations I’ve had with women in Swedish prostitution. The propaganda that Swedish women wholly reject the legislation is simply not true. Even pro-prostitution research records rape within Swedish prostitution as being down by half since the implementation of the law.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

Unfortunately there will always be an underground in this industry – this happens even in places where brothels are legal. Think about it – there will always be people who are trafficked, who can’t afford to work legally, who are here without papers, underage, being pimped etc…so there is always an ‘underground’ sector even alongside a legal sex industry.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

No. Women who have been in prostitution in both legalised and criminalised areas have reported that they have less recourse against punters who are regarded as “clients” by brothel owners and therefore permitted to behave as they like, which fuels violence. And in Leeds, a managed red light zone has recently been created and there were a murder and two reported rapes during the pilot period. Furthermore, where the purchase of sex is criminalised, trafficking falls. But where it is decriminalised, trafficking rises because pimps and punters are given a green light.

If the buying of sex is criminalised but not the selling, (predominantly) men are held responsible for their actions but not (predominantly) women. Does this system not therefore define men as morally superior to women?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

This argument cannot be framed without the sort of complete obliviousness that would allow an unawareness of prostitution as violence, and I don’t suffer from that intellectual impediment.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

You are judging the actions of men and women here as if they are comparable; but they are not. Women in prostitution are simply trying to survive financially, to feed a family, to pursue choices in limited options – they aren’t doing anything wrong. The men who buy access to others in prostitution have lots of choices, they don’t have to choose to commodify others in prostitution and they should be encouraged to choose not to; because it is wrong to buy sexual access to another person like you would buy a pizza or kebab at the end of a night out; human beings are not commodities, women are not things to be bought.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

The question itself shows a misunderstanding of the model and of the dynamics of the sex trade. The Nordic model decriminalises anyone selling sex, whether it’s a man or a woman, and it criminalises anyone paying for sex, whether that’s a man or a woman. Still, the vast majority of those selling sex are women while the vast majority of those paying for sex are men, reflecting structural oppression of women.

We live in a world where people sell their body and time to purchase food, shelter and other basic necessities. It can be argued most people are exploited in the workplace in order to receive the means to live. What’s the difference between selling your body for sex and selling your body in a factory?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

It should be argued that most people are exploited in the workplace in order to receive the means to live; it’s an essential critique of capitalist patriarchy. Nothing about that fact means we should close our eyes to exploitation that has well crossed the line into human rights violations. There are numerous major differences between selling your time and physical exertion in a factory and submitting to ritualistic unwanted sexual bodily invasion in a brothel, one being that what is identified as ‘work’ in a brothel would be punishable under sexual harassment laws in a factory.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

You don’t sell sexual access to your body in a factory, you sell your labour. There’s a huge difference in our understanding and in law between selling your labour and selling sexual access to your body itself. The prostitution industry turns the bodies of women, young people and young men into goods themselves.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

If you mean what’s the difference between working in a factory and being at severe risk of rape and abuse, and having a hugely inflated risk of sexually transmitted infections, that’s self-explanatory.

What happens to “most people” in the workplace is not comparable to being abused, raped and murdered. Leading research shows about 50% of prostituted women have been raped, about 70% have been otherwise assaulted and 80% are controlled by pimps. The average age to enter prostitution is 14-15 years old; 14-15 year olds, in Europe at least, are not supposed to be in the workplace at all. Everyone recognises that there is a line between work and exploitation whether that is sweatshops, drug-running or prostitution. This is not an argument about sex but about unconscionable exploitation.

Does criminalising the buying of sex actually work? If so, can you provide empirical evidence for this?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

The Swedish Skarhead report was published eleven years after the implementation of the Swedish Model and recorded a fifty percent drop in street prostitution and no evidence whatsoever of an indoor rise out of step with that of neighbouring countries. Trafficking is down, which is unsurprising, given Sweden is now a famously hostile territory to traffic women into. We need to remember that pimping and trafficking gangs are concerned with money and only with money, and so if you make a country more difficult for them to profit by operating in they will and do simply move on to the next politically vulnerable territory. On the other hand, everywhere in the world where prostitution has been legalised/decriminalised trafficking has increased. As to sex-buying men in Sweden, the same report shows their numbers to have decreased dramatically, which is also unsurprising when you consider the normative impact of any law.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

Evidence from Sweden suggests that it has reduced the numbers of people involved in street prostitution, the numbers of minors involved, and also that it has reduced trafficking for sexual exploitation – the country is no longer such an attractive target country for traffickers. However, it has not stopped prostitution, but surveys suggest most Swedes support the law and it has changed their opinion on this industry with most now viewing it as a human rights issue. Given what we know about the prostitution industry, the less people in it the better.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

Yes, Sweden criminalised the purchase of sex in 1999 and the number of people exploited in prostitution has dropped by about half. The percentage of men paying for sex has also dropped. Not one prostituted woman has been murdered by a punter since the Nordic model was introduced. By contrast there have been nine murders in New Zealand since decriminalisation took place there.

Is it not very authoritarian to tell consenting adults what they can and can’t do privately?

Rachel Moran, ex-prostitute, women’s rights activist, international speaker and best-selling author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution.

I do hope anybody who holds that view at least has the courage of their convictions and follows the logic through to its obvious conclusion, which would be to find all legislation inappropriately authoritarian in nature. The truth is we need laws to govern human behaviour, given such a sizable minority of us are willing to abuse and exploit each other. As to the privacy element of this question, it is irrelevant in my view. Nobody would argue that a man beating his wife behind closed doors was any less violent than his doing so out in the street. We have moved on, thankfully, in our understanding of domestic violence. It’s well past time we did the same with prostitution.

Dr Finn Mackay, Founder of London Feminist Network and author of Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism In Movement.

We have laws against all sorts of things, just because adults want to do something it doesn’t make it right. Society should not condone the buying and selling of sexual access to people’s bodies just because a minority of men think they have a right to buy sexual services whenever they want them. It isn’t normal that men can pick up the phone and order a woman, it is time society acknowledged that something is very wrong when we think this is okay.

Janie Davies, activist, journalist and a volunteer for the UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.

Not when punters’ money is funding a trade in which about 90% of the women involved are not there out of choice. The few who claim to be there out of choice should not take precedence over the 90%.  Prostitution is recognised by the Crown Prosecution Service as a form of violence against women and it perpetuates women’s oppression. We should have no qualms telling people not to support it.

Questions for those who support the New Zealand Model (Dr Lucy Neville, Catherine Stephens and Sinead)

Is decriminalisation not commodifying sex?

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

My focus as an advocate for decriminalisation is on worker health and safety, which needs to take precedence over wider, more emotional feelings about the value, importance, and place of sex. But yes, sex work – of many types – commodifies sex. So does marketing, advertising, the fashion industry – the list is endless. We live in a society where sex, and the sexed body, is often treated as a commodity. Is this a bad thing? I would say yes and no. I’m a feminist, and am deeply concerned about the negative effects of the commodification of the female body. On the other hand, Brian McNair writes very articulately about how the commodification of sex has actually led to a whole raft of rights for previously marginialised groups, such as women, gay people, transgendered people, queer people etc.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Women and our sexual behaviour has been commodified and objectified under the patriarchy for centuries: Marriage law used to be about a transfer of a woman as property from father to husband. The view that women are commodities persists in legislation around the sex industry in attempts to criminalise our consent. So decriminalising is the opposite of commodifying. It’s saying: this is a group of people entitled to full human rights and the right to make decisions about our own bodies.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Well I googled commodifying, and frankly ban hollywood, the music industry, make up, advertising, romance novels, the sun, then get back to me with student debate club questions. I just want to be able to scream for help the next time I am raped.

Is decriminalisation not enshrining the sexual exploitation of (predominantly) poorer women, by (predominantly) wealthier men into law?

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

Firstly, I would stress the important point that decriminalising something is not the same as legalising it. These two things are very different, and have very different legal consequences. So nothing would be “enshrined into law” by decriminalising the selling of sex between two consenting adults – it would simply mean that neither party would face harassment and arrest as a result of this transaction. I am also aware of how easy it is to casually phrase things in ways that enforce the idea that most sex workers are women and most clients are men – this bias (even if true) means that male and transgendered sex workers are still incredibly under-researched and under-supported. Finally, I think this question as a whole relates to capitalism. The capitalist model is one in which poorer people – often women, globally speaking – are exploited by wealthier people – often men, globally speaking. I do have a problem with this and I think we need to look at how we can make the world fairer and more equal; but the situation is certainly not unique to the sex industry.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Absolutely not. This is about saying that a women’s consent to sex is her own to give. A women’s sexual behaviour does not determine whether she is an acceptable member of society.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

You seem to have confused decriminalisation with capitalism, again, harm reduction is about making real women’s lives safer. Once we have a revolution, and all poorer people are not exploited by richer, maybe we can discuss this. I do think it’s funny that one of the few jobs where women are paid better than men is apparently exploitation, though.

Won’t decriminalisation encourage global people trafficking?

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

No. There simply aren’t enough reliable statistics out there to support this view. Trafficking has not increased in New Zealand, contrary to concern at the time decriminalisation was introduced. In countries where sex work is legalised (and I am not advocating legalisation), data has been mixed with some studies showing an increase in trafficking, and some a decrease. Even studies which have found an increase warn that there are many other benefits to removing criminal sanctions from sex work – namely, worker safety – and that the figures themselves are unreliable due to the clandestine nature of what is under investigation. There is also a persistent danger of trafficking figures being conflated with illegal immigration figures – these two types of movements of people are quite different. A sex worker who is an (illegal) economic migrant is not necessarily ‘trafficked’ as many would understand it.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Migration and trafficking are symptoms of wider inequalities – economic, political – a whole range of problems across the world. The evidence that we have around trafficking, for example, from New Zealand, shows no evidence of an increase in trafficking. There is no evidence that demand for commercial sex is the primary cause of trafficking: trafficking occurs in the sex industry for the same reasons it occurs in other industries, but is facilitated by criminalisation. For example, in the UK sex industry, everyone who comes into contact with victims of trafficking – clients and people who work in brothels or escort agencies – is at risk of arrest if they contact the police.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rapes, including by clients.

New Zealand shows no increase in trafficking (why would it, trafficking is illegal, when sex work is fully legal there is no profit motive to drive trafficking).

Is the sex industry inherently abusive? Will decriminalisation solve this?

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

There certainly is abuse and exploitation within the industry. Decriminalisation won’t solve this – I don’t see it as some utopian fix for a perfect world – but it could help. We know that laws help shape public perception, and when any aspect of an industry is criminalised, stigma is fuelled. Studies have shown that men who see sex work as just another type of job are less likely to be violent towards workers. In a decriminalised industry, it also becomes a lot more straightforward for the police to target real abusers – violent clients, exploitative and aggressive pimps, and traffickers.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

As somebody who’s worked in the sex industry for about 16 years, I know from my own personal experience that trading sex for money is not inherently abusive. What is abusive is the denial of human rights to people in the industry. Decriminalisation would solve that, in that it would grant us these basic rights. So, for example in New Zealand, there has been numerous cases where a client has been prosecuted for removing or seeking to remove a condom thereby endangering the sex worker’s health. Is there a magic bullet in terms of removing stigma for people who sell sex? Absolutely not. When homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 it did not eradicate stigma, but it’s an essential first step.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

Is capitalism inherently abusive, will a revolution solve this? Is marriage inherently abusive? Statistics certainly suggest so. Are uncles inherently abusive? My life experience says yes. Decriminalisation means we can work without fear of arrest, of being prosecuted as pimps, of having our children removed, of being made homeless, of being abused if we report our rapes to support services or the police. The current system is inherently abusive. Sex work is no more or less abusive than any other form of sex, or work.

Is decriminalising prostitution not the same as decriminalising rape? Except instead of an individual’s aggression, the threat is a systemic one where the victim needs money to survive.

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

I could certainly provide a highfalutin answer to this, bringing in my Foucault and my Zizek  and giving props to systemic violence. Systemic violence does exist, and it is a problem. However, my straight talking answer would be that to equate rape (where there is NO consent) with sex work (where this is consent) is pretty gross, and pays a massive disservice to rape survivors. It also pushes us towards a dangerous trap where we don’t recognise that rape can, and does, happen to sex workers (after all, if they’re being raped every time they do their job, then what’s the difference?) Now, we could argue that consent because you need money to survive isn’t true consent – but this brings us back to issues with capitalism, not sex work per se.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

I think it’s an insult to people who have been victims from sexual violence to say needing money is the same as being raped. People make economic choices for a whole range of different reasons. Everybody makes decisions based upon the options available. Rape is the refusal to acknowledge that people have any right to say no.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

This is an incredibly insulting question especially to a survivor of rape and serious child sexual abuse. By asking it you say that I do not know the difference between sex I consent to and sex I do not consent to. By your offensive analogy everyone who works to pay the bills is a slave, since they only work to survive. I know what rape is, I know what consensual sex is – I know the difference, do you?

Will decriminalisation not prolong and normalise the industry?

Dr Lucy Neville, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, feminist.

If anything is “prolonging and normalising the industry” it is poverty and austerity economics. I would say, if the question is: ‘do my kids go without dinner tonight, or do I sell sex?’, what responsible policy makers should be doing is not removing the ‘or do I sell sex?’ option. ‘My kids go without dinner tonight’ is not an acceptable answer to that question. What responsible policy makers should be doing is improving the provision of state benefits, education, training, and alternative employment opportunities, not seeking to ‘end demand’ for sex work. If you think sex work only arises out of poverty, then poverty is your enemy, not prostitution. I personally think sex work has value and pleasure associated with it, and can be a very positive experience for both sellers and buyers. But even if you don’t think that – or in cases where there is clearly misery and unhappiness – your anger should be focused in the fight to give people access to basic standards of living, so they don’t have to compromise themselves. Not cutting off the only avenue they have left.

Catherine Stephens, sex worker, representative of the grassroots organisation the International Union of Sex Workers.

Given that the sex industry has existed, as far as I’m aware, for the entire span of recorded human history then certainly, criminalisation has done nothing to tackle that. The idea that it might mean the sex industry would exist for longer is highly questionable. My ideal is a world in which every adult is able to make decisions for themselves, from the widest range of options. That would include decisions about sex and how they earn a living. The key issue for me is not if people are trading sex for money. All the decisions people make are worthy of respect. I want a world that does not ignore a woman’s ability to consent to sex, as we have seen with the Nordic Model.

Sinead, a disabled mum who supports her family as a sex worker. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, including by clients.

I certainly hope so, why do you think that’s a bad thing?

Summary

What characterises the division between each side of the debate seems to be one’s view on the nature of the act of prostitution.

Supporters of the Nordic Model appear to see prostitution as inherently abusive. While other forms of work can be described as exploitative under capitalism, they see prostitution as being on another level. Within prostitution, the purchaser is always exploiting the seller and this differentiates prostitution from other forms of exploitative work. Whereas the transaction involved in, for example, buying a vegetable does not represent exploitation in the same way, even if people were not paid the proper value of their labour for their role in the production of the vegetable. Linguistically, they refuse to even recognise ‘sex work’, arguing that this type of exploitation should not be legitimised by such language.

Supporters of the New Zealand Model appear to see prostitution as in the same ballpark as other types of exploitation under capitalism. They recognise that it is more prone to abuse than other industries but think that any form of criminalisation is an obstacle to addressing these abuses. Linguistically, they want it recognised as ‘sex work’ so it is perceived as work like any other, in order to remove social stigma. They want people to be able to sell sexual services without the legal obstacles that arise from criminalising parts of the industry.

However, the debate does not rest solely on ethics but primarily on how effective each system is in reducing harm to sex workers themselves. When one side of any debate is found to hold morals or their ideology over how effective a policy is at reducing harm in the concrete world, that side of the debate loses. Until conclusive evidence is compiled it is hard to know which side that is.

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-Support the New Zealand model? Help the International Union of Sex Workers.

-Support the Nordic Model? Take action with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Featured image via Twitter, 1, 2, 3 and 4.

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