Sex work and the prohibitionists

Can we take criminal law out of the lives of sex workers?

The British do like to ban things. It is one of our national vices.

And the things we often like to ban are what other people get up to. We tend to believe that our moral disgust or ideological certainty about what other people do converts easily into legal prohibitions. To ban something, we seem to assume, is to eliminate it. Writing out a new page in a statute book is seen as somehow having the same effect as casting a spell: if we use just the right form of words, and are sufficiently solemn in doing so, we believe we can change reality.

Political debates can thereby be limited to whether something "should be banned". Rarely addressed are the more important questions of whether something can be "banned" and what may be the unforeseen consequences of having a ban. These are seen as second order concerns. It does not seem to matter how or whether the ban will work in practice: the deplored activity must be prohibited. It shouldn't be allowed.

However, to "ban" something is not to eliminate it; it merely means that future incidents of it may be attended by different legal and other consequences than it otherwise would have.

There is no one explanation as to why the clamour to ban things has such a central role in our political discourse. One possible reason is that the progressive widening of the franchise, and the attendant development of our democratic culture, was in respect of control of the legislature, and not the executive directly. Politicians could gain support by promising to make laws rather than actually doing things: "vote for me and I can ban this for you". Another possible explanation is the latent Puritanism in our national culture has long mixed with that popular deference to the rule of law which EP Thompson traced back to the early 1700s: so when we do not like something, we instantly think of the law as the best way to stop it.

This is not a simple left/right issue. Both conservatives and radicals want to ban things: different things, of course, but the political reflex is very much the same. Only the topics vary: fox-hunting, smoking, abortions, pornography, sado-masochism, recreational drug use, and so on. Everyone seems to want to ban something which other people do.

And so the news last week that the government is again thinking of criminalising those who pay sex workers comes as no great surprise.

Indeed, it seems our government is again "looking to Sweden" in respect of how to deploy the criminal law in the context of sex work, as if invoking the name of a Scandinavian country is enough to cloak an illiberal and grubby initiative with the soft glow of freshly-fallen Nordic snow.

In fact, our domestic laws regarding sex work are a complete mess.

Their general effect is to marginalise sex workers socially and to surround them with those whose conduct is at instant risk of criminalization. This is neither sensible nor safe for the sex workers.

Threats of criminal convictions are more likely only to deter someone from detectable types of behaviour than to deter them from refraining from the deplored behaviour altogether.

Criminalization really needs to be taken out of sex work, unless there is evidence of trafficking. (And the purported evidence for widespread trafficking has been discredited by Nick Davies and Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon amongst others).

A wiser approach to the law and policy of sex work was last week shown by a female Canadian judge, in a 132-page judgment which is both beautifully-written and a superb exercise in progressive jurisprudence.

Judge Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice struck down a range of prohibitions related to sex work policy. She came down on the side of the "right of prostitutes to express themselves in an effort to protect their personal safety". Furthermore, she notes "by increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the [provision banning communications for the purposes of prostitution] is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance".

This judgment of Judge Susan Himel is humane and refreshing. It applies the law in a liberal and proportionate way. It takes seriously the concerns and interests of sex workers. It is a judgment which should be read by every person with an interest in the topic. One only hopes it will not be appealed.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He was shortlisted for the George Orwell blogging prize in 2010. On 18 October 2010 he will be chairing a talk at Westminster Skeptics by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (with a reply to be given by Dr Brooke Magnanti) on the Law and Policy of Sex Work.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.