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.)

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.