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: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.