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As our MPs gather evidence on decriminalising sex work, they need facts – not the old myths

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell is hosting a symposium organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes, giving politicians a chance to hear expert analysis.

Sex worker rights activists from around the world will join researchers and experts to present evidence to parliament in support of the decriminalisation of sex work.

The day-long symposium, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes and hosted by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is an opportunity for parliamentarians and the public to sidestep the charged emotion of international debates on the nature of sex work and hear crime-related, humanitarian, and public health analyses from leading academics and campaigners.

In today's political world, MPs and their staff can find themselves overwhelmed with a torrent of information; strapped for time, lawmakers are especially vulnerable to being misled by inaccurate material. At the request of MPs for well-referenced and accessible information on sex work, this week's symposium will explore issues related to health and safety, criminalisation, austerity, and trafficking. 

"Its primary purpose is to provide a body of evidence on the success of decriminalisation and the impact of criminalisation on sex workers to parliamentarians in an easy and accessible form. It’s scrupulous and high quality - the stuff from academics is peer reviewed, and the stuff from the sex worker organisations is absolutely unanswerable", says ECP spokeswoman Niki Adams.

Although only a few dozen of the 650 MPs have indicated that they will be able to attend part or all of the day, the symposium’s report will be filed in the House of Commons Library, where it will serve as a convenient reference for future policymaking. Adams comments:

"By the end of the symposium we will be in a position to write up the event into a report that serves as the definitive source of information on prostitution for parliamentarians for every aspect of parliamentary work, including policy, debates and proposed laws."

Even in the age of Google, when researchers can bring up easily available - and conflicting - statistics with the touch of a button, such a report can be crucial.

"When we were fighting the amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that would have brought in the criminalisation of clients, if we had had something we could have directed parliamentarians to on decriminalisation, on the issue of safety, we would have been in a much stronger position; MPs were being bombarded with false information from the End Demand campaign, like ‘the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen’ and ‘ninety five percent of sex workers are drug users.’ We answered it, but this symposium is to lay down, as a definitive document, the crucial information about the success of decriminalisation."

Although the event is not tagged to any particular bill or proposal, it aims to encourage support for the full decriminalisation of sex work in the UK, including removal of the laws around brothel-keeping, managing, soliciting and kerb-crawling. The symposium will compare the outcomes of Sweden’s criminalisation of the buying of sex with the full decriminalisation model that has flourished in New Zealand.

One the chief architects and promoters of New Zealand’s sex work law, Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, will speak tomorrow on how the law works and how it has benefitted New Zealand sex workers.

The Prostitution Reform Act was brought in in 2003 after a sustained effort by sex worker rights campaigners to convince New Zealand lawmakers that decriminalisation would improve health and safety. Under the Act, a range of activities related to sex work - such as working together, working on the street, solicitation and kerb crawling - were made legal.

Since it was enacted, a government review committee has determined that there has not been any increase in sex work or trafficking, despite the fears of opponents. Healy says:

"We’ve had twelve years of experience - the Act was brought in in 2003, and the purpose was supporting the rights of sex workers and protecting them from exploitation - which makes this quite unusual in law, because the laws surrounding sex workers were not about protecting them - more about everybody else. It’s removed the impediments for sex workers to seek help when needed - for instance, a group of sex workers were being harassed by students in an apartment blocks. They called the police on their mobile phones and said, ‘we don’t have to take this - we can actually be out here working, meeting our clients on the street.’ The police responded - they had a meeting, and discussed with the sex workers how they can be protected from this kind of harassment."

In this case, the police were even sensitive to the fact that their patrols could disrupt customers, and discussed how they could work with the sex workers in a complementary way.

"These sorts of relationships with police could not be built under a criminalised regime. Prior to criminalisation the police would come undercover, pretend to be clients and a week later come to arrest us after we had forgotten who they were. It’s not to say that everything’s perfect, but the decriminalisation of sex work activities such as soliciting in a public place is a starting point. Building a relationship and getting trust going has been really important, but the dynamic has shifted; has made their work, in trying to solve crime, has made their relationship with the sex workers significantly better - and that translates to safer communities all around. People know they are entitled to rights and can realise those rights, and nobody, even the naysayers, wants to return to the old system."

The symposium will not present the New Zealand model in isolation. Pye Jakobsson, a campaigner who lives in Sweden, where the purchase of sex has been criminalised since 1999, will report on the law’s results, which have included increased violence, stigma and risk for sex workers.

Like so many aspects of law, criminalisation disproportionately affects people of colour, immigrants, and people in less developed countries; activists from Thailand, Taiwan, Canada and South Africa will explain how criminalisation, rescue and rehabilitation programs have affected sex workers there.

Rachel West, an American sex worker rights activist, will explore how a recent surge in anti-trafficking policing has disproportionately affected black sex workers and their clients:

"Sex work is very heavily criminalised in the US; there’s a lot of enforcement of laws against sex workers and clients, and law enforcement does enormous operations and sweeps. There’s a national operation called Operation Cross Country, done in the name of finding victims of child trafficking, but if you look more closely at the operation, which is being conducted by the FBI, homeland security, immigration authorities and local law enforcement, these are massive operations. The last round of the operation covered 135 cities in the US. They arrest thousands, and found 139 sexually exploited children, but in practice it’s really a crackdown on prostitution. In practice, they end up arresting adults for prostitution related charges, drug charges, or even not having a massage license. And what we are finding is that the operations often target low income communities of colour."

One particular problem in the US is the spread of the misguided narrative that conflates voluntary sex work with trafficking. In West’s home state of California, a change in the prostitution laws, known as Proposition 35, has expanded the definition of trafficking to include nearly any form of aid or consideration given to a sex worker - even giving lifts or shelter - and vastly increased penalties and fines, as well as requiring that those convicted register as sex offenders.

“There was a report done recently with statistics saying that 47 per cent of men who had been labelled as traffickers in San Francisco were black,” says West. “And in terms of prostitution laws, it’s black women working on the street who are getting swept up and sent to prison. This is in a city where the percentage of black people is about 5.6 per cent. What does that say?” she asks.

According to West, immigrants are also disproportionately likely to be swept up in Operation Cross Country raids. “The people swept up in the so-called anti-trafficking initiatives are black and immigrant people, for example in the massage parlours where a lot of Asian women work. Women are getting arrested and then deported as a result.”

Alongside these reports from campaigners, the symposium will also offer the perspectives of researchers who have challenged the conventional wisdom about sex work. In 2012, Tory London Assembly member Andrew Boff penned a report on the policing of off-street sex work and trafficking in London, which he will present tomorrow. In preparing the report, Boff spoke to sex workers, service providers and police, and focused particularly on increased police activity around the 2012 Olympics. He says:

"The whole point of the report was to make the important connection that sex workers are unwilling to report crimes against them and they are under the impression that the police will take enforcement, action against them if they do. I think we proved in the report the consequences of that - we called for new protocols to be put into place in the policing of sex work and those are in the process of being considered by the college of police officers nationwide. I am hoping those will be produced by the end of the year to the point where they can point local police forces in the direction of an appropriate and sensitive policing strategy that protects sex workers."

According to Boff, London police have, like their counterparts elsewhere, used trafficking laws to accomplish other purposes - such as deportation of immigrants or gentrification.

"We hear unsubstantiated figures being thrown around which are based on no evidence, saying that there is an extricable link between human trafficking and sex work. No such link exists. Sex work is one of those things that people who are trafficked can be made to do. But if you want to protect people that are being trafficked, in modern slavery, you will get a whole lot more people if you closed down nail salons, or stopped making dope or didn’t go to Indian restaurants."

Professor Nicola Mai of Kingston University will be examining the relationship between sex work policing and migration more broadly. His research project, Embodied Borders, focuses on the experiences of migrant sex workers in France and the UK. The study, which includes ethnographic, survey and filmmaking components, takes special care to avoid the influence of onlookers, such as managers and pimps, and to reach those sex workers who are rarely involved in research (most studies are skewed from the outset as they only involve those sex workers who are already seeking help).

As a part of the study, peer researchers interviewed 500 sex workers in France and the UK, finding that about 98 per cent of sex workers oppose the criminalisation of clients. Even the threat of such a law has a dangerous impact. In France, there has been a recent attempt to pass a bill criminalising the purchase of sex. Respondents noted that every time the bill was discussed in the media, income would decrease as the safer clients dropped away, and sex workers found they had to take more risky clients in order to earn enough money to survive. A 40-year-old Algerian sex worker who works on the streets of Marseille says:

"It is already happened. Every time there they talk about the law on TV clients go down, and then they come up again, slowly. I now do for €20 what I would not have even considered doing for €40 just a year ago. I get on cars I would not have gotten into. There are no clients. So you have to get what you can."

According to Mai, policies that are based on a sense of Western “sexual humanitarianism” serve as proxies for western countries’ larger agendas of projecting their power. Countries like the United States use tools such as the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report as instruments to advance wider geopolitical, social and economic agendas, like the eradication of sex work or controlling migration.

For activists, the symposium is only the beginning of a sustained push for decriminalisation. In the next few months, the English Collective of Prostitutes will be organising a series of roundtable events where sex workers and community stakeholders across the UK can help draft a proposal for decriminalisation legislation that can be introduced in parliament. According to Mai, the public and policy makers must make a shift, away from moral arguments, in order to realise a more just legal regime for sex work.

As I reflect on how far the sex worker rights movement has come, this notion resonates with me. In decades of sustained campaigning, sex workers have broken through the frames of victimhood that society has applied to them for generations. We have changed what sex work means in society; the moral opponents of sex work can no longer claim authority on what is best for us without being challenged by sex workers ourselves.

After the symposium ends and the chairs are all put away, the day’s report will be printed and filed alongside those of all the other groups that have brought their calls for change to parliament. That volume will serve as both a symbol that sex workers have moved from subject to agent, and a tool as we fight to enshrine our rights in law.

The English Collective of Prostitutes is hosting an evidence-gathering symposium on the Decriminalisation of Prostitution in the House of Commons on Tuesday 3 November 2015.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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