When I became a sex worker, I thought I was entering a marginal, grey area, as far away from politics as any occupation can be. Instead, I found myself part of a growing movement of sex workers fighting for our livelihoods – and winning. Worldwide, sex workers are facing crackdowns, but on 4 November, for the first time, British sex workers participated fully in the political process at Westminster, stopping legislation that would criminalise the purchase of sexual services. In decades past, sex work and party politics rarely mixed, except in reports of scandals. Our victory reflects changes in social attitudes towards sexuality, and marks a political turning point. In the lead-up to the general election, we have the chance to move the debate forwards, towards the full decriminalisation of sex work.
In order to illustrate what’s changed, it’s best to describe what happened a few weeks ago in Parliament. On 28 October, Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart added two clauses to the Modern Slavery Bill that would criminalise the clients of sex workers In England and Wales. This approach, referred to as the Nordic Model, has spread worldwide since its inception in Sweden in 1999, and it’s often seen as a progressive step, because it aims to end demand. Unfortunately, it just pushes sex work further underground and makes it more dangerous. Sex workers worldwide have spoken up against the approach in all of its manifestations, but have often failed. Canada’s version of the law, C-36, was recently passed after that country’s Supreme Court threw out its existing laws against brothel-keeping, and Northern Ireland’s Assembly criminalised the clients of its sex workers in October. With her amendments, snuck into the coalition’s prize bill only eight days before its reading, MacTaggart and her supporters hoped to bring the Nordic Model here with almost no notice or debate.
In an article offering a rare insight into the thoughts and motivations of clients, Lucy Fisher called what happened next an “uproar by pressure groups”. The English Collective of Prostitutes, a national campaigning group for sex workers, catalysed that uproar with an email. “We sent out the call for people to write first of all to the Modern Slavery Bill committee, and then to their MPs, and to copy us in, and it was overwhelming, the response…It was like hundreds of people, a combination of individuals and organisations, loads and loads of sex workers,” says ECP spokesperson Laura Watson. Dozens also lobbied their MPs on the phone or in person, and parliamentarians were blasted with anti-criminalisation briefings from left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell. The ECP provided meticulous research and arguments (pdf) to anyone wishing to contact their MP, and organised a lobbying day and an information session for MPs. Supporters of their campaign included academics specialising in sex work, the Royal College of Nursing, churches, trade unionists, several prominent government-funded sex work projects, women’s organisations, and the Safety First Coalition, which formed in Ipswich after the murder of five street-based workers.
In justifying why the policy should be appended to the Modern Slavery Bill, MacTaggart had claimed that criminalising clients would reduce trafficking and violent crime against sex workers, but quickly moved on to her real hope – that it would reduce demand. At Westminster, campaigners met her claims head on, and with their experience of sex work, put things into context. MacTaggart had often cited a study claiming that sex work had decreased in Sweden, but more recent research (pdf), supported by Swedish sex work organisations, shows that there is no evidence of reduced demand, and that the incidence of sex work has possibly increased. Formerly street-based workers in Sweden have also moved indoors, working out of their own homes or in a new profusion of massage parlours. The sex workers’ plea to MPs emphasised that criminalising measures drive our work more deeply, and more dangerously, underground. In one sobering example, Edinburgh street-based sex workers reported that attacks had nearly doubled after kerb-crawling was made illegal. Women had resorted to arranging meetings on isolated streets to avoid arrest, becoming easier targets. Supporters Women Against Rape pointed out that: “To target men who have not been accused of violence just because they purchase sexual services, diverts police time and resources away from reported rapes and sexual assaults.”
Campaigners offered New Zealand as a positive example. In 2003, they decriminalised soliciting and brothel-keeping, and established regulatory standards in consultation with sex worker organisations. In that country, sex workers can work together for safety and advertise freely; they are subject to labour law and to health and safety regulations. Well regarded research indicates that sex workers safety and human rights have improved since decriminalisation.
MacTaggart has claimed that the majority of sex workers were coerced in some fashion – a view based on discredited statistics, and one for which she has been taken to task before. But her main weapons are insults that obscure the experiences of many sex workers. She calls sex work an extreme form of exploitation, and has said that nobody would want their daughter to grow up to be a prostitute. To counter this, another goal of the lobbying efforts was to give MPs a chance to learn about our lives. We don’t fit the stereotypes of us portrayed in the media; neither the trope of the downtrodden street-walking sex worker or that of the high-class escort describe us. Most of us are ordinary members of the community, from diverse backgrounds, working voluntarily to earn a living and support our families. Sex work is a discreet industry, but in parting the veil of secrecy to speak to our MPs, we humanised ourselves to parliamentarians who might not have ever talked to one of us before.
The campaign produced results. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper offered an alternate amendment, calling for consultation review of the links between sex work and sexual exploitation, and some signatories to the MacTaggart amendment withdrew their names. ECP activists, who kept in close touch with the office of John McDonnell, felt cautiously optimistic. Just before the debate, it was decided that MacTaggart would not press her amendment. The debate went on as scheduled; after MacTaggart and her supporters’ insults, both McDonnell and Tory MP Crispin Blunt made impassioned speeches exhorting Parliament to listen to sex workers. Refusing to give way to MacTaggart, Blunt said, “It is a pity, given the trouble the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) took to draw attention to this group of people, that the hon. Lady did not take the trouble to listen to them. Had she done so, I cannot believe that she would have come to this view because the unintended consequence of her proposal would be to put the people whom she is trying to help in peril. That is a serious mistake.” As the activists watched from the gallery, both the Cooper and the MacTaggart amendments fell. To our surprise and delight, we had won.
While Labour had mandated that its members support Cooper’s call for review, the Liberal Democrats, strong supporters of decriminalisation of sex work, whipped against the MacTaggart Nordic Model amendment, and the Tories had had no whip. “The vote shows that there is widespread opposition against criminalising clients,” says Watson. “MacTaggart had cross-party support from 31 MPs, which is not nothing, that is substantial support on her behalf, and we overthrew that. The clause was described as a ‘controversial clause’. That’s our campaigning,” she says. That the amendments were dropped foreshadows an inevitable and necessary debate about the role of sex work in society. That debate is not determined by one vote, but it will be shaped by the general election in May 2015.
What issues should sex workers and supporters consider in the voting booth? In some ways, we are set apart, because of the ways in which our work is criminalised. From the ban on brothel-keeping to restrictions on kerb-crawling, policies that restrict our work can often serve to make us, our clients, and our families less safe. Criminalising our clients while keeping the sale of sexual services legal may seem like a noble goal, but it only serves to marginalise us further. Thus, a continued opposition to criminalisation, and a forceful push for the full decriminalisation of our work, must be our primary concern on election day.
In other ways, despite being criminalised, we share the same social, economic and family concerns as other voters. In that sense, sex work is an austerity issue. In an economy of zero hours contracts and fewer jobs with a living wage, sex work is frequently taken up by single parents, carers and those whose health or disabilities preclude working a mainstream job. People forced off incapacity benefit, those hit by the bedroom tax, students working to pay fees, and anyone else made desperate by austerity might choose to take up sex work, and that very desperation means that these workers are among the most vulnerable to exploitation. For those moralists who wish to decrease the number of sex workers and to eradicate coercion in the trade, economic recovery is a surer route to their goal than criminalisation.
Cuts in services are likely to affect sex workers and their families; for example, cuts to the NHS increase wait times for appointments and treatments for sexually transmitted infections. Cuts to drug rehabilitation programs add to addiction-fuelled sex work; cuts to homeless services and social housing push more people into survival-based sex work. Cuts to police make violence and coercion harder to report. Anything that increases vulnerability and precariousness, particularly for women, increases the frequency of survival sex work, so economic policy and social policy as a whole are core issues for us.
Although the majority of sex workers are British citizens, many immigrants are found among our numbers, so immigration policy is also our concern. Those who cannot find enough work, those who are ineligible for essential benefits such as jobseekers’ allowance or housing benefit, asylum seekers facing destitution and prevented from working, or migrant workers who are simply looking to earn a living might enter into sex work, whether by choice, coercion or desperation; again, policies which marginalise them make their lives riskier.
Sex workers should also consider politicians’ moral attitudes, and their views on privacy and personal liberty. Whether the sex panics appear in the pages of the Daily Mail, are spoken from the pulpit of a fundamentalist cleric, or are uttered by Fiona MacTaggart in the name of women’s rights, they make our lives harder. In the long run, total safety for sex workers will not exist without the reduction of stigma; until one of us can disclose sex work on her CV, and get a sensitive job, the fear of being outed makes us more vulnerable. The stigma of sex work, the threat of being called names and shamed publicly, is also a levelled against any woman who is deemed by society to be too sexual, too promiscuous, and lifting that stigma will help all women.
Politicians’ views on sex work rarely conform neatly to concepts of left and right, or even to party lines; this holds especially true for the Labour Party. In May, it will be tempting for Labour politicians competing with UKIP in critical seats to adopt a more moralist stance. There is also an old fashioned form of feminism that is still prevalent within Labour which conflates sex work with exploitation, as demonstrated by MacTaggart and her supporters; it is up to us to refute that argument, one candidate at a time. Despite these challenges, Labour candidates and MPs will be an important goal for the ECP; their leadership’s support for Yvette Cooper’s review amendment in the Nordic Model debate signals a shift in Labour, which is traditionally opposed to liberalisation of sex work laws. “By supporting the Cooper amendment, the Labour front bench have indicated that they are not inclined to go for the blanket criminalisation of clients,” says Watson. That Labour signaled interest in consultation is an opportunity for sex workers to begin dialogue early, helping set the framework for any next steps.
The Conservative Party has no published policy on decriminalisation, and could be as divided as Labour. In its attempt to reclaim the Conservative members and voters lost to UKIP, David Cameron has played the arch-moralist, championing internet filters for pornography, and filling his cabinet with opponents of gay marriage. It is highly unlikely that he would take a lead on sex worker rights. But individual Tories might be persuaded, as Crispin Blunt was, to defend our rights from a more libertarian perspective, and those who have opposed his campaigns on pornography are clear targets for campaigners.
The Liberal Democrats have a strong policy for decriminalisation, developed by members and adopted at this year’s party conference; the ECP consulted in its development. Writing against the Nordic Model, Sarah Noble, a student member who helped to develop the policy, said, “As liberals, our aim is to fight the causes of exploitation, so that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. To focus on criminalising sex work – whether openly or by stealth – is to force sex workers into poverty, and to ignore the domestic exploitation of many others. That’s why our policy not only supports decriminalising sex workers, we also support stronger protections and safer worker conditions for them.” Even better, their whip against MacTaggart’s clauses indicates a willingness to enforce that policy in Parliament. While they are likely to lose ground in May, a Lib Dem vote is an option for sex work supporters who will vote in their target seats.
The Green Party is also a strong choice. Leader Natalie Bennett is a passionate supporter of decriminalisation. “The Green Party spoke to sex workers groups and unions and adopted the policy they suggested, as the best way that keep women and men safe,” said Bennett. The Greens take a strong stance against austerity economics and cuts in public services, and unlike the Lib Dems, they enjoy rising political fortunes, attracting a left protest vote that is fed up with Labour’s broken promises. According to Bennett, smaller parties like the Greens have a crucial role in bringing the evidence for decriminalisation forward, in a Parliament where the largest parties are still undecided. “We can present the evidence of peer-reviewed research showing the New Zealand model. There’s considerable disagreement in Labour and Tories on this issue; this is the sort of issue where you can get different approaches in one party…On this area and many others, we lead in supporting evidence based policymaking. We need to make policies like this based on the evidence of what is going to impact on people’s wellbeing and safety,” she says.
In any constituency where UKIP threatens a win, tactical voting to keep them out must override other concerns. But in every race, we can persuade ambitious candidates to hear us out, and encourage candidates from pro-decriminalisation parties to talk about it during the campaign. Sex workers and our supporters will continue engage with the political process until our concerns taken seriously. There is still plenty of pushback, but we’re getting there. When I got in touch with my own MP, calling her Westminster office on the morning of the vote, my hands and voice shook. I was expecting to be sneered at or hung up on, but I got a quick, and sensitive reply. For my Labour, feminist MP, the jury is still out on decriminalisation; perhaps, in time, I might convince her.
Sex workers are voters, and constituents, everywhere in the UK, and so are our clients; in a recent study, one in ten British men reported paying for sex. We can write to candidates, meet with them, and tell them about our real lives. We can ask them to go on record about their positions on the decriminalisation of sex work; we can bring the issue up at hustings, or organise our own. We can demand that polling firms ask candidates, and voters, about it. With enough of a push, we might even get full decriminalisation on the agenda in the next Parliament. As ECP campaigner Niki Adams wrote in the Guardian: “If progress is to be made…MPs must invite us into the discussion.”
Beyond party politics, the profile of our movement is growing. Current and former sex workers are writing openly in publications from the Guardian to the Telegraph, and appear regularly on radio and television. Groups like the ECP and Sex Workers Open University are leveraging a newfound sense of confidence among sex workers; through their efforts, we have taken the initiative. But to hold it, we need to bring the debate to our workplaces, universities, families, friends, and houses of worship. Even though we finally have a place at the table where our rights are being discussed, we will have to keep speaking up, or we will be pushed back out into the shadows.