If you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, consider sex worker rights. This is an election animated by the spirit of a new politics, when SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens speak, loudly and with just entitlement, for much of Britain, and progressive voters are torn between tradition, tactics and hope. Amid the optimism and confusion of a new politics, the campaign by sex workers for the full decriminalisation of our work is not a bad bellwether. Many other issues, from austerity to migration to sexuality, from race to class to gender, are bound up within the campaign.
With this in mind, the English Collective of Prostitutes launched its pledge for sex worker rights in the aftermath of last November’s rout of Fiona Mactaggart MP’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sexual services in the Modern Slavery Bill. Over the course of the election, the ECP say that they have received copies of over a thousand contacts, from emails to phone calls to quizzes on the doorstep, between supporters of sex worker rights and candidates and MPs across Britain. Today, after collating dozens of responses, the ECP released its voter recommendations, based on this crowd-sourced radar reading of the parties during Election 2015.
“Respondents ranged from former ministers to candidates standing for the first time,” ECP spokeswoman Laura Watson wrote in yesterday’s statement. “All candidates expressed concern for sex workers’ safety, some acknowledged the increase in prostitution as a result of austerity and at least half of those polled supported full decriminalisation of sex work,” she wrote.
The pledge, which can be used by politicians, organisations and individuals, is a broad document, more about hope and values than about policy prescriptions. It calls for the full decriminalisation of sex work – that is, make our work completely legal, but without rigid restrictions such as in Germany. Under decriminalisation, sex workers would have the right to work independently or together, to hire security or administrative support, and to work in a brothel – but would not be tied to one. Pimping, coercion, and underage sex work would remain illegal; sex workers would be free to organise and seek help from police when threatened, robbed or assaulted.
Women’s safety, improved health outcomes, the end of police corruption, and workers’ rights all feature in the pledge. “We wanted to do the pledge to counter the lobby to criminalise clients,” Watson said in a Tuesday interview. “We wanted there to be a pledge to bring in sex worker groups, allies and a whole set of different people. For example, there’s a point on protecting immigrant sex workers from being targeted for deportation, to bring in the groups who are concerned about rights for immigrant people and asylum seekers. There’s a point on worker’s rights to bring in the trade unions; there’s a point about health to bring in those professionals,” she said.
In the last few months, the ECP have tracked candidate responses. Watson gave me a rough breakdown. “Over a thousand people have written into their candidates – some in their own name, and many who have spoken on behalf of a friend who is a sex worker,” she said.
“I’ve collected a lot of the responses, and looked at the trends. The Liberal Democrats are generally supportive of decriminalisation. Some are confused about legalisation, but they stick to party policy. An ex-minister talks supportively about the fully decriminalised New Zealand, and that the biggest concern is safety. That’s a great place to be,” Watson said.
Watson ran down the list. “The Greens – again – very supportive; they’re actually the only ones with sex work in their manifesto,” she said. “They have a little quote which a lot of candidates have used – it says, ‘Policies around prostitution and sex work should be focused on protecting the women involved, who are often vulnerable, not criminalising them or putting them at risk of violence and other harms’,” she said.
Watson laughed ruefully when she got to the Labour Party. “It’s given us a lot more clarity on where they stand; it shows they’re definitely concerned with women’s safety, which is great,” said Watson. “Their new position is that the evidence should be considered – a big move from their former position, which was to blanket criminalise clients. The Labour candidates do not come out for decriminalisation, but they come out for the evidence. They say our evidence is strong and they want to look at the evidence. Others are saying they support measures to improve safety, and a couple of others have said they’re aware of the links between poverty and prostitution. John McDonnell MP has always been a staunch supporter and has spearheaded our work in parliament, but for the rest of Labour, this is new,” she said. According to Watson, Labour candidates had cited their new Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence against Women and Girls as a step towards finding solutions.
As for Tories, the pledge drive uncovered little new information. “Some support decriminalisation and others are not sure – they’re split on the issue, but they’re definitely against criminalising clients. They don’t come out for decriminalisation even though we know that there is informal support there,” she said. Only one candidate each from Ukip and the SNP, a few TUSC, and one candidate from a party called 30/50 responded.
For Watson, there are two big takeaways from the results: that the criminalisation of clients is widely disregarded across parties, and that there are grounds for debate and negotiation even within the Labour Party, particularly on the issue of women’s safety. “I’ve only seen one response, of a Labour candidate, outright supporting the criminalisation of clients,” Watson said. “We’ve had responses from England, Wales and Scotland, and all over those places. They’re ready to look at safety, which is fantastic, and to look at decriminalisation at least. They’re being forced to consider how their policies will affect women’s poverty as well,” she said.
When I asked my local candidates their view on the decriminalisation of sex work, I got a similar response. I was lucky to find most of them at the Gender Equality Summit, a one-day feminist conference organised expertly last month by the six-month-old Feminist Society at Plymouth University, gathered for a debate on women’s role in politics. My incumbent Labour MP Alison Seabeck, Liberal Democrat candidate Graham Reed, Communist Party candidate Laura-Jean Rossington, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate Louise Parker, and Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato had been engaged in discussion for ten minutes when Ukip candidate Robin Julian tumbled in – to the thin laughter of the audience; he gave his generic introduction without seeming to know the topic of the debate.
My turn came, and I stood and held up the pink and white pledge, spoke with only a few stammers, and waited for the results. Cato read the strong Green policy for full decriminalisation of all sexual activity for consenting adults; though she is not standing in this election, a local Plymouth Green candidate, Libby Brown, who was in the audience, was happy to sign the pledge. Both Communist and TUSC candidates wanted to know more, and came out strongly for decriminalisation on safety grounds, but expressed concern about trafficking, and the Liberal Democrat voiced effusive support.
Myself and Green Party candidate Libby Brown with her signed pledge
To my surprise, Robin Julian, the Ukip candidate and owner of a lorry-driving school, openly supported decriminalisation, and signed the pledge at the debate’s close. “I think if it’s legal it’s much safer for women if they want to participate, for the health and wellbeing of themselves. I do worry about the ones on the streets, that’s when you can get diseases, and it’s unregulated, and women are much more vulnerable,” said Julian.
Labour MP Alison Seabeck was familiar with the pledge and supported many of its aims, but would not yet sign. “The pledge itself covers a lot of areas – women’s safety; the fact that many women are mothers, bringing up children, and who are working from home,” she said. “There are bits in the pledge with which I have some difficulty, some bits which are actually already in place, and bits that I think require looking at how we proceed – as in the New Zealand model,” she said. She cited the Eddystone Trust, which has opposed decriminalisation; “In Plymouth…they have specific concerns actually the protection of women working in their streets and their homes. It is a very broad area – it does need looking at, and we have to guard against trafficking and the worst abuses there,” she said.
Seabeck needed to leave the debate early, and near its close she called me out into the hall. She took out an annotated copy of the pledge and with a practiced eye and a pen, took apart each line of the document, in less than two minutes. Next to lines supporting increased safety for sex workers, and the contributions of sex workers to family survivors: two ticks. Another tick by the line calling for an end to the stigma of sex work. But next to a line calling for an end to immigration raids targeting sex workers, she had written “illegal”, and had underlined it.
In a follow up email, Seabeck expanded on the issue of raids. “Yes, I do believe that raids are essential in stopping human trafficking. Raids are a part of ‘justice seen is justice done’ and it is important and in the public interest to have visible action which brings perpetrators to justice. If we don’t have a ‘visible’ approach, word will be that it is an accepted wrong in our society which enforcement authorities have chosen to ignore. We can’t do that and we also owe it to the many trafficked young girls and boys to apply the full force of the law. I accept that there will always be a danger that this will encourage some to go ‘further underground’ but for reasons explained i think we have to take noticeable action, among other measures to tackle trafficking,” she wrote.
Seabeck is interested in exploring common ground between sex worker rights advocates and abolitionists. “I do think there is room for common ground,” she wrote. “I don’t think there is an easy answer to be found but there have been interesting approaches with mixed feelings about the results. Some Scandinavian governments have taken the decision to decriminalise sex workers by making it legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. Pimping has also been made illegal. I did raise this with the UK government on behalf of a constituent who had approached me from the ‘abolitionist’ camp. There are no changes planned to the current laws, but I think we are now having a more open debate about it. Being able to talk without fear or embarrassment on any subject leads to greater understanding and ultimately reform,” she wrote.
Myself, somewhat more ironically, with Ukip candidate Robin Julian and his signed pledge
What next for the pledge? “We’re sending a summary to our networks so they can consider who they might vote for. After the election, we’re doing a mass mapping exercise, to see who was supportive and got in, and use that as a basis for the next stage of lobbying,” Watson said. When I asked her if any of the sex workers who had contacted a candidate had reported receiving whorephobic abuse, she said there had not been a single report. To the majority of those who have never knowingly met a sex worker, we’re a mere sketch, a cartoon; but candidates have taken our public political presence for granted.
As I am writing about the pledge, I’ve held back from replying to Seabeck, and addressing the well-refuted notion that criminalising clients works. But clearly there are paths for dialogue that I will pursue after the election – not as a journalist but as a constituent, a sex worker and a small business owner. If Seabeck is re-elected, I will introduce her to local people whose work and lives will be made safer, healthier and stronger under full decriminalisation. I’ll work to convince her that raids and the fear of them are among the greatest threats keeping the coerced from seeking help. And I will be doing so alongside my colleagues across the UK, as part of a coordinated effort.
It’s important to remember that many sex worker voices are still absent from the political process. By the nature of their legal status, undocumented migrants are unlikely to feel safe lobbying candidates; survival sex workers and those who are multiply marginalised, such as people of colour, trans people, those with disabilities, street and brothel based sex workers, and drug users might not feel safe going to their MPs. Although the ECP brings decades of experience with the most marginalised sex workers to bear, the campaign must now bring more lawmakers face to face with those sex workers who they would rather see in the abstract, and put forward more concrete proposals on changes in the law – perhaps, with a new confidence that politicians, even some longtime opponents, are listening.