Last week, the Safety First Coalition, a project that brings together sex worker rights campaigners, anti-rape groups, and health and legal professionals, launched a national pledge to decriminalise sex work. The pledge, which is being promoted in a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #pledgedecrim, highlights the most important and broadly accessible arguments in support of the decriminalisation of sex work – worker safety and worker rights.
“We want this demand for decriminalisation to register on the national stage,” says Niki Adams, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes. The pledge, which has been developed over the past several months in extensive consultation with sex workers and experts, is designed to reach those who have traditionally opposed decriminalisation or may not have thought about how decriminalisation is connected to the issues that they are concerned about. The goal of the pledge is to unite feminist and anti-austerity campaigns behind decriminalisation, and to break out of circular arguments. “What we know is that the public is in favour of decriminalisation on grounds of safety – the safety issue is the vehicle by which people have been able to put aside their feelings of morality or personal apprehension and come to support decriminalisation on the strength of the arguments that sex workers should not be forced to work in isolation, sex workers should not be deterred from reporting violence to the police. The pledge incorporates issues like safety, health, workers rights and policing, the targeting of immigrant women – the issues that people come to the issue of decriminalisation of sex work through. We have our eyes on the autumn and taking our fight to Parliament,” she says.
The pledge, which has already garnered support from luminaries including Grayson Perry (below), is a broad and innovative document. Hosted on a dedicated website, the pledge offers rarely considered arguments in support of decriminalisation, and included documentation offers short, clear real – life examples in support of each point. For example, criminalisation actually can keep people stuck in sex work. Workers who are arrested or convicted of a crime face barriers in seeking other employment. On the pledge site, an anonymous sex worker explains: “As the mother of a disabled child, I know a lot about caring. But I couldn’t apply for a caring job because I had convictions for loitering and soliciting.”
According to Adams, the document’s approach has helped to convince politicians, bringing them in line with a public majority that she says supports decriminalisation on safety grounds. “One of the things we noticed is that MPs have studied the pledge background document, which flags up support of key organisations and gives examples for each pledge point. They’ve said, ‘This is helpful – I am going to use this example. This has changed my point of view,’” says Adams.
For sex workers, new approaches and changed minds can result in improved policy outcomes. Last year, when Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart introduced a measure into the Modern Slavery Bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, actor and Labour Party member Sarah Solemani had a series of meetings with shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Those meetings and the groundswell of opposition led to Cooper offering an alternative amendment, calling for a period of review and research – and this led, fortunately, to the failure of the MacTaggart amendment. “As soon as Cooper indicated that she would no longer support the blanket criminalisation of clients, other Labour MPs backed off from supporting the MacTaggart amendment,” says Adams.
But how mainstream are sex worker rights? As the Labour leadership race dominates the news, many sex worker rights activists are excited by Jeremy Corbyn’s frontrunner status. Corbyn has long supported decriminalisation. “We’ve been contacted by quite a lot of people asking where do the candidates stand on decriminalisation, and it’s fantastic to be able to say Jeremy Corbyn is completely on board,” says Adams. “But the fact that he stands against austerity is also a really crucial issue for sex workers. Prostitution is one of the things that women especially are going into, because more and more of us are struggling. Even those of us who have been working for years have to work harder, for lower rates, and take more risks – people feel in crisis, and to have a candidate who we feel could represent real change on austerity is a massive relief for sex workers,” says Adams. However, the progress made by campaigners over the past year means that sex workers need not pin their hopes wholly on Corbyn. “The relief that comes from that massive grassroots campaign in November and the widespread realisation that criminalisation undermines safety is that if someone like Cooper did prevail, that we would hopefully not be up against immediate legislation to criminalise clients or increase criminalisation of sex workers. You feel like the terrain has shifted – we’re in with a much better chance,” she says.
As austerity continues to bite, decriminalisation becomes ever more important. According to Adams, sex workers are reporting that benefit cuts and sanctions are increasing risks and lowering pay for existing sex workers and the many new sex workers driven by economic need. “They’re talking about cutting the support to the children of asylum seekers by thirty percent – money for mothers seeking asylum with children would go down from seven pounds a day to five pounds a day, which is a dramatic cut. Most mothers would get out there and do prostitution because there’s nothing worse than not being able to feed their kids. Women seeking asylum living in absolute poverty is likely to be behind the next big increase in prostitution. Already women who are destitute are working for tiny amounts of money and have to solicit for men in informal ways, because they can’t risk going to the established red light areas. They are in a very poor negotiating position and that makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Sex workers are increasingly describing themselves as precarious workers – in the category of people working in coffee bars, cleaning and doing care work. Prostitution has become one of those types of jobs, and people are not earning loads of money,” says Adams.
The Labour Party remains strongly divided on sex work and decriminalisation, but with its end run around traditional, polarising arguments, the pledge is making a headway that would once have been unthinkable. Apart from her conversation with Cooper, Solemani has had several successes reaching other senior politicians with the pledge. “I had a conversation with Harriet Harman, and she was very anti-decriminalisation – she is from the old school, I think she equated sex work with rape, she didn’t buy that there was any agency for sex workers. She said to me, ‘how would you feel if your daughter was a sex worker?’ That argument feels to me such a representation of the doublethink involved – the tangle of the issues. I said that the same argument, making it personal, was used before gay sex was decriminalised. One would argue, ‘would you want your father to have gay sex?’ Just because you do not like the idea of something doesn’t mean you can legislate against it. I don’t think I’ve yet persuaded her completely, but she said to me, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that,’” said Solemani.
In today’s overheated politics, a politician changing their mind can seem rare. Sex worker rights campaigners are hoping that the strategy that is working in the highest echelons of power will also work as well in the housing association meeting hall, or in the shouting grounds of Twitter. Time will tell whether sex worker rights will continue with their momentum, or will face a backlash; with last week’s confident launch, sex workers and supporters are betting that history is on our side.