New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
2 November 2015

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.

By Margaret Corvid

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:

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

“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.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy