After a long inquiry into sex work, Parliament’s influential Home Affairs Select Committee has called for reform of the prostitution laws in England and Wales. In an interim report released today, the Committee called for immediate changes to existing legislation, removing the offence of soliciting and allowing sex workers to work together for safety. The committee also called for soliciting offences to be deleted from criminal records.
“Having a criminal record for prostitution-related offences also often creates an unsurmountable barrier . . . It is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be criminalised, and therefore stigmatised and penalised, in this way,” the report stated.
Importantly, the report draws a clear line between coercion – which is already addressed in law – and voluntary sex work, and eschews moral judgments. It comes after months of evidence-gathering from the Committee, which heard testimony from sex-workers, police, academics and others across a broad variety of perspectives, and travelled to Denmark and Sweden to investigate the legal models employed there.
Although the report does not yet rule on which legislative model best suits England and Wales – the full decriminalisation of sex work, as has operated in New Zealand since 2003, the “sex buyers’ law”, as operates in countries such as Sweden, or legalisation and regulation, as operates in countries like Germany and Denmark – it bemoans the lack of reliable information on sex work:
“We were dismayed to discover the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. Without a proper evidence base, the Government cannot make informed decisions about the effectiveness of current legislation and policies, and cannot target funding and support interventions effectively.”
The report called for the Home Office to commission an in-depth study on the extent and nature of sex work in England and Wales within the next year, foregrounding reliable statistics and discarding unreliable data.
Sex workers and allies across the United Kingdom have shouted with joy and wept with relief upon hearing the news of the report. But sex work organisations emphasise that this report, although warmly welcomed, is only the first step in securing the rights and safety of sex workers; in their view, arrests, raids and deportations must stop immediately in light of the report’s recommendations.
“There should be an immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions,” said Laura Watson, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, in a statement today.
“Just today we heard from a woman whose premises was raided and closed. All her accounts have been frozen and she was left with £50 to feed her children pending charges for brothel-keeping being brought against her . . . The Home Office should withdraw from cases we are fighting where Romanian sex workers are facing deportation on grounds that sex work is not a ‘legitimate form of work’,” she said.
The report is particularly encouraging in its assessment of the woeful absence of reliable information about sex work in society. As a largely underground trade, sex work is difficult for governments and academics to study. People pushed to the margins are less likely to feel safe in contributing to such research. Through efforts of sex worker organisations such as the Sex Worker Open University, many sex workers contributed testimony to the inquiry, but these contributions cannot overcome years and decades of gaps in research.
It is particularly encouraging that the Committee looked at evidence offered by advocates of the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services – the “sex buyer law” – with a sceptical view. Advocates of this approach claim it reduces demand for sexual services, but the Committee disagreed. It stated:
“We are not yet convinced that the sex buyer law would be effective in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers . . . We are not yet persuaded that the sex buyer law is effective in reducing, rather than simply displacing, demand for prostitution, or in helping the police to tackle the crime and exploitation associated with the sex industry.”
In the next year, sex worker rights activists have a lot to do. Activist groups were at the centre of efforts to mobilise sex workers and pro-decriminalisation academics to contribute to this enquiry, and to make the argument that full decriminalisation for safety’s sake makes the most sense in the UK.
In this tumultuous political period, and with long-time opponents of prostitution such as Theresa May in consideration for the Tory leadership, it is heartening that a multiparty committee has made significant strides towards decriminalisation. Ongoing, nonpartisan and broad political engagement from supporters of sex worker rights might seal the deal.