Can we end violence against sex workers?

When deaths occur in industries other than prostitution, the usual response is to ask how working conditions can be made more secure, not whether the industry should be scrapped.

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This Saturday, 17 December is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This year, across the globe over 60 cities worldwide will hold events to mark the occasion and to remember the 151 sex workers who have been killed this year. Two were women working in the UK.

Jessica McGraa, 37, a mother of one from London, was murdered in Aberdeen in February. In the press, her death was marked with lurid headlines about her “double life” as a sex worker. Daria Pinoko, 21, was killed last December in Leeds in a managed prostitution zone. Being an outdoor worker, she had no online presence to pore over, but her death was reported with an air of tragic inevitability.

Jessica and Daria’s deaths were not an intrinsic part of the cash-for-sex transaction, though. No one “dies of prostitution” any more than they do from domestic partnerships. That women are killed in prostitution, as in relationships – the sphere in which women are most in danger of male violence – is the result of specific conditions: misogyny, poverty, racism, stigma. To claim that sex work is intrinsically violent is to let men off the hook.

The dangers and horrors of sex work absolutely exist and many of those in the industry have experienced them first-hand. The Home Office-founded charity, National Ugly Mugs, which issues safety alerts to thousands of sex workers across the UK, received reports of 446 incidents this year (48 rapes, 11 attempted rapes, 31 cases of sexual violence, 181 violent attacks). And yet, a wide-ranging survey carried out in February as part of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into prostitution showed that 96% of those sex workers surveyed were in favour of full decriminalisation.

When deaths occur in other industries (there were 27 in agriculture this year, 43 in construction). The usual response is to ask how working conditions can be made more secure, not whether the industry should be scrapped. Of course men don’t need to buy sex, but nor does London need more luxury flats. These arguments should have no impact on the right of workers to be protected.

Likewise, prostitution is hardly the only industry to reflect and, quite possibly, prop up gender, race and class inequality. What makes conversation around prostitution unique is the questioning of whether sex work is a legitimate form of labour.

“We consent to have sex because we’re paid,” say the sex workers.

“Money negates consent,” they’re told.

But what is it about sex that sets it apart from the other human interactions we’ve commercialised? Do we really see sex as so special, as so central a part of pure and scared womanhood, that to sell it is to sell “yourself”?

We’re still debating what to do with prostitutes, despite prostitutes telling us loudly what they want, despite the findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry which suggested that criminal penalties against sex workers be immediately lifted, despite recommendations from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) that enforcement against sex workers is counterproductive, despite calls for decriminalisation from Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International.

At present in the UK, apart from Northern Ireland, it’s legal to sell sex, although other related activities such as soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, are illegal.

Contrary to the NPCC recommendations, which suggest police forces in England and Wales move away from enforcing laws that criminalise the sale of sex, sex workers are frequently targeted, fined, charged and deported.

In Northern Ireland, the so-called Nordic Model was implemented in 2014, meaning it’s illegal to pay for sex. The “debate” – if something with so imbalanced an evidence-base merits the term – hinges on whether this model should be rolled out across the UK.

Over the course of this weekend we will hear arguments from abolitionists in favour of End Demand (aka the Nordic Model or the Sex buyers Law), and we’ll hear claims that no sex worker has died under this form of legislation. It’s not true. In 2015, Galina Sandeva, a 28 year old Bulgarian woman sex worker was murdered in Oslo. In 2013, Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine was killed by a violent ex-partner who at one point the Swedish courts had granted custody of her children. The judge had told her she “didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm”.

In the US, where International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was born, sex work is fully criminalised in most states. Buying sex is illegal. Has this stopped sex workers dying? No. This year, 51 sex workers (including 15 trans women) were murdered.

In Norway, sex workers have been targeted in the dystopian “Operation Homeless”, reported rapes ignored and women deported after going to the police for help. Human trafficking cases in Norway are soaring. Meanwhile, the country’s low conviction rates and inadequate support for rape survivors has been recently called out by Amnesty. Perhaps the Nordic Model of feminism has been a successful PR exercise above anything else.

Still, the debate rages on, skewed out of proportion by the fact that current sex workers are largely excluded (see the Women’s Equality Party, End Demand, Nordic Model Now, Feminism in London, the credibility lent to Kat Banyard – whose book on the industry included not one interview with a sex worker – during the prostitution inquiry).

Last week’s open letter to the Home Secretary, penned by Nordic Model Now, was a case in point, signed not by the promised list of credible human rights charities but by groups like the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Compare this with the 601 weighty signatories on an open letter in support of Amnesty International’s call for decriminalisation. It would be funny if it wasn’t so grim.

Abolitionists have failed to acknowledge the utter mundanity of most sex work. There are an estimated 70,000 sex workers in the UK. If the “unrepresentative” activists among them are sexual libertines raking in wads of cash for work they unequivocally love, I’ve yet to meet them (beware the gap between marketing and reality). For most, it’s a fairly uneventful job which can be scary but is more likely to be tedious or worryingly financially unpredictable.

Amber Rudd has called for more research into prostitution in the UK and legislative change could be on the cards. No single piece of legislation will make everything perfect – the most vulnerable will still need accessible social services, housing, childcare, food, healthcare, open borders, a safe place in society – but, on 17 December, we owe it to sex workers around the world to listen to their demands.

Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist