James Barker is the Youth Stop AIDS Inclusivity Co-Coordinator. In this post he writes about why he feels that sex work should be decriminalised in the UK.
One of the most pressing campaigns, and at the same time one of the most controversial, is the campaign to decriminalise sex work. Women’s groups, council strategies to tackle violence against women and girls, and anti-trafficking organisations have provided the biggest opposition to decriminalisation, whilst some of the most positive responses to the campaign have come from HIV and LGBT organisations.
Sex workers are a major at-risk group of HIV both in the UK and worldwide, face high rates of violence, suffer mistreatment through the criminal justice system, and many live in poverty. Criminalisation of sex work exacerbates many of these issues and prevents sex workers from accessing help. Below I outline the main reasons for decriminalising sex work and the problems with the current situation in the UK.
The law as it stands
Selling or buying sex is currently legal in the UK. However many of the related practices, such as brothel keeping and soliciting, are criminalised. So by decriminalisation we mean the removal of all criminal penalties around practices related to sex work.
For safety’s sake!
Whilst sex work is criminalised, sex workers are frightened of reporting rape or violence to the police as they fear arrest, or if they are migrant workers they risk deportation. Sex workers are also less likely to access health services due to stigma and social isolation.
The charge of brothel keeping puts sex workers particularly at risk, as under UK law two or more sex workers sharing premises counts as a brothel. This prevents sex workers from working together and supporting one another for safety, which further isolates them. Decriminalisation would remove barriers to accessing services, and help reduce some of the stigma that puts sex workers at risk.
Sex work is not the problem, poverty is!
The majority of sex workers are mothers supporting families in a climate of austerity, benefit cuts, lowering wages and homelessness. Sex workers need genuine exit services, and criminal penalties make it harder for sex workers to leave the profession as a criminal conviction prevents them from getting another job elsewhere.
Further, some migrant workers choose sex work as they consider it preferable to the potentially exploitative working conditions in other sectors. Sex workers need better workers’ rights and protections, not stigma.
Why decriminalisation is the solution
Other countries have put forward alternative models to decriminalisation. For example Sweden has criminalised buying sex and decriminalised selling sex. This has made sex workers even more unsafe as it has driven the profession more underground, further isolating them.
Germany has legalised sex work, which puts in place state legislation specific to sex work, however this only makes sex work legal under specific conditions specified by the state. As sex workers are not in the position to make those laws, this often leads to further stigmatisation and the most vulnerable sex workers are often working outside of those legalised conditions, and are therefore criminalised again.
Decriminalisation, as in the case of New Zealand, would remove the criminal penalties. A government report in New Zealand found that following decriminalisation there was no increase in sex work, sex workers were more able to report violence, and more sex workers were able to leave the profession.