Legalisation is not decriminalisation. Legalisation really means restriction and regulation of sex workers through exclusive zoning, permits and mandatory health checks.
Legalisation delineates strict zones in which sex work can be done, and dictates what kind of sex work can be done within them. For the sex worker, this usually means less independent work, and more brothel work under a boss – high rents, tight restrictions and little freedom. This creates a situation where workers who can't afford the costs remain working illegally outside of the designated zones. Sex workers are also forced to register to obtain a permit. There are many reasons why someone would not want to register as a sex worker with the local council: visa status, ethnic and gender marginalities, previous convictions. With the current culture of prejudice surrounding sex work, registering can bring unwanted and negative attention. Mandatory health checks and their punitive outcomes are not only infantilising, but ignore the fact that sex workers often have better sexual health practices if we are allowed to control them.
Criminalisation of Clients (The Swedish Model)
The Swedish Model is in place in Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland, with Canada having a similar model. The Swedish Model criminalises the purchasing of sexual services, with the theoretical aim of reducing and eliminating prostitution.
In reality, criminalising clients makes the industry harder to navigate safely. It means less negotiation time for outdoor sex work, and workers having to take greater risks in order to get work. This model merely drives sex work further underground, and puts sex workers at greater risk of violence and harassment from not only clients, but also state authorities.
Decriminalisation of sex work removes legislation that endangers sex workers, and allows sex work to be viewed and treated as work.
This model, implemented in New Zealand since 2003, allows sex workers the same rights and access to existing law against rape, harassment, violence, coercion and exploitation. Prior to decriminalisation, police would regularly round up transgender street workers, beat them up, sexually harass them and charge them. Now sex workers are able to, and do, report violence and harassment to the police with positive results. In March 2014, a worker in a brothel took her boss to court for sexual harassment. She won the case and was awarded $20,000. The judge ruled that she had the right, like every other employee in New Zealand, to work in a workplace free from sexual harassment.
Any industry where some individuals are forced to operate underground and outside of the law only means greater danger for all those that operate within it. Overwhelmingly, research and evidence reveals this less palatable side of legalisation and the Swedish Model, but the voices and demands of sex workers go ignored by anti-sex work feminists, law and policy makers. (WHO, UNAIDS, The Lancet Medical Journal)
Too often, in the ‘sex work debate’, one of feminism’s first principles – that those who face oppression must be included in their own liberation, that there should be ‘nothing about us without us’ – is neatly discarded in favour of playing the saviour. As is the case with the recent open letter to Amnesty International, signed by Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, urging the charity not to support the decriminalisation of sex work.
This kind of hypocrisy goes unchecked in so many feminist movements and spaces – a hypocrisy I experienced first hand when I became a sex worker. We see this hypocrisy at Reclaim the Night/Take Back the Night protests, where organisers spit on sex workers taking part in the march, call the police on them, and picket outside strip clubs. We see it when sex workers are denied representation at feminist conferences and on panel discussions, even those that focus on sex work, like the 2013 Nottingham Feminist Conference. We see it when anti-sex work feminists position sex workers as either helpless victims, deluded women who can't think for themselves, or traitors to feminism.
Whatever your moral opposition or personal aversion is to sex work, you need to put that aside and realise that it is real people’s lives and livelihoods that you are ‘debating’. You need to realise that you undermine and ignore the agency of marginalised people. It's not an abstract scenario. Sex workers are murdered regularly and too often. The prejudice, stigma and disregard that leads to these murders, is created by an environment and structure that ignores, patronises and infantilises sex workers. Anti-sex work feminists and law and policy makers treat sex workers as if we do not know the solutions to our own problems. As if we do not understand which policies will aid us in making our workplaces and jobs safer and freer from exploitation and coercion. As if we do not know first hand which policies and regulations make things more difficult and dangerous for us. So next time you ‘debate’ sex work, think about it from the inside – what’s important is what we want, not what you want. You don't have to be pro sex work, to be pro sex workers rights.
Words by Brock Lee, SWOU Member (Sex Workers' Open University) and GIF by Scarlet Evans