The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on sex work legislation, closing on 10 December.
It follows a battle spearheaded by MSP Ash Denham, the government’s community safety minister, to introduce the criminalisation of the purchase of sex work (the “Nordic model”, or “Swedish model”, also implemented in France and Ireland). Currently in the UK, the purchase and selling of sex is legal, though various associated activities such as street work and workers operating from the same premises are not. National Ugly Mugs (an organisation that provides support and representation for workers seeking justice from dangerous clients) criticised the conflation of trafficking and sex work in Scottish MPs’ report, and highlighted how the threat of deportation for migrants creates vulnerability which in turn fuels trafficking.
On first glance, the concept of criminalising clients may seem a logical choice. Its proponents argue that the “victim” (the sex worker, or as Denham evocatively labels them, “the prostituted woman”) is not penalised and the law targets the perpetrator (the man buying sex). In practice however, sex workers report being criminalised themselves by proxy as well as being subjected to more risk, poverty and violence.
The Norwegian government published some data on Sweden in 2004, after the model was introduced. Workers told of their reliable and trusted clients disappearing due to fear of arrest. Instead they were faced with clients who were fearful of providing screening information, a tool often used by workers to keep them safe. As a result they would be forced to accept riskier clients.
Economic pressure and a reduced client pool also increased a client’s bargaining power — it meant they were now able to haggle for cheaper prices and demand unsafe practices or acts which a worker may have felt the need to accept out of desperation.
Due to the risk for both buyer and seller to be in direct contact with one another, the market opened for third parties and pimps, making it more difficult for police to investigate trafficking cases. Harassment and surveillance by police was also made far easier as police now had the authority to monitor sex workers and their homes under the guise of arresting clients. Landlords were legally allowed to evict sex workers, rendering them homeless.
One particularly damning quote from the head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit reveals its intended deterrent effects: “Of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law”.
The desire for a utopia in which the sex industry is eradicated cannot be achieved by a short-sighted legal model which results in the industry being pushed underground and sex workers suffering collateral damage. Similar punitive approaches have backfired in the “war on drugs” and in the huge human cost of criminalising abortion. It is simply not possible to criminalise some things away, especially while continuing what creates and drives these industries — economic hardship and poverty.
Instead, sex workers worldwide demand full decriminalisation, in which all laws surrounding sex work are lifted, leaving workers to retain full labour rights, including the ability to take their employers to court for workplace discrimination, or to seek legal recourse for dangerous clients without the fear of criminal implications for themselves. This position is shared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UNAIDS. This model is in place in New Zealand, and crucially was devised with the continual input of sex workers.
There is certainly a discussion to be had on the inherent exploitative nature of sex work and whether it should or will exist in a socialist future, though this cannot be had without analysing all forms of exploitative labour under capitalism.
Sex workers desperately need their voices heard in a climate where many would rather speak on their behalf, and their calls for decriminalisation should not be mischaracterised as “pro” the industry. Instead there needs to be an honest dialogue that sets aside moralism and instead focuses on human rights, protection from violence (including state violence) and the eradication of poverty.
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