Sex work – the rights and the wrongs – David Baldelli

Jeremy Corbyn is at it again, annoying people by telling it like he sees it. You’d expect it to be the opposition he enjoys annoying but more often than not it seems to be his own MP’s. Last Thursday during a speech about something unconnected he was asked to spell out his views on prostitution where he was emphatic about his support for decriminalisation. It took less than 24 hours for Harriet Harman (who presumably would like another spell as interim leader) harshly criticised her leader with the view that in her opinion women need protecting from exploitative men. Jess Philips MP echoed her views a short time after, baffled at the idea of decriminalising ‘violence against women’. Both MP’s advocate the Nordic Model which would see buyers of sex criminalised.

The media have appeared to draw battle lines on this subject. On the one hand you have people arguing that sex workers are a diverse group of people working in diverse roles for diverse reasons entitled to rights we all have. These include human rights organisations, left leaning MP’s, and sex workers themselves. On the other hand you have people like Harman and Phillips calling for criminalisation. Last week a European Parliament vote successfully managed to redefine all prostitution regardless of anything as “violence towards women from a legislative starting point”. We’ll return to this later. 

Much of the argument in favour of criminalisation centres about sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a problem both domestically and abroad. There are claimed to be 1.9 million sexually exploited people according to the UN. However in the United States, because of “The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act” any prostitution with a woman under the age of 18 is now considered sex trafficking so accurate numbers are no longer available from the FBI. It’s the same in other countries. The numbers present a big problem but accurate estimates are difficult to analyse amongst the political wrangling 

When not being made more confusing by the U.S authorities, sex trafficking includes pimp controlled trafficking, gang trafficking and forced marriage. All of these exploits are already illegal in one or many guises. Gangs and individuals forcing victims in to the most horrendous of situations are already criminals under the law and would be sentanced in a court more severely than any proposed prostitution laws. Consenting sex workers, still the majority in this fight are key in tackling sex trafficking and the more support they get the more willing they will be to help.

Politicians often like to conflate these two issues, sex workers and trafficking victims are two separate groups; a sex slave is very different from a sex worker. To lump in consenting adults exchanging money for sex with sex trafficking is no different to saying we need to ban all intercourse between men and women because well, people can get raped. Consenting sex workers have rights, they have them because they are human not because they are sex workers. The more we marginalise them and force their industry to operate outside the law the less likely they will cooperate with society. Not only do sex workers need to be confident they are protected rather than targeted by their countries law enforcement, we must give them the power to expose the criminals without risk to themselves. Bringing their work in to the open is the only way of doing that.

A sex worker can never be assured of protection from the police if some aspect of his/her job is criminalised. Sex workers with the freedom to make the choice to be sex workers should enjoy the same levels of protection and dignity in society as the rest of us. The Nordic model effectively forces sex workers to work with criminals. The global support for decriminalisation is lead by leading organisations. Including Amnesty International, World Health Organisation, UN AIDS, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and other UN agencies, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International. When you ask sex workers what they want, a recent survey showed 67% favoured decriminalisation while only 2% favoured the Nordic Model.

On a personal note, I have two friends who have sold sex for money one way or another. (full disclosure: I have never paid for any adult services (not that it would matter if I had))  These two women are smart, independent and confident. Neither would be happy being described as exploited or damaged. They have both suffered at the hands of abusive clients, details of which are too traumatic to go in to here. The Nordic Model would see the buyer of sex criminalised, the concern is this drives sex work underground. The reality is sex workers want safe places to work, and the Nordic Model strongly encourages sex work to be conducted at the clients home or at a place of their choosing hugely increasing the risk for the sex worker. Appointments are made more anonymously and are rushed with fewer safeguards. Brothels are currently illegal, but a brothel is classed as any establishment with more than one sex worker. It’s should be obvious that two women working in the same house is safer than than one woman working on her own. According to current laws this is not a concern.

Sex work is viewed by sex workers as a job like any other. Both my friends fill out annual tax returns. When one party in the transaction is criminalised it makes the whole business clandestine and will discourage many sex workers to call the authorities when necessary, putting them at risk physically and financially. One of my friends unashamedly works for the money, while the other finds job satisfaction her particular motivation. They have the right to make those choices. To remove those rights or make their choices more dangerous is just what Harman is proposing.

The European judgement that makes all sex work now classified as “violence towards women” is severely flawed. It firstly assumes all sex workers are women. This is not the case. Are gay sex workers exempt from this classification? are male sex workers now committing acts of violence towards their clients, or is it the other way round? Secondly it implies that sex workers making free informed choices need protecting from themselves, a view that is as condescending as it is misogynistic. It robs women of their agency and infringes on their rights as not only self employed consenting sex workers but also as human beings.

Further reading 

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3 thoughts on “Sex work – the rights and the wrongs – David Baldelli

  1. Haven’t read the whole thing yet- I will- but just wanted to say how condescending the “Nordic Model” is. Honestly- completely infantilizing and “matriarchal”. Patronizing… you can’t get away from that root (1250-1300; Middle English < Medieval Latin, Latin patrōnus legal protector, advocate (Medieval Latin: lord, master), derivative of pater father). Isn't the whole raison d'etre for feminism that women were sick of men deciding what was best for us? So now we just switch to schoolmarmish people telling us what's best for us, and it's supposed to be ok because they have vaginas?

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  2. Great piece. I still feel the way I posted above about this Nordic model. And over and over you hear these women saying that all the sex workers they know feel trapped and want to get out. Two things about that: 1. I believe that if you work at a battered women’s shelter, you’ll have a very biased view of marriages and domestic partnerships. If you base your opinions about sex workers on those expressed by vulnerable sex workers in crisis, your viewpoint will be even more biased. 2. Even if they want to get out, is criminalizing those who pay them an effective way to do this? How will they make a living with similar wages? Minimum wage in England for anyone over 21 is £6.50/hr. An average price at a Soho walk-up appointment is £130/hr. Compare that to a Russian minimum wage of £60/month and you can see the extent of the issue.

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