In defence of decriminalising the sex industry
Love him or hate him: this week Jeremy Corbyn was back, as usual throwing around ideas so outrageous that its clear he must have been drunk. Speaking at Goldsmiths University, Corbyn said he was ‘in favour of decriminalising the sex industry’, and the Labour party lost its shit. They rushed to make it clear that these views were personal and absolutely not indicative of the party’s stance. Backlash was swift from many MP’s including ex interim Labour leader Harriet Harman, who tweeted that ‘Prostitution’s exploitation and abuse not “work/an industry”. Women should be protected’. Repeating the popular generalisation that female sex workers are always victims of abuse, and not grown women who can make their own choices.
Now, before we go any further, you should know that I’m going to reference a fair few people and organisations in this article that have real experience of these issues. Because you know, I’m not a sex worker. Nor do I work for an organisation that works with sex workers. It’s important to say this because, no matter how hard I might try, what I write here is only ever going to be an interpretation of the work of others – it is not personal experience. And also because you should really check out the articles and studies referenced here and use that to form your own views rather than relying on my second hand imitations.
For many, Corbyn and Harman’s statements will recall the events last year when Amnesty International adopted a Sex Worker’s Rights policy which would include calling for the decriminalisation of sex work. A number of high profile celebrities including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson signed a petition asking the international human rights organisation not to adopt the policy, saying it would side with ‘buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited’.
In the weeks that followed, everyone who was anyone had an opinion. But what cannot be emphasised enough is that, unlike many celebrity opinions, Amnesty’s policy was based on, as one Amnesty International Policy Advisor Catherine Murphy put it, ‘evidence and the real-life experience of sex workers themselves’. Specifically that means: two years of development, consultation of work done by organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UN, reference to other charity’s standpoints like Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance in Trafficking in Women, and interviews with over 200 sex workers as well as former sex workers, police, governments and other agencies in Argentina, Honk Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea.
And whats more, the fact that Amnesty can back up their policy really shows. One example is those like Gloria Steinem preaching the effectiveness of the Nordic Model (where selling sex is legal but buying it is not). Amnesty International in their research found that in Norway, where the Nordic model is employed, there was ‘evidence that sex workers were routinely evicted from their homes’ under ‘pimping laws’ (in many countries including the UK two or more sex workers working from the same address is considered a brothel). They also found that, from decrease in clients, sex workers had to take ‘more risks’ to themselves in order to get enough work. Its instances like this which show the difference between those with a theoretical opinion and those who have actually spoken to sex workers.
Because radical though it might sound, the people who know whats best for sex workers aren’t politicians, or actresses, or necessarily feminist activists. It’s also definitely not this bunch of student journalists. It’s sex workers. People like Molly Smith, sex worker and activist, who points our that the although the Nordic Model seems ideal, ’the reality of criminalising those who pay for our services is that sex workers are left with fewer clients, including men who we might otherwise have felt able to turn away – those who seem drunk, aggressive or who have a reputation for violence’. Paris Lees, journalist, presenter and former sex worker, who slammed the association between prostitution and trafficking in her Vice column stating that, ‘In the same way that sex is not rape and being a cleaner is not the same as being a slave. It’s about consent. I consented to have sex for money. No one forced me to. It was a choice’. A. Passion, sex worker and transgender and sex worker’s rights advocate, who writes about how even when prostitution is a last resort, ‘denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalising the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable’. Or even National Ugly Mugs, a charity who provide direct support to sex workers, who in a recent survey found that 60% of organisations working with sex workers and 67% of sex workers supported decriminalisation.
This is not to say that all sex workers support decriminalisation. Funnily enough sex workers come from lots of different backgrounds, so have lots of different opinions. Much like any other group of workers. But speaking on behalf of sex workers without consulting them is as much an oppression of their voice as not speaking on the subject at all. So, whatever you personally may think of prostitution, when it comes to legislating on sex work lets do the sensible thing and ask the professionals what they think. Kind of like asking Doctors what they think about running the NHS, oh no wait, we don’t do that either.
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