One man’s conduct does not alter the case for sex industy reform

Policies that solve problems are based on evidence


Prostitution is a very sticky subject, both literally and metaphorically: it’s where sex and money and gender and power all come together, some of the most powerful phenomena in our, or any, society.

The ‘shocking revelations’ that Keith Vaz may have had personal experience of one of the more contentious topics currently under examination by the Home Affairs Committee refract on a host of issues around participation in the process of policy making.

Does personal experience matter? If so, whose? Should legislators be allowed input on decisions that may affect them personally? What aspects of parliamentarians’ out of work activities are fair game for media scrutiny? Is parliament fit to self-regulate?

These and more salacious conjectures will eagerly be moulded into a thousand clickbaity think-pieces, helpfully accessorised by photos of Vaz’s enthusiastic dad-dancing in happier times. They will generate enjoyable sanctimonious head-shaking on all sides.

However, one man’s conduct does not alter the basic circumstances of people in the sex trade, or the case for reform.

The vast majority of the UK’s estimated 80,000 sex workers are based indoors. Any premises in which a woman like me has company fulfills the legal definition of a brothel, giving carte blanche to the boys in blue if they fancy kicking the door down.

‘Controlling for gain’ – as our legislation on ‘pimping’ is known – explicitly includes people who are working of their own free will and covers almost every way of working with or for a third party. If this term were applied to other industries, it would include anyone who works for any kind of temp agency or other third party who arranges their work.

Thus the law builds in sex workers’ isolation, and therefore vulnerability, at the most fundamental level creating an ideal environment for violence to flourish. I have met no-one in the sex industry confident of the protection of the law. Calling the police is dangerous for us, and criminals know it.

Prosecution and asset seizure for brothel keeping or controlling requires no evidence of coercion, violence or abuse; there have been successful prosecutions where it was acknowledged that the defendant themselves had sex for money and/or offered a safe, fair and honest working environment to women freely choosing to be there.

Evidence shows that the majority of robbery, abuse, harassment and physical or sexual violence experienced by sex workers is perpetrated by those who do not pay for sex –  a fact ignored by those who propose criminalisation of our clients. 

Perpetrators motivated by pleasure or profit make a rational choice, in the expectation of a small number of people on the premises, cash available and reluctance to report. They also know that if robbery, rape or other assault is reported, the police may be dismissive or actively hostile, the Crown Prosecution Service wary of prosecuting due to low expectations of a conviction, and the judge or jury influenced by assumptions and stereotypes about sex workers.

Although street prostitution is the minority, because it’s most visible it’s what most people think of as typical.  Almost all on-street sex work is by women, and these women are generally accepted to be some of the most vulnerable people in our society – there’s a high prevalence of problematic drug and alcohol use, a correlation with a background in care, frequent low educational achievement, homelessness and a range of other problems.

Outdoor sex workers are criminalised under the Street Offences Act of 1959 if they loiter or solicit; their clients have also been criminalised for kerb-crawling since 1985. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 removed the requirement for repeated behaviour by kerb-crawlers and defined ‘persistent’ soliciting or loitering as twice in three months. That gives this profoundly vulnerable group of women the opportunity to have contact with the police four times a year without fear of arrest.

From 1959 to the present day, this legislative approach has entirely failed to solve the problems associated with street prostitution.

Concerns over media coverage of cases where victims do not have a right to anonymity, where our deviation from the sympathy-worthy ‘good victim’ template and the attention grabbing nature of any story about the sex industry also deter sex workers from reporting violence to the police. Being identifiable is dangerous for us.

Women on the street often experience violence from members of the public – from shouts of abuse up to and including violence resulting in hospitalisation. Many assailants, both indoors and out, express hatred and disgust towards sex workers and appear to feel their violence is legitimated by the social attitudes of abhorrence for commercial sex.

Despite this vicious minority who take advantage of the law to enjoy easy access to the vulnerable and the clamorous voices of those who promote legislation denying our right to consent to sex as a remedy for violence, the general public demonstrates greater compassion and common sense.

Audience surveys by newspapers and TV shows generally show support for decriminalisation or acceptance of our right to sell sex around 72 per cent, while an article this May in the Daily Mirror was an outlier with 95 per cent support. More scientific surveys replicate this view less emphatically and reflect the widespread ignorance of the reality of the sex trade.

A small majority (54 per cent) in a YouGov survey in March this year supported full decriminalisation – but only 21 per cent opposed it outright. A higher proportion (24 per cent), despite being presented with numerous arguments in support of criminal sanction, confessed they did not know – generally a forbidden answer for a politician on any matter of opinion.

However, one of the most surprising aspects of the Home Affairs Select Committee report earlier this year was the acknowledgement that the Committee did not know, although the uncertainty was expressed in language of complexity suited to the dignity of parliament.

The International Union of Sex Workers observed this with cautious welcome: policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, not on ideology, assumption, stereotypes and dramatic individual cases, no matter how close to home.

The identities and safety of people who pay for sex is not what motivates sex workers to advocate full human, civil and labour rights for everyone in the sex industry.

There are no more vehement or dedicated opponents of the abuses in the sex industry than sex workers ourselves: we have most to gain from safe, fair and non-exploitative working environments, from an end to social exclusion and discrimination against us and from a society that recognises our consent to sex as worthy of respect.

But when every human contact we have while selling sex is cocooned in criminality, it is our lives and livelihoods that are endangered and we who suffer the consequences.

Cat Stephens is a sex worker of nearly two decades’ experience, a volunteer with the International Union of Sex Workers and a member of the GMB’s branch for people who sell adult services and entertainment.

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