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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3 Responses to “One man’s conduct does not alter the case for sex industy reform”

  1. David Lindsay

    There cannot be a “free” market in general, but not in drugs, or prostitution, or pornography, or unrestricted alcohol, or unrestricted gambling. That is an important part of why there must not be a “free” market in general, which is a political choice, not a mere law of nature. Enacting and enforcing laws against drugs, prostitution and pornography, and regulating alcohol, tobacco and gambling, are clear examples of State intervention in, and regulation of, the economy.

    We need a single class of illegal drug, with a crackdown on the possession of drugs, including a mandatory sentence of three months for a second offence, six months for a third offence, one year for a fourth offence, and so on. It is also very high time for Parliament to tidy up the shambolic laws on sexual offences.

    First, it ought to be made a criminal offence for anyone aged 21 or over to buy or sell sex, with equal sentencing on both sides. No persecution of girls and very young women whose lives had already been so bad that they had become prostitutes. No witch-hunting of boys and very young men who were desperate to lose their virginities. But the treatment of women and men as moral, intellectual and legal equals.

    Secondly, the age of consent should effectively be raised to 18, by making it a criminal offence for anyone to commit any sexual act with or upon any person under that age who was more than two years younger than herself, or to incite any such person to commit any such act with or upon her or any third party anywhere in the world. The maximum sentence would be twice the difference in age, to the month where that was less than three years, or a life sentence where that difference was at least five years. No different rules for “positions of trust”, which are being used against male, but not female, 18-year-olds looking after female, but not male, Sixth Formers visiting universities. And no provision, as at present, for boys to be prosecuted at any age, even if they are younger than the girls involved, whereas girls have to be 16.

    The law on indecent images is also enforced in totally different ways in relation to boys and girls of the same age, and even to boys who are younger than the girls. That must end. Children under the age of consent can have abortion or contraception without parental permission. That is an argument for banning children under the age of consent from having abortion or contraception without parental permission. Unless they decided as adults to seek to make contact with their children, then the financial liability of male victims for pregnancies resulting from their sexual abuse ought also to be ruled out. Talk about victim-blaming.

    Thirdly, the offences of rape, serious sexual assault, and sexual assault, ought to be replaced with aggravating circumstances to the general categories of offences against the person, enabling the sentences to be doubled. The sex of either party would be immaterial. There must be no anonymity either for adult defendants or for adult complainants. Either we have an open system of justice, or we do not. In this or any other area, there must be no suggestion of any reversal of the burden of proof. That reversal has largely been brought to you already, by the people who in the same year brought you the Iraq War. The Parliament that was supine before Tony Blair was also supine before Harriet Harman.

    Adults who made false allegations ought to be prosecuted automatically. Moreover, how can anyone be convicted of non-consensual sex, who could not lawfully have engaged in consensual sex? If there is an age of consent, then anyone below it can be an assailant. But a sexual assailant? How? Similarly, if driving while intoxicated is a criminal offence, then how can intoxication, in itself, be a bar to sexual consent? The law needs to specify that it was, only to such an extent as would constitute a bar to driving.

    And fourthly, obscenity ought to be defined as material depicting acts that were themselves illegal, or which was reasonably likely to incite or encourage such acts. Sentencing would be the same as for the illegal act in question in each case.

    American-style legislation for internally administered “balance of probabilities” or “preponderance of evidence” tests to sexual assault allegations at universities or elsewhere must be banned by Statute. It is incompatible with the Rule of Law to punish someone for a criminal offence of which she has not been convicted.

    It must be made impossible for anyone to be extradited to face charges that fell short of these standards, or for such convictions to have any legal standing in this country. As for teaching things in schools, how is that curriculum time currently being filled? Apply the Eton Test. Would this be taught in a school that assumed its pupils to be future Prime Ministers or Nobel Laureates? If not, then instead fill the hours with something that was. Teach Latin. Someone will.

    Convictions under laws predating these changes ought to be annulled along with those of men whose homosexual acts would not be criminal offences today. Labour should vote against that unless it also annulled, not only all convictions in the above categories, but also all convictions and other adverse court decisions arising out of Clay Cross, Shrewsbury, Wapping, and the three Miners’ Strikes since 1970. This would set the pattern for all future feminist and LGBT legislation. Without a working-class quid pro quo, then Labour would vote against any such legislation. Alongside the DUP, the Conservative Right, or whoever. It is not Blair’s Labour Party now.

  2. CR

    If consenting adults wish to exchange money for a personal service then that’s up to them. The State should take no view on the matter.

  3. Jay ginn

    The Nordic model decriminalises prostituted men and women, offering support for those who want to leave this way of life. But it makes sex buying illegal, as wel as the pimping , porn and trafficking that have become a flourishing business, especially where full decriminalisation has occurred as in Germany.

    It’s the buyers who have the power and the prostituted men and women who risk violence, rape and worse. The latter should be helped into a better life, the former fined of jailed. They, including Vaz, should know better than to confuse economically coerced sex with genuine consensual sex, and if they have spare money to use on an extra flat to ,entertain, prostituted men of women, should instead use it to make a more humane and just world.

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