Sex work: how best to protect women? Left Foot Forward debates at Labour conference

Experts crossed swords at our fringe event on the Nordic model versus full decriminalisation


Where should progressives stand on sex work? That was the subject of a sharp debate at Labour conference organised by Left Foot Forward, where opposing sides crossed swords on what policy best protects women.

Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire and Dr Maddy Coy, deputy director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, and co-convenor of the Nordic Model Information Network, argued for the Nordic model, practiced in Sweden, of decriminalising selling sex, but making it a crime to buy or solicit sex.

Catherine Stephens, of the International Union of Sex Workers, and Cari Mitchell, of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), opposed this and called for full decriminalisation of the sex industry.

The event was chaired by LFF editor Niamh Ní Mhaoileoi today at Labour Party conference fringe in Liverpool.

Thangam Debbonaire began by attacking sex work as meaning it is okay in the UK for women to be bought, and all the risks to their safety that this involves. She dismissed as ‘mythical’ the idea that sex work could be made safe.

She also said a recent review by the home affairs select committee on the subject would need to be ‘completely redone’ after it was revealed the committee’s chair, Keith Vaz MP, was himself using male prostitutes. She called this ‘a clear conflict of interest’.

Debbonaire also said backing a regulated sex industry was in effect ‘sanctioning violence against women and girls’.

Cari Mitchell of the ECP spoke next, saying of the Nordic model: ‘It would be idiotic to make the bread and offer the bread but not be able to buy it.’ She said people should listen to sex workers in Britain, adding:

‘Very many women MPs have taken a moral view about what we do with our bodies and we think it a bit of a cheek.’

Mitchell said sex workers were at more risk when prostitution is illegal, as they cannot go to the police if assaulted for fear of arrest, and gave examples of police raids on brothels. She said: ‘The issue of decriminalisation of sex work is a matter of life and death for us’.

Mitchell said we should look more at the reasons people go into sex work, such as government welfare cuts increasing economic inequality and poverty for many women, and tackle those problems in parliament.

Dr Maddy Coy was next up, saying sex work was strongly gendered, with men usually the consumers and women usually being consumed.

She argued sex work and trafficking were closely related, and said it was not progressive to allow men to pay to have sex with vulnerable women as a solution to women’s poverty.

Dr Coy said sex work cannot be made safe for women, adding:

‘When we say that a system cannot be made safe, we say we want to bring down that system.’

Catherine Stephens was the final speaker, and tried to give the perspective of someone who has worked in the sex industry.

She said: ‘Calling the police is dangerous for us, and criminals know it.’ This puts women at more risk, she said, arguing full decriminalisation would be safer for the women concerned.

She dismissed the idea that what she called her relatively privileged experience of sex work meant she could not speak about more vulnerable women too. She said: ‘I advocate freedom to choose, respect for those choices, and the absolute right to say no.’

Stephens argued ‘having sex for money is not necessarily degrading or harmful’, adding: ‘Those of us in sex industry demand the same rights and protection as you do’

The speakers disagreed on the evidence about the impact of the Nordic model in Sweden, but there was agreement on the need to decriminalise women selling sex.

Left Foot Forward hopes to publish all four speeches in the coming days.

See: Post-Brexit women’s rights charter launched at Labour conference

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