The TUC voted against decriminalising sex work. Here’s why it was the right decision

Delegates at TUC Congress stood against exploitation this week: full decriminalisation of sex work would only help the traffickers and pimps.

On Wednesday, TUC Congress voted to uphold the policy of the TUC Women’s Conference and to oppose the decriminalisation of sex work.

Delegates debated a motion calling for “full decriminalisation” of the trade; a demand that could include not only sex workers but also pimps, brothel owners and all those profiting from the exploitation of women and girls. I say ‘girls’ because half of women involved in sex work entered the industry before the age of 18.

The motion didn’t focus entirely on women, and we must of course extend our concerns to all people exploited through the sale of sex. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of those in the sex industry are women and girls. Men in the sex industry represent a very small minority and have very different pathways in and out of the industry.

‘Full decriminalisation’ is also known as the ‘New Zealand Model’ – a model which has been heavily criticised, including by women who have worked as prostitutes there. In March delegates at the TUC Women’s Conference heard compelling evidence from experts in the field of violence against women who had spent time in New Zealand and seen first-hand the lack of protection afforded to women in the sex industry.

Those who support the New Zealand model argue that criminalising buyers of sex drives prostitutes underground and makes them less safe. Yet the Nordic model, which takes precisely this approach, has reduced street prostitution and trafficking. Importantly it also aims to change social attitudes: it has recently been adopted in France, Northern Ireland, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Lithuania.

It is sometimes asserted that those who work in the sex industry do so because of economic necessity rather than criminal coercion. This bears closer examination.

Firstly, there is disturbing evidence about the level of coercion that actually exists. According to a recent report by London South Bank University, 50% of women involved in sex work reported coercion regarding their involvement.

Furthermore, a 2016 study by the Police Foundation identified 65 brothels operating in Bristol over a two year period, and of these, over three quarters displayed links to organised crime groups.

Secondly, while it is certainly true that women are also driven into sex work out of desperation, drug addiction, and “economic necessity”, it does not follow that we should campaign for the decriminalisation of the pimps and brothel owners who profit from women’s poverty. Our response as trade unionists is to campaign to end the austerity, poverty and benefit sanctions that affect all vulnerable groups, and which may drive some women into the industry in order to feed their family.

Thirdly although all workers, including sex workers, deserve protection this does not mean that exchanging money for sex should be considered ‘work’ in the same way as any other job.

We should ask ourselves what other jobs there are where extreme violence, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and rape are commonplace workplace hazards. Violence against women is not acceptable in any setting.  

We know that current CPS guidance makes clear that it is not illegal to sell sex in a brothel. What Congress voted against is any move towards decriminalising exploitation by the pimps and gangs who control sex work.

Sue Ferns is Deputy General Secretary of the Prospect trade union and Chair of Unions 21.

See also: Major unions are getting behind decriminalisation of sex work in the UK

Agree/disagree? Email [email protected] if you have another point of view.

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5 Responses to “The TUC voted against decriminalising sex work. Here’s why it was the right decision”

  1. Dulari-Leiylah Markelke

    There are needs to protect sex workers but it’s a fine line. Graduates trying to deal with student debt turning to prostitution. It’s not straightforward. We not near ending austerity . I think the focus on stopping pimps sex slaves is vital.

  2. David Lindsay

    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.

  3. ed turner

    Sorry but there is mounting evidence that the so called Nordic Model is failing. There is still prostitution in Sweden, the street-walkers have to take greater risks and get into the car without checking. The same is with traffiking. The Honest Johns, can’t risk the police knowing if they suspect the sex-worker to be traffiked. They dare not report as they are likely to get a criminal record.
    Modifying the New Zealand method, would be better. Brothels would have to be co-opratives, with the sex- workers employing ancillary workers, be they bar-staff, cleaners etc.. But the change must be worker led, not by the prohibitionists! Be they feminist, politicians, or religious.
    It is better for any human activity to open, rather than hidden. Once you push it to the shadows, you create crime and victims. Those that force another into something are slavers, & should be treated as such. Their wealth should be frozen and they would have to prove if any was legit. The rest should be shared amongst their victims. To-date most victims of modern slavery in this country are MEN, forced to work in the building trade, road making, factory work or farming. The other main group is foreign domestic workers, which current Home Office rules make this situation worse, as they don’t allow them to change employers. There is not enough checks to stop the abuse, the current system allows.

  4. Apsi

    This is incredibly reductive stance that doesn’t look at the actual repercussions of legal models. It’s simply based on emotion instead of real-life consequences.

    ‘We should ask ourselves what other jobs there are where extreme violence, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and rape are commonplace workplace hazards. Violence against women is not acceptable in any setting.’

    I don’t think many would disagree this, however how can this be achieved? Any form of criminalisation means that sex workers are scared to report rape and violence to the police for fear of arrest. Violent clients feel protected by this – the knowledge that they can commit crimes towards sex workers as they are less likely to report it makes sex workers targets. Full decriminalisation would mean sex workers can report violence and rape with impunity. When clients are criminalised it also weakens a sex workers’ bargaining position – more high risk clients are willing to take the risk of arrest so will push for more extreme and unsafe acts.

    I also am hugely sceptical about the claim that 50% of sex workers are coerced, however for argument’s sake if this were true, criminalising clients would do nothing to help. Traffickers need to be punished, not clients. How is this ‘fact’ at all relevant to which legal model would result in the most harm reduction?

    I urge everyone to please listen to sex workers in regards to what they have to say about the law. It is them that it concerns, so their voices should be centred. Put aside your moral objections about sex work and really think about what the practical things we need to do to protect women from harm. No law will ever end the sex trade, but bad laws put sex worker’s in harm’s way.

  5. Dave Roberts

    Yes, legalisation is the thin end of a very large wedge. It will open the door to legalising what is now underground with pimps out in the open. The unions should be campaigning for life sentences for anyone convicted of trafficking or procuring.

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