Sex work is not illegal in the UK. But there are still a number of laws to protect workers from those who seek to exploit or harm them. By any measure the law has failed to do that, as women, men and transgender people continue to experience violence and exploitation.
Despite the best efforts of successive governments, sex work continues to thrive. The UK Crown Prosecution Service claim that laws are designed to reduce demand for sexual services but there is no evidence this has had any impact. The industry has been – at best – tolerated but more often bullied by successive home secretaries keen to be seen doing something to curtail sex work.
Oscillating between denial and punishment of sex work is not only futile but dangerous. This shadow economy offers little protection to the mainly female workforce who are routinely subject to abuse, mistreatment and exploitation. Sex workers also face being prosecuted when trying to report crimes committed against them as some police forces continue to view them as perpetrators not victims. There are no trade unions, no quality control or other protective measures that workers in other industries benefit from.
Regulation would open access to healthcare too. Too many workers with mental and physical health issues are fearful of seeking help as they fear prejudice by health staff. Many female sex workers are also mothers and worry that contact with state services might lead to judgments about their parenting abilities.
We all benefit from decriminalizing sex work. Sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV thrive in illicit environments when those infected or at risk are essentially deterred from health services. Stigma provides an effective invisible deterrent.
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New York recently considered decriminalizing sex work, recognizing the high levels of violence both male and female sex workers experience. Debating how this should be done has highlighted its tricky nature. It may be intuitive to decriminalize the whole industry – not just sex workers but their pimps and customers too – but some groups involved in the industry don’t agree.
Decrimnow, a UK coalition of workers and supporters, echo the concerns of their American counterparts who fear that total decriminalization will do little to curtail abuse and violence. The problem is that the most marginalized workers, who are often trafficked and psychologically groomed into sex work, would continue to be exploited by legalized pimps, they say. Instead, they favor a more targeted regulatory approach which would essentially legitimize sex work but not the pimps and traffickers that are involved in organizing and supplying workers in the industry.
In an era of me too and the outrage over Sarah Everard’s murder we seem to have lost sight of those who experience violence and discrimination daily. Although selling sex is not an illegal activity in the UK, paradoxically the way it is organized is. Many women prefer to work together to protect themselves and minimize the risks they face. But this collective organization all too often makes the work illegal.
Sex workers aren’t an alien species they are someone’s daughter, son, mother, partner or friend. They are students, part-time workers and part of our communities wherever you live. Standing up for the rights of women shouldn’t be selective or based on choosing those we approve of it must include everyone. Decriminalization of sex work relies on your unconditional support; without that you are passively propping up laws that are endangering sex workers.