Sex worker collectives hit back at MP calls for law reforms
Last week, a House of Commons debate listened to calls for “prostitution websites” to be banned in England and Wales, with MPs stating the owners of such sites “directly and knowingly” profit from sex-trafficking, and they should be banned, similarly to what has just taken place in the US.
The group, fronted by Labour MP Sarah Champion, called the debate following a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade which called out adult platforms offering sexual services as being a key driver behind sex-trafficking.
The report, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, published in May, argued that by combatting demand and making paying for sex a criminal offence, then supply would disappear, adding that the harm caused by men who pay for sexual access is “immense”.
It continued: “The actions of this group directly entail the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and girls; motivating traffickers and pimps to ‘supply’ women to meet their demand; and require state agencies and non-governmental organisations to attempt to deal with the aftermath of this exploitation.”
As well as debating online advertising, MPs also looked at whether adopting the “Nordic model” could be a solution. The Nordic model, put simply, involves criminalising buying sex, but not selling it. Currently in the UK, it is legal to sell and buy sex, but not to run brothels, kerb crawl, or solicit sex.
“We know from our work with hundreds of sex workers across the UK and our international networks that sex work is not inherently violent; it is criminalisation that places sex workers at greatest risk.”
Speaking during the debate, Sarah stated that there is a sexual abuse scandal happening in the country, enabled by prostitution advertising websites, and driven predominantly by heterosexual men who pay for sex. She drew attention to the number of sexual exploitation cases brought about by organised crime groups, stating there are at least 212 that are currently active, figures drawn from the APPG’s report.
She also argued that prostitution advertising websites significantly increase the ease and scale of organised sexual exploitation, quoting the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre which says that prostitution websites “represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK”, adding that claims the sites enhance women’s safety are “misguided”.
Other MPs highlighted the need to educate men and boys in order to change attitudes towards paying for sex, to the point where it becomes an unthought of thing to do.
Could MP proposals make things more dangerous for sex workers?
However, the debate saw backlash from sex worker collectives in particular, many of which are voicing concerns that if buying sex were criminalised, sex workers would be forced to conduct their work further underground, increasing the risks involved and dissuading those at risk from seeking help.
“We know from our work with hundreds of sex workers across the UK and our international networks that sex work is not inherently violent; it is criminalisation that places sex workers at greatest risk,” says a spokesperson from the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM). “The need to avoid arrest – of both sex workers and their clients – means that street-based sex workers must often move to more isolated areas that are less visible to law enforcement, and where violence is more prevalent.”
“Since the introduction of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), there has been an increase in workers being forced back into the hands of exploitative managers, or onto the streets into more dangerous outdoor sex work.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) had already described the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ report as “shoddy”, and agrees that such a law is dangerous. “Criminalisation, whether of sex workers or clients, drives sex workers further underground, making it more dangerous and stigmatising to work,” says a spokesperson for the ECP. “None of the evidence given by current sex workers was included. How do they justify that?”
Is banning online advertising a solution?
When it comes to the Trump-inspired proposals to ban advertising, opinions are also divided, with sex workers themselves arguing that they have already devastated lives in the US. The law aims to criminalise and ban such sites as Backpage and AdultWork, which offer workers more detailed client screening possibilities, and therefore more security.
“Since the introduction of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), there has been an increase in workers being forced back into the hands of exploitative managers, or onto the streets into more dangerous outdoor sex work,” says SWARM, adding that these factors, plus real or perceived impunity for perpetrators of violence against sex workers, places sex workers at greater risk.
“For example,” continues SWARM, “after Scotland instituted laws criminalising solicitation in 2007, groups recorded a doubling in reported rapes and assaults.” SWARM is just one of the groups advocating the New Zealand model when it comes to sex work, where sex workers have increased ability to screen clients and work in safe areas with better access to security services, as well as being able to go to the police in cases of violence.
The ECP agrees that if they can’t advertise online and work independently many of them would be forced to work in other ways, including on the streets, where it is much more dangerous to work. “Or,” they say, “we will be pushed into the hands of exploitative brothel bosses who would know we have little or no alternative to accept whatever conditions of work they impose on us.”
One woman in the group adds, “AdultWork provides a service which I use to advertise. This has meant that I have been able to work and find clients with complete anonymity from the safety and convenience of my own home. I keep every penny I have earned, and I have been able to get away from exploitative bosses in and out of the sex industry.”
Not all Labour members were happy with Sarah Champion’s call to ban advertising platforms. In an article, Plymouth councillor and former sex worker Margaret Corvid, along with two other Labour councillors, cited the Beyond the Gaze study, which demonstrated that online advertising platforms, including AdultWork, provided a digital footprint “enabling law enforcement to trace criminal behaviour and enable sex workers to get early warning of potentially dangerous clients”.
“AdultWork provides a service which I use to advertise. This has meant that I have been able to work and find clients with complete anonymity from the safety and convenience of my own home. I keep every penny I have earned, and I have been able to get away from exploitative bosses in and out of the sex industry.”
Hearing the voice of sex workers
They also highlighted a report from Ireland’s Ugly Mugs service, which showed that violent incidents against sex workers increased by almost 50 percent a year after purchasing sexual services became illegal in Ireland.
Sex worker collectives also weren’t happy, and understandably so, with the fact they weren’t called upon to give evidence or give their perspective, a fact that saw groups of sex workers collect outside Parliament at the time of the debate to protest. “Sadly, key policymakers are refusing to listen to us on this issue, despite the fact that we are best placed to inform policy on improving our safety and our working conditions,” says SWARM.
The ECP, too, was angry to not have been consulted. “We’re disappointed that it’s labour MPs that are putting these proposals forward. We think that those women who call themselves feminists should have the basic respect to treat us with a bit of dignity and to actually consult us about the laws that they’re trying to pass in our name,” they say. “Instead, sex workers are being bypassed, disparaged, and ignored.”
They believe that no one takes the decision to go into sex work lightly, and it is often entered as a means to get out of the poverty that they would otherwise be expected to “quietly endure”, rebutting Sarah Champion’s opinion that anyone who argues sex work is an austerity issue is “missing the broader picture”.
“We go into sex work so we can refuse the low-waged, often exploitative, work in the jobs which are the alternatives to prostitution,” they add. “Many of us are single mothers working to support families, and have been hounded off of benefits by punitive sanctions. If MPs like Sarah Champion want to save us from sex work, they should outlaw poverty, not prostitution. And support our demand to decriminalise sex work so that we can be safe from arrest.”