I want to talk about sex for money. I’m not like most of the people you’ll have heard speaking about prostitution before. I’m not a police officer or a social worker. I’m not an academic, a journalist or a politician. And as you’ll probably have picked up from Maryam’s blurb, I’m not a nun, either.
Most of those people would tell you that selling sex is degrading; that no one would ever choose to do it; that it’s dangerous; women get abused and killed. In fact, most of those people would say, “There should be a law against it!” Maybe that sounds reasonable to you. It sounded reasonable to me until the closing months of 2009, when I was working two dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. Every month my wages would just replenish my overdraft. I was exhausted and my life was going nowhere. Like many others before me, I decided sex for money was a better option. Now don’t get me wrong — I would have loved to have won the lottery instead. But it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, and my rent needed paying. So I signed up for my first shift in a brothel.
In the years that have passed, I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve reconsidered the ideas I once had about prostitution. I’ve given a lot of thought to consent and the nature of work under capitalism. I’ve thought about gender inequality and the sexual and reproductive labor of women. I’ve experienced exploitation and violence at work. I’ve thought about what’s needed to protect other sex workers from these things. Maybe you’ve thought about them, too. In this talk, I’ll take you through the four main legal approaches applied to sex work throughout the world, and explain why they don’t work; why prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers are vulnerable to. Then I’m going tell you about what we, as sex workers, actually want.
The first approach is full criminalization. Half the world, including Russia, South Africa and most of the US, regulates sex work by criminalizing everyone involved. So that’s seller, buyer and third parties. Lawmakers in these countries apparently hope that the fear of getting arrested will deter people from selling sex. But if you’re forced to choose between obeying the law and feeding yourself or your family, you’re going to do the work anyway, and take the risk.
Criminalization is a trap. It’s hard to get a conventional job when you have a criminal record. Potential employers won’t hire you.Assuming you still need money, you’ll stay in the more flexible, informal economy. The law forces you to keep selling sex, which is the exact opposite of its intended effect. Being criminalized leaves you exposed to mistreatment by the state itself. In many places you may be coerced into paying a bribe or even into having sex with a police officer to avoid arrest. Police and prison guards in Cambodia, for example, have been documented subjecting sex workers to what can only be described as torture:threats at gunpoint, beatings, electric shocks, rape and denial of food.
Another worrying thing: if you’re selling sex in places like Kenya, South Africa or New York, a police officer can arrest you if you’re caught carrying condoms, because condoms can legally be used as evidence that you’re selling sex. Obviously, this increases HIV risk. Imagine knowing if you’re busted carrying condoms, it’ll be used against you. It’s a pretty strong incentive to leave them at home, right? Sex workers working in these places are forced to make a tough choice between risking arrest or having risky sex. What would you choose? Would you pack condoms to go to work? How about if you’re worried the police officer would rape you when he got you in the van?
The second approach to regulating sex work seen in these countries is partial criminalization, where the buying and selling of sex are legal, but surrounding activities, like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street, are banned. Laws like these — we have them in the UK and in France — essentially say to us sex workers, “Hey, we don’t mind you selling sex, just make sure it’s done behind closed doors and all alone.” And brothel-keeping, by the way, is defined as just two or more sex workers working together.Making that illegal means that many of us work alone, which obviously makes us vulnerable to violent offenders. But we’re also vulnerable if we choose to break the law by working together. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was nervous after she was attacked at work, so I said that she could see her clients from my place for a while. During that time, we had another guy turn nasty. I told the guy to leave or I’d call the police. And he looked at the two of us and said, “You girls can’t call the cops. You’re working together, this place is illegal.” He was right. He eventually left without getting physically violent, but the knowledge that we were breaking the law empowered that man to threaten us. He felt confident he’d get away with it.
The prohibition of street prostitution also causes more harm than it prevents. Firstly, to avoid getting arrested, street workers take risks to avoid detection, and that means working alone or in isolated locations like dark forests where they’re vulnerable to attack.If you’re caught selling sex outdoors, you pay a fine. How do you pay that fine without going back to the streets? It was the need for money that saw you in the streets in the first place. And so the fines stack up, and you’re caught in a vicious cycle of selling sex to pay the fines you got for selling sex.
Let me tell you about Mariana Popa who worked in Redbridge, East London. The street workers on her patch would normally wait for clients in groups for safety in numbers and to warn each other about how to avoid dangerous guys. But during a police crackdown on sex workers and their clients, she was forced to work alone to avoid being arrested. She was stabbed to death in the early hours of October 29, 2013. She had been working later than usual to try to pay off a fine she had received for soliciting.
So if criminalizing sex workers hurts them, why not just criminalize the people who buy sex? This is the aim of the third approach I want to talk about — the Swedish or Nordic model of sex-work law. The idea behind this law is that selling sex is intrinsically harmful and so you’re, in fact, helping sex workers by removing the option. Despite growing support for what’s often described as the “end demand” approach, there’s no evidence that it works. There’s just as much prostitution in Sweden as there was before.Why might that be? It’s because people selling sex often don’t have other options for income. If you need that money, the only effect that a drop in business is going have is to force you to lower your prices or offer more risky sexual services. If you need to find more clients, you might seek the help of a manager. So you see, rather than putting a stop to what’s often descried as pimping, a law like this actually gives oxygen to potentially abusive third parties.
To keep safe in my work, I try not to take bookings from someone who calls me from a withheld number. If it’s a home or a hotel visit, I try to get a full name and details. If I worked under the Swedish model, a client would be too scared to give me that information. I might have no other choice but to accept a booking from a man who is untraceable if he later turns out to be violent. If you need their money, you need to protect your clients from the police. If you work outdoors, that means working alone or in isolated locations, just as if you were criminalized yourself. It might mean getting into cars quicker, less negotiating time means snap decisions. Is this guy dangerous or just nervous? Can you afford to take the risk? Can you afford not to?
Something I’m often hearing is, “Prostitution would be fine if we made it legal and regulated it.” We call that approach legalization,and it’s used by countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Nevada in the US. But it’s not a great model for human rights. And in state-controlled prostitution, commercial sex can only happen in certain legally-designated areas or venues, and sex workers are made to comply with special restrictions, like registration and forced health checks. Regulation sounds great on paper, but politicians deliberately make regulation around the sex industry expensive and difficult to comply with. It creates a two-tiered system: legal and illegal work. We sometimes call it “backdoor criminalization.” Rich, well-connected brothel owners can comply with the regulations, but more marginalized people find those hoops impossible to jump through. And even if it’s possible in principle, getting a license or proper venue takes time and costs money. It’s not going to be an option for someone who’s desperate and needs money tonight. They might be a refugee or fleeing domestic abuse. In this two-tiered system, the most vulnerable people are forced to work illegally, so they’re still exposed to all the dangers of criminalization I mentioned earlier.
So. It’s looking like all attempts to control or prevent sex work from happening makes things more dangerous for people selling sex. Fear of law enforcement makes them work alone in isolated locations, and allows clients and even cops to get abusive in the knowledge they’ll get away with it. Fines and criminal records force people to keep selling sex, rather than enabling them to stop. Crackdowns on buyers drive sellers to take dangerous risks and into the arms of potentially abusive managers.
These laws also reinforce stigma and hatred against sex workers. When France temporarily brought in the Swedish model two years ago, ordinary citizens took it as a cue to start carrying out vigilante attacks against people working on the street. In Sweden, opinion surveys show that significantly more people want sex workers to be arrested now than before the law was brought in. If prohibition is this harmful, you might ask, why it so popular?
Firstly, sex work is and always has been a survival strategy for all kinds of unpopular minority groups: people of color, migrants,people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, particularly trans women. These are the groups most heavily profiled and punished through prohibitionist law. I don’t think this is an accident. These laws have political support precisely because they target people that voters don’t want to see or know about.
Why else might people support prohibition? Well, lots of people have understandable fears about trafficking. Folks think that foreign women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery can be saved by shutting a whole industry down. So let’s talk about trafficking. Forced labor does occur in many industries, especially those where the workers are migrants or otherwise vulnerable,and this needs to be addressed. But it’s best addressed with legislation targeting those specific abuses, not an entire industry.When 23 undocumented Chinese migrants drowned while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in 2004, there were no calls to outlaw the entire seafood industry to save trafficking victims. The solution is clearly to give workers more legal protections,allowing them to resist abuse and report it to authorities without fear of arrest.
The way the term trafficking is thrown around implies that all undocumented migration into prostitution is forced. In fact, many migrants have made a decision, out of economic need, to place themselves into the hands of people smugglers. Many do this with the full knowledge that they’ll be selling sex when they reach their destination. And yes, it can often be the case that these people smugglers demand exorbitant fees, coerce migrants into work they don’t want to do and abuse them when they’re vulnerable. That’s true of prostitution, but it’s also true of agricultural work, hospitality work and domestic work. Ultimately, nobody wants to be forced to do any kind of work, but that’s a risk many migrants are willing to take, because of what they’re leaving behind. If people were allowed to migrate legally they wouldn’t have to place their lives into the hands of people smugglers. The problems arise from the criminalization of migration, just as they do from the criminalization of sex work itself.
This is a lesson of history. If you try to prohibit something that people want or need to do, whether that’s drinking alcohol or crossing borders or getting an abortion or selling sex, you create more problems than you solve. Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things. But it makes a huge difference as to whether or not they’re safe when they do them.
Why else might people support prohibition? As a feminist, I know that the sex industry is a site of deeply entrenched social inequality. It’s a fact that most buyers of sex are men with money, and most sellers are women without. You can agree with all that — I do — and still think prohibition is a terrible policy. In a better, more equal world, maybe there would be far fewer people selling sex to survive, but you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence. If someone needs to sell sex because they’re poor or because they’re homeless or because they’re undocumented and they can’t find legal work, taking away that option doesn’t make them any less poor or house them or change their immigration status.
People worry that selling sex is degrading. Ask yourself: is it more degrading than going hungry or seeing your children go hungry? There’s no call to ban rich people from hiring nannies or getting manicures, even though most of the people doing that labor are poor, migrant women. It’s the fact of poor migrant women selling sex specifically that has some feminists uncomfortable. And I can understand why the sex industry provokes strong feelings. People have all kinds of complicated feelings when it comes to sex. But we can’t make policy on the basis of mere feelings, especially not over the heads of the people actually effected by those policies. If we get fixated on the abolition of sex work, we end up worrying more about a particular manifestation of gender inequality, rather than about the underlying causes.
People get really hung up on the question, “Well, would you want your daughter doing it?” That’s the wrong question. Instead, imagine she is doing it. How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?
So we’ve looked at full criminalization, partial criminalization, the Swedish or Nordic Model and legalization, and how they all cause harm. Something I never hear asked is: “What do sex workers want?” After all, we’re the ones most affected by these laws.
New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003. It’s crucial to remember that decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing. Decriminalization means the removal of laws that punitively target the sex industry, instead treating sex work much like any other kind of work. In New Zealand, people can work together for safety, and employers of sex workers are accountable to the state. A sex worker can refuse to see a client at any time, for any reason, and 96 percent of street workers report that they feel the law protects their rights. New Zealand hasn’t actually seen an increase in the amount of people doing sex work, but decriminalizing it has made it a lot safer. But the lesson from New Zealand isn’t just that its particular legislation is good, but that crucially, it was written in collaboration with sex workers; namely, the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective. When it came to making sex work safer, they were ready to hear it straight from sex workers themselves.
Here in the UK, I’m part of sex worker-led groups like the Sex Worker Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes.And we form part of a global movement demanding decriminalization and self-determination. The universal symbol of our movement is the red umbrella. We’re supported in our demands by global bodies like UNAIDS, the World Health Organization and Amnesty International. But we need more allies. If you care about gender equality or poverty or migration or public health, then sex worker rights matter to you. Make space for us in your movements. That means not only listening to sex workers when we speak but amplifying our voices. Resist those who silence us, those who say that a prostitute is either too victimized, too damaged to know what’s best for herself, or else too privileged and too removed from real hardship, not representative of the millions of voiceless victims. This distinction between victim and empowered is imaginary. It exists purely to discredit sex workersand make it easy to ignore us.
No doubt many of you work for a living. Well, sex work is work, too. Just like you, some of us like our jobs, some of us hate them.Ultimately, most of us have mixed feelings. But how we feel about our work isn’t the point. And how others feel about our work certainly isn’t. What’s important is that we have the right to work safely and on our own terms.
Sex workers are real people. We’ve had complicated experiences and complicated responses to those experiences. But our demands are not complicated. You can ask expensive escorts in New York City, brothel workers in Cambodia, street workers in South Africa and every girl on the roster at my old job in Soho, and they will all tell you the same thing. You can speak to millions of sex workers and countless sex work-led organizations. We want full decriminalization and labor rights as workers.
I’m just one sex worker on the stage today, but I’m bringing a message from all over the world.