6 things we learnt at the Sex Workers Open University Conference

Sex Workers rights

Following a symposium in the House of Commons last week, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) to give evidence on the case for decriminalisation of sex work, the education and advocacy group, the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) held a two day conference, including an Open Conference on the Advancement of Sex Worker Rights.

I went along to the Graeae Theatre in Hoxton, East London, to listen to speakers from the UK and Ireland, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Thailand and the USA, and to find out more about the situation and call for decriminalisation. Here’s what I learnt…

Sex workers are seen as part of the problem when it comes to trafficking when in reality they could be part of the solution

Paola Ezquerra from the Barcelona-based Prostitutas Indignadas told how sex workers often find themselves at the centre of discussions on trafficking, in a way that other kinds of workers wouldn’t. We all know that trafficking for sex exists but unlike other industries, she explained, people are oddly quick to point the finger at sex workers themselves.

“If you worked in a garment factory no one blames you if there’s trafficking going on, but if you’re a sex worker they do,” she said.

In their draft policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect, and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers, Amnesty laid out the situation as they saw it.

The draft policy reads:

By definition, sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so, (that is, are choosing voluntarily to do so), making it distinct from trafficking

To use Paola’s example, this is the same as the distinction between a person who is employed in a garment factory of their own consent and one who has been trafficked into one and is being forced into said labour.

In further elucidations, a Q&A on Amnesty’s website reads: “Decriminalizing sex work would not mean removing criminal penalties for trafficking. There is no evidence to suggest that decriminalization results in more trafficking,

“When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are better able work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it.”

Furthermore, the article reads: “When they are not threatened with criminalization, sex workers are also able to collaborate with law enforcement to identify traffickers and victims of trafficking.”

Critics of the resolution have described it as “a gift to pimps and buyers of sex”. However, as far as I could tell, not one actual sex worker in attendance at Friday’s conference agreed.

It is, however, fair to say that sex workers encounter levels of violence far above average and have little access to support and services

Current statistics from National Ugly Mugs a scheme set up to provide support to sex workers who are targeted by dangerous individuals but who are reluctant to go to the police, show that 80% of sex workers in the UK have experienced street-based violence.

To break the stats down further, 50% say they regularly fear for their safety but only 25% have ever reported incidents to the police. These figures include female, male, transgender and non-binary sex workers.

The reasons are very straightforward. Since many of the activities surrounding sex work are illegal ( The CPS has an outline of the laws currently governing sex work HERE) sex workers know that even when they don’t risk arrest by police, their complaints are unlikely to be taken seriously.

Reports of actual encounters with police include being told “If they were going to hurt you, they would have done it already,” after reporting threats and “What do you expect? You’re a prostitute.”

Victims of violence also told how their attackers admitted selecting them because they were seen as an easy target.

“I know you won’t report this to the police and even if you do, they won’t believe you,” one attacker was quoted as saying.

It isn’t just legal protection and justice that sex workers are excluded from. One of the conference speakers, Sarah Macauley, a nurse and outreach officer for Open Doors sexual health clinic in London, explained that sex workers find it incredibly difficult to access the health services and advice they need without facing stigma, prejudice, and often downright dismissal.

And Psychotherapist Dr Charlotte Cooper explained that access to mental health care isn’t any easier. On account of their marginalised position in society, sex workers are seen as “unreliable narrators of their own lives” in many therapeutic situations. Service providers focus too much on “rescue” and assume that all sex workers who try to access counselling or therapy are looking to get out of sex work even when they say they’re not, she told the conference.

Yet, when surveyed*, not one single British sex worker thought more criminal laws would help protect them or make their lives safer

Yes, EVERY SINGLE worker who was asked how they thought safety could be improved talked about some form of decriminalisation or legalisation.

So it’s no wonder they feel pretty miffed that hundreds of women – most of whom have absolutely no knowledge or experience of their line of work – have signed the Your Sister petition calling for a rejection of proposals to decriminalise sex work.

Of course, in every industry, in every system in the world there is exploitation but it’s baffling that anyone would believe the best way to combat that is by making it harder and more dangerous for those involved to speak out and access help.

Additionally, as SCOTPEP representative Molly Smith pointed out to conference attendees, the illegal nature of sex work actually makes it more difficult for those who want to leave to do so. For example, how does one explain to a potential employer why the last five years of one’s CV are empty?

“We don’t increase people’s choices by increasing criminalisation,” she said.

*The sex worker’s questioned were among the members of NUM, who also provide information and circulate alerts to enable workers to make safer choices.

In fact, more criminal laws make sex workers more vulnerable, not safer

Molly Smith, from SCOTPEP, told conference attendees how, since Scotland introduced a law to criminalise kerb-crawling in 2007, incidents of street-based violence towards sex workers have increased by 95%. Because of course making kerb-crawling illegal didn’t stop people doing it, it simply forced people to act faster to avoid being caught.

This leads to impatience and furtiveness on the part of the clients and necessitates quick, and often uninformed decisions on the part of the sex workers, explained Molly.

“People have less time to negotiate in the street, less time to make safe assessments,” she said.

To be fair to Scotland, they never said they were trying to help sex workers. Rather, explained then-Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, it was to “correct an unfair legal position” whereby those selling sex could be penalised while those seeking to buy it were not. And the police were certainly happy about it.

“I think the many communities and businesses that have been blighted by the anti-social behaviour that kerb-crawlers create will also be relieved that we have the power to arrest persons who loiter in their areas, often accosting ordinary members of the public as they go about their daily lives,” said Assistant Chief Constable John Neilson, of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos) at the time.

Well it’s certainly good news that communities don’t have to put up with so-called antisocial behaviour. And we’re all no doubt delighted to hear that ordinary members of the public (a category that sex workers apparently do not fall into?!) are able to go about their daily lives (also something that seems not to apply to sex workers) unaccosted.

Meanwhile, did I mention that 80% of sex workers have experienced street-based violence?

Even so, in many cases, sex work is seen as providing better opportunities than other kinds of work

And no, I don’t just mean more money. Although it’s no secret that in many parts of the world sex work can be very lucrative and it is almost always more lucrative than other kinds of unskilled work. Participants in Audacia Ray’s excellent documentary Red Umbrella Diaries about sex work in the USA named, among other things, waiting tables, construction and working in a call centre as examples of jobs they’d done that were less desirable and poorer paid than sex work.

In Thailand, sex workers make more than twice the minimum wage. But not only that, according to Liz Hilton, spokesperson for Thai sex workers collective, Empower, many see it as a desirable lifestyle choice.

“You work in the evenings so you have more time with your family, you get to meet different kinds of people,” she said.

Many other conference attendees agreed. There were nods and murmurs of agreement as speakers told of feeling more flexible, of having more time to study, to spend time with children, to “get on with the shit you like doing!”

Indeed, when NUM partnered with Leeds University earlier this year to conduct the largest survey of sex workers in the UK, they discovered that 91 per cent described their work as “flexible” and 66 per cent described it as “fun”. Over half reported finding their job “rewarding”, “skilful”, “sociable” and “empowering”.

New Zealand’s decriminalisation model isn’t perfect… but it’s bloody inspiring

In 2007 the New Zealand government made it legal for any citizen over the age of 18 to sell sexual services. It isn’t perfect but, as Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective who worked on the decriminalisation campaign, told the conference, has completely changed the face of the working environment.

Where sex workers who encountered sexual harassment, rape, and violence were previously ignored, overlooked or unable to report the incident in the first place, now they are able to testify and help prosecute.

“Last year we had a sex worker who decided it wasn’t cool that her boss was speaking to her in a sexualised way,” said Catherine.

“She won a payout of $25,000 [approx. £12,500] and her boss had to undergo a sexual harassment training course.”

In any other line of work this would be par for the course. In sex work it represents a major milestone.

It’s not just employment rights that are now guaranteed for sex workers in New Zealand. Decriminalisation has improved access to justice and services and given them the same right to police protection as every other citizen. In a recent case, Catherine told the conference, a police officer and client was jailed for three years after he offered to waive the parking fines of one sex worker in lieu of payment. When she refused he turned violent, a situation for which in previous years she would have had no recourse. Happily this is no longer the case.

“Our whole relationship with the police has changed,” said Catherine.

“Their job is to make sure we have access to justice. They do not police us. They are not involved in any part of our licensing or business registration.”

This falls in sharp contrast to the decriminalised situation in Germany which, following the passing of a proposed law, will require all sex workers to register with police and carry a ‘Sex Worker ID card’.

The situation in New Zealand isn’t perfect. For one thing there are still harsh controls on immigration (across the board but particularly for those looking to enter sex work). And for those looking to leave sex work, there are still issues of discrimination from employers and stigma within society as a whole. But the main aims have been achieved.

“The focus on the sex worker isn’t on the sex worker as a criminal,” said Catherine. “It is on the rights, safety, health and wellbeing of the sex worker”.

[For a full run down of the legal background of NZ decriminalisation and how it works, this Open Democracy article is a pretty good start.]

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