Deemed the world’s oldest profession, or the oldest oppression, debate surrounding the decriminalisation of sex work is one which deserves upmost attention. Sex work, referring to the buying and selling of bodies for fornicating purposes, will be defined in the context of consenting adults. Sex trafficking is a real issue, in which vulnerable, often underaged people are coerced to prostitute themselves for their trafficker’s preference. This unjustified exploitation enslaves over 1.2 million children each year and must be kept illegal, to help tackle this injustice. My argument in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work does not concern trafficking, or rape of any kind. Rather, it involves men and women who trade their bodies as prized goods like no other, who do not choose the industry as a last resort, yet, who are unprotected in the eyes of the law.
Speaking with anonymised prostitutes in the industry, named Amber and Beatrice, to defend their identity, this article relays the reality of working in the sex industry without legal protection. Unpacking the stigma behind their profession and envisioning how a safer future can be mitigated, as their industry, thriving behind hotel doors, in dungeons or online, is evidently here to stay.
Prostitution is often perceived as a dim and bottomless pit in which lovely women are groomed by pimps, trapped in endless cycles of exploitation, drugs and depression. In reality, not all workers are coerced. Many choose the trade because they want to. Although not all may like it, just as in any occupation, explains Amber. A notable exception to this is survival sex, when people facing extreme poverty sell their bodies to meet basic survival needs such as shelter, water or food. In these instances, the decriminalisation of harlotry is a secondary issue to the main prerogatives of education, drug rehabilitation and socioeconomic reform, which help these people renter society.
In the UK, prostitution in itself is legal. Nevertheless, many activities linked to prostitution are not, colouring the British sex industry as a politically grey area. For example, if more than one person uses a premise for harlotry, it is deemed a brothel which is prohibited, rendering any group sex work illegal. Furthermore, Amber explains she is unable to work from her house if her boyfriend knew, because he would be lawfully classed as a 'pimp,' and susceptible to persecution.
Such criminalisation is problematic in instances where sex workers are caught in volatile situations, preceding assault, rape, theft or even murder. Due to the private and physically exposing nature of their industry, legal protection is imperative.
Nevertheless, a current lack of education surrounding the legality of the sex industry, and the deeply engrained stigma towards workers means seeking help from police is futile. Beatrice revealed an instance in which her client removed a condom without her consent, a form of rape named stealthing. Confronting the police about the matter, she was turned away due to the nature of her profession. Discouraged to investigate the crime further.
Beatrice argues officials severely underestimate the number of prostitutes in the UK, as very few come forward. Not necessarily due to embarrassment, but rather, due to widespread discrimination in society towards the sex trade. However, people enter morally questionable professions all the time- consider doctors who perform abortions, nuclear weapon manufacturers or hedge fund managers on Wall Street for example. How different is the selling of the soul to the selling of the body? Where the former is aspirational, the latter is despised.
Decriminalising the sex trade arguably offers a solution to protect workers. Aiming to decrease the stigma and increase tolerance towards prostitutes, so that they can turn to the police as a viable solution when faced with threats. Whilst also, combatting sex trafficking.
One approach to do this is the ‘Nordic Model’, which legalises the selling of sex while criminalising those who pay for it. Having been pioneered in Sweden, Hull MP Dame Diana Johnson currently advocates this approach under the Sexual Exploitation Bill, in a bid to tackle human trafficking. She claims British shores are a ‘high-value, low-risk’ location for prostitution, yet the state is failing to regulate demand. Fuelling the ever increasing, ruthless, sex trafficking industry. The Nordic model enables victims to gain access to support and education to exit the sex trade, while perpetrators- among them, traffickers, pimps and brothel owners, are arrested for their actions.
Speaking with Amber and Beatrice, it is clear prostitutes that on the ground are disheartened by Johnson’s approach and claim legalising their profession is undesirable. Despite being perceived to be positive, Amber and Beatrice fear criminalising the buying of sex will deter customers. Furthermore, clients will be far less inclined to share identity information, which is crucial when screening clients: the process of checking STIs, criminality, and relevant background information, proving the client is safe to interact with. For example, online platforms such as ‘Client Eye’, an anonymous reporting system, have previously saved Amber’s life. Such as, when a suspicious customer approached her, desiring bestiality interactions. After typing his identity into ‘Client Eye’, several reports of his crimes emerged, proving the man was dangerous. If clients are not willing to share their true identity, out of fear of being criminalised, prostitutes everywhere are under threat.
Legalising the industry under the Nordic Model is problematic, as power over workers’ bodies ultimately lie in the hands of government. Through introducing new bills and reforms, which may take decades to pass. However, protection is needed immanently.
As such, decriminalising harlotry must be favoured above legalisation, as it sidesteps these issues. Returning political power to the sex workers themselves to set their own rules and regulation, making them agents of their own design.
This partly explains why virtual sexual platforms such as OnlyFans, and to a degree TikTok are so successful, as workers themselves establish their own terms of contract. Amber claims OnlyFans is currently her preferred and primary source of income, as she gains money ‘on her own terms’, through setting her own pricing and work hours. Whilst maintaining upmost security from clients, the work being mediated by an iPhone screen.
The women I spoke to, argue all aspects of the sex industry should be decriminalised, with the condition that governmental regulation to tackle human trafficking is tightened. Such as, through improved border security, or through increasing collaboration and communication between politicians, charities and prostitutes. Of whom, offer eyes on the ground and are in a better position to gain access to illicit channels and report misconduct. For every trafficked man, woman and child leaves a trace.
Overall, there should be greater social interaction between the politicians passing bills in Parliament and the real prostitutes on the ground, in order to best understand the issues faced, leading to informed solutions. Balancing the decriminalisation of this industry, protecting consenting workers in the UK, with the on-going struggle against the sex trafficking.
Written by Stephanie Frank
Stephanie Frank is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: SG ZA |Wikimedia.org