The debate over sex workers’ rights is finally being won

By Alex Feis-Bryce

After years of moralistic ideology prevailing over evidence, and policy being formed about, but not with, sex workers, the landmark decision by Amnesty International to support decriminalisation has brought a new sense of hope to the sex worker rights movement. This was on full display at the English Collective of Prostitutes' (ECP) event in the House of Commons this week which saw sex workers and their allies, including politicians from all of the main parties, presenting compelling evidence in favour of decriminalising sex work. Also this week, the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) are holding four days of conferences, workshops, parties and even a sex worker film festival. Next week MSP Jean Urquhart’s Bill to decriminalise sex work in Scotland will be launched in the Scottish Parliament.

At last the voice of sex workers is being heard. Until recently, rather than being in a position to lead the debate, it felt like sex workers and allies were forced to focus their energies on constantly putting out the fires instigated by those driven by radical feminist or fundamentalist Christian ideology.

Just a year ago MPs were voting on an attempt by Labour MP Fiona McTaggart to shoehorn the criminalisation of the purchase of sex into a bill about something entirely different: the Modern Slavery Bill. A move which was orchestrated by a small group of MPs who operate under the banner of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, funded by the evangelical Christian organisation CARE. Their most notable work was their heavily criticised and frankly ridiculous attempt to gather "evidence" to produce their report 'Shifting the Burden'. They still manage to waste Parliamentary time pushing their ideology, such as a recent Parliamentary debate led by their Chair Gavin Shuker MP, but in just a year the mood has changed so significantly that they are no longer seen as a substantial threat, just a strange club where self-described radical feminists and evangelical Christians come together to dream about creating a moral utopia at whatever cost.

So, aside from the Amnesty decision, what other factors have led to this dawn of a new era of hope and optimism for the sex worker rights movement? 

Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership was also a key victory for sex workers.  As well as bringing long-standing advocates of decriminalisation like John McDonnell MP to the fore it also coincided with a reduction in the influence of Harriet Harman, who is always too willing to accept and regurgitate dodgy claims that supports her narrow ideological, morally conservative feminism. Labour, along with the Greens and the Lib Dems, can now be counted among the allies of sex workers and it was heartening to see representatives from all the main political parties sharing a platform in the House of Commons this week calling for decriminalisation based on evidence. Yes, evidence finally seems to matter.

As their influence in the national debate wanes it is easy to dismiss the anti sex worker lobby and mock their casual relationship with the truth, but in many areas their ideas still prevail. The Mayor's Office For Policing and Crime in London, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Scottish Government all inexplicably define consensual sex work as violence. It is utterly indefensible that such organisations, particularly those who are part of our criminal justice system could have a policy which fails to distinguish between consensual sex and rape. It is also grossly offensive to anyone who has experienced genuine sexual violence, particularly those sex workers who have. No wonder many sex workers are reluctant to engage with the criminal justice process. Even the UK’s own so-called Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland often fails to distinguish between trafficking and sex work.

These ideologies have also been entrenched on the ground in many areas.  Only a few weeks ago I was speaking to a representative in a London borough who was leading a multi-agency response to human trafficking which they believed was a major issue in the borough. When I asked him how many cases of sex trafficking there had been in the borough in the last year he said four. Yes, four. So, it's either not happening as often as they believe or their efforts to disrupt indoor sex markets which have hugely adverse effects for sex workers, is pushing it further underground, making it less likely that victims will come forward. The point isn't that trafficking isn't happening or that it isn’t utterly abhorrent, it's that the obsession with trafficking in brothels is based on evidential falsehoods and the resulting policy actions seriously harm sex workers, misallocate resources and ultimately does little to prevent or detect trafficking. Similar approaches are prevalent throughout the country.

In Hull, for example, sex workers have been named and shamed by local media at the behest of local authorities, supported by local police, to create a 'Prostitution-free zone' which is at best a total breach of process and a human rights violation and at worst a reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of a group of marginalised individuals. It is no wonder that none of the sex workers who have reported crimes to National Ugly Mugs in that area have been willing to engage with the local police.

Sex workers and their allies, or the 'Pimp Lobby' as we're derided by our opponents, are right to be optimistic about the future but we must never be complacent or divided when there are so many injustices left to fight. As long as sex workers in places like Hull are being demonised and harassed by the authorities, as long as policy-makers deliberately misrepresent facts and ignore evidence, as long as sex workers are murdered or raped simply because the offenders feel they will get away with it and as long as women are dragged out of flats in Soho by police in riot gear accompanied by the media claiming that their actions are an attempt to 'save victims of trafficking' then there is a great deal of work still to be done.

The evidence in favour of decriminalisation is overwhelming and perhaps we have, at least in the UK, reached a tipping point where the weight of the evidence has finally trumped the ideological narrative of those in favour of using legislation to eradicate sex work. The voices of sex workers are increasingly being heard. As a sex worker from Thailand, who was quoted at the ECP event in Parliament, said: "thanks for your concern but we'd rather have your respect and the right to work how we choose."

Alex Feis-Bryce is the director of services for the campaign National Ugly Mugs

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