Comment: Criminalising clients just makes sex work more dangerous

By Margaret Corvid

The so-called Nordic model approach to sex work, which criminalises the client, is finally upon us. After being voted in in Northern Ireland, criminalisation of clients been snuck into the modern slavery bill with an amendment and two clauses by MP Fiona MacTaggart. The bill is being read today, and if these amendments are passed, it will mark the end of an era for the sex workers of the UK, with an exception to those in Scotland, where the criminalisation of clients has already been rejected.

While there is some good in the bill, including a clause that removes the offences of loitering and soliciting for street-based sex workers, the amendments that criminalise clients must be voted down, for the sake of the safety of sex workers everywhere.

MacTaggart claims there was evidence that in Sweden criminalising clients reduced demand and trafficking.  But our parliament is being misled by faulty statistics which leave out the voices of the vast majority of sex workers.

Let's take the law in Sweden itself.  Supporters of criminalisation claim it reduced the occurrence of street-based sex work between 1999 and 2008, but the Rose Alliance, which represents organised sex work in Sweden, disputes the use of these numbers. They say the numbers have gone back up in the following six years. Sex workers have also moved indoors, working out of their own homes, or in a new profusion of massage parlours.  Sex work is referred to as the world’s oldest profession for a reason, because it fulfils a need within society, and it will always find a way to exist.

We have a few sobering experiments with criminalisation here in the UK. In Edinburgh, sex workers reported that attacks nearly doubled after kerb-crawling was made illegal – even before the law came into effect – and then has increased even more as their work was driven further underground.  Women had resorted to arranging meetings by mobile phone. According to sex workers, meeting in more isolated locations makes their work more dangerous

Anything that drives sex work underground can cause this dramatic increase in danger – particularly criminalising clients.  If a client's hire of a sex worker's services is illegal, they are far less likely to give out the personal information required for a sex worker's safety screening.  That's why organisations with years of experience, like the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and the Safety First Coalition, which was formed for the protection of sex workers after the spree of an Ipswich serial killer, oppose this approach.

The principal reason to oppose criminalisation is that it will deeply undermine the safety of sex workers, but it's also important to remember that people who seek sexual services will also be less safe if they are forced to commit an offence when they do so.  If you believe that sex is an important part of the human experience, it is essential to remember that not everyone can access that experience simply by meeting someone by chance.  I am a professional dominatrix and an activist for sex worker rights; in my experience, we often have clients who, through disability or personal circumstances, have literally no other opportunity to seek sexual expression other than with a professional.  Should their only opportunity for safe intimacy be made illegal?

Evidence actually shows that decriminalisation is the most effective approach in both reducing coercion and making sex work safer for workers and clients alike.  In New Zealand, sex work has been decriminalised since 2003, and there have been marked improvements in the health and safety of sex workers.  After a five year review, there was no increase in the amount of sex work, but there was an increase in the capacity of sex workers to report violence and leave sex work if they choose to do so. Unfortunately, this example, and the example of Canada's Supreme Court, which threw out their laws for violating the safety of sex workers, have largely been ignored in this debate.

Many women’s groups, sex worker organisations, UN medical agencies, the Lancet medical journal and a large part of our population agree sex work should be decriminalised.  We have a chance to let sex work make itself as free and as ethical as possible.  Let’s avoid the trap of doing the opposite, and keep the purchase of sexual services legal.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the South West of the UK.  She blogs for the New Statesman and has appeared recently in, the Guardian, Jezebel, and xoJane.  She tweets at @mistress_magpie.

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