By its strictest definition, sex work is the term used for any kind of job involved in the sex industry. There are more than 70,000 sex workers in the UK at the moment and yet the Government isn’t protecting them.
In the UK, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell sex. But there’s a catch. Numerous activities involved in sex work, including soliciting and brothel-keeping are illegal. The criminalisation of brothel-keeping, in particular, is an inherently unsafe practice that puts thousands of sex workers all over the UK at risk. When forced to work alone, they face the risk of violence and yet, if they decide to work together, they cannot call the police for aid because of the risk of being arrested. It’s a lose-lose situation. The minimum sentence for brothel-keeping is six months and the maximum is seven years.
However, for some sex workers, prison time isn’t the main concern — deportation is. Immigrant sex workers face deportation if a police raid finds that they have broken the law. It’s interesting how a practice that is supposedly meant to protect people, instead threatens someone’s everyday life.
Maria Santos’ case epitomises the need for decriminalisation. She was in the UK on a visitor visa for six months but had to take up sex work to have enough money to return home to Brazil. She was working out of an apartment with a few other girls when five men broke in, robbed them and then held them at knifepoint on June 24, 2017.
The other girls didn’t want to call the police, but Maria decided to call them regardless and informed them on the phone that she was a sex worker. Yet when the police arrived, they were more interested in the girls’ sex work than the assault itself. They failed to get a proper statement from the women and didn’t contact them about it afterwards. Instead, the women received a letter threatening deportation and arrest if they continued using their premises as a brothel. Luckily for Maria, the rampant media attention discouraged the Government from deporting her.
Yet my main issue with this story is about how the sex workers were treated. Before the police had even arrived, they’d already made up their minds on who these women were. They didn’t treat them as the victims of an assault — but as criminals. Cases like these are what discourage sex workers from coming forward with their stories of assault and violence.
Campaigns for Decriminalisation
Groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) are campaigning to reform the sex work laws in the UK to improve working women’s rights.
To be honest, the goal of fully decriminalising sex work isn’t such a pipe dream. New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 and the results have been excellent. There’s been no increase in the number of sex workers. In fact, 64.8 per cent of sex workers say that it is easier to refuse clients, and over 90 per cent of sex workers have access to safety, health and legal rights. This model for what decriminalisation should look like is supported by other campaigners, such as Juno Mac (Co-Author of Revolting Prostitutes) in her Ted Talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.
There’s even evidence to suggest that public opinion in the UK is beginning to sway towards supporting decriminalisation. There was a recent survey by the charity RightsInfo which discovered that 49 per cent of British people from a poll of 2,000 people were in favour of decriminalising brothel-keeping and 44 per cent strongly support decriminalising street solicitation. Now, this can’t be said to be conclusive evidence, but it does indicate that views towards sex work are changing.
But I want to take a step back and examine what I’ve said for a moment. When you strip down this article back to its basic principles, it comes to this: I believe that a worker has the right to be safe in their job (however questionable that profession may be), and that the Government has an ethical and legal obligation to provide that safety. It’s that simple
The only reason what I believe is deemed ‘controversial’ is because sex is involved.
Let’s stop demonising sex workers. Let’s stop ignoring the fact that these are human beings working in this industry and instead strive to protect them. After all, sex work is one of the oldest industries in the world, so I doubt it’s going to collapse anytime soon — but it could be made safer and more humane.