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Why decriminalization is best for sex workers and society

05 Aug

Illegalization

This is the classic feminist stance – make all sex work a crime. Radical feminists were pushing for this in the 1970s and some feminists, such as SCASE, continue this fight today.

Illegalization is:

Good because it’d stop commercialisation and target all sex workers, not just streetwalkers as decriminalization currently does. It would target clients as well as sex workers so it’d stop the double standard of criminalizing sex workers and not clients.

No prostitution means women will not be objectified (not sure on this one, though – prostitution and objectification of women may not be linked. And what about men who are prostitutes?)

Bad because the police have to use unethical and questionable methods of entrapment to get prosecutions (e.g. America, where privacy and freedoms have been severely threatened, for example police breaking down doors to catch people having sex). This might actually do more harm than good for sex workers, women and society in general. Art 8 ECHR (right to private and family life) and its case law may preclude using these methods in Britain, because they may fail the two-prong test of being a proportionate response and legitimate in a democratic society.

Bad because illegalization stigmatises and criminalizes the already marginalized sex worker

Bad because prostitution would still exist, though there might be less of it. If sex work is a crime, it means that sex workes will not report rape, other violence, the behaviour of pimps, etc to the police. The policies of brothels (which are now called escort agencies/massage parlours etc, but might change in structure and operation after illegalization) could not be subject to scrutiny. Sex work would be invisible and harder for police to investigate. Sex workers would be more likely to experience rape and less able or willing to go to the authorities for help or escape the sex work criminal underworld,  which would likely be controlled by criminal gangs rather than exist as a cottage industry, as it does now (similar to other illegal things like drugs, guns, etc) . Trafficking would be more rife because of said criminals controlling sex work and less British women willing to do risk punishment by doing sex work. Sex workers charged by the police might lie that they were trafficked to avoid punishment or stop their children being taken away by Social Services. This is happening at this very minute across the pond, where it leads to innocent brothel managers being locked up for sex trafficking. The sex workers who can’t bring themselves to get their colleagues injustly imprisoned get their children taken away. Valuable taxpayer’s money and police time are thrown away tracking down and jailing sex workers and clients. This does not benefit sex workers, clients or society at all. Neither does the existence of a criminal-controlled prostitution underworld.

So, we can see that while illegalization does have its good points, ultimately it endangers sex workers and also our general individual freedom from state/police intervention. It gives nothing of benefit to society and harms society by hurting families, generating crime and trafficking, and wasting police resources that could be better used stopping murder, rape, etc.

Legalisation argument

Legalization:

Stops streetwalking, the most dangerous type of sex work, as workers can work in legal brothels (a la Nevada in America, Australia, Netherlands)

Stops the public nuisance aspect of streetwalking with red light districts/zones/designated sex work areas (Netherlands, zones in some Scottish cities such as by the docks in Leith, Edinburgh)

Safer, cleaner, better environment for sex workers because brothels will be registered with the state and subject to inspections. (I like to use the body modification or tattoo industry analogy here – licensing and inspections enforce safety).

Improves their rights

Health checkups to stop disease

Stops stigmatization/criminalization

It’s a useful social service for shy, disabled or lonely men

Can tax sex workers so the state earns money (ILO supports this as its good for poor countries)

Oldest profession/we must learn to accept it

Response to male needs

Just a job

Problems

Some workers prefer streetwalking as they choose their own clients and working hours, or aren’t organised enough to work in brothels, or have HIV and are rejected by brothels

Checkups usually only on sex workers not clients (though not in Australia where the client sticks his thing in the wall and it scans for diseases!)

Diseased or drug addicted women rejected by state brothels

Some people prefer to run illegal brothels so they will still exist

Sex workers who streetwalk or are unregistered/working in illegal brothels are criminalized even more than in the present decriminalized approach in the UK

Workers in illegal brothels or streetwalkers fear to report violence as they would be charged with being a non-registered sex worker (the illegalization problem again)

Sex workers’ rights not always protected

Environments are worse as they cannot choose own clients

Many clients married, not shy or disabled

The oldest profession argument is fatalistic/defeatist (Matthews)

Natural response to male needs argument stops discussion of female needs (McIntosh)

Supports double standard (Jeffreys)

Reinforces patriarchal male dominance (Schoular)

Assumes all laws are bad, ignores the way they protect women from exploitation

Checkups historically only on women and forced, doesn’t protect them from clients

Liberals depict women doing it because they enjoy it or find it empowering however many are coerced into it or forced to do sex work because of poverty (Doezema). The image of the ‘happy hooker’ may be true for educated women such as students (the ‘Belle du Jour’ experience)  – who usually work off the street – but not for working class women especially streetwalkers. Most become sex workers before the age of 18 – are they really magically consenting as soon as they turn 18?

Prostitute identity inseparable from sense of self, unlike other jobs (Phoenix)

Trafficking increases with legalization

Red light zones are bad places for women to live as street harrassment increases a lot and crime tends to thrive once an area is designated.

So, legalization doesn’t protect streetwalkers or workers in illegal brothels and actually victimizes them more, similarly to illegalization. It is also bad for women who aren’t sex workers as they get harassed. Legalization may be good for non-streetwalkers, but it still comes with mixed blessings, such as forced sexual health checkups, mandatory registration of real identity with the state/less privacy and anonymity and being taxed on earnings, which may cause sex workers to increase their prices.

Decriminalisation argument

Decriminalization (the current UK situation) is:

Less hypocritical

Health/control disease by voluntary checkups

Allows welfare provision and exiting strategies as well as allowing freedom to be a sex worker at the same time, thus allowing sex workers to choose their destiny

Avoids stigmatisation by the criminal justice system and social attitudes

Sex work is not harmful/is consensual so law has no right to intervene

Laws protect workers from exploitation, unlike legalization

Sex workers can report violence to police without fear, so they are more safe

Trafficking rates low as British people willing to do sex work as it’s not a crime, they can choose how they work and they don’t have to register their legal name

Problems

The relationship may be unequal or coercive, not really consensual

May allow more profits to be made from prostitution/increased commercialization which is bad for sex workers’ rights

Legitimising prostitution only accentuates the double standard/polarised view of gender roles and sex, however not as much as legalizing it would do

Legitimising it increases harassment of women in red light districts and sexual assaults, but again not as much as legalization

So, decriminalization, while not without its problems, is the best for sex workers because it allows them freedom while simultaneously offering exiting help to those who want to leave the industry. Privacy and anonymity are protected and sex workers can choose whether they want to streetwalk, work from home or in a brothel. Although soliciting and kerb-crawling are crimes, this is necessary to stop public nuisance and is not punishable by jail time for either the sex worker or the client. Women are protected from the street harrassment common in legalization, and decriminalization does not support the double standard as much as legalization does.

This doesn’t mean that it all ends here and we can’t make changes within a decriminalization framework.

Roger Matthews argues that we need to move beyond existing approaches to decriminalization and legalization and construct an alternative, radical regulationism. He then outlines some general legislative routes through which this radical regulationism could be realised:

General deterrence – criminalize clients rather than focus on sex worker

Stop commercialization of sex work – allow sex workers to cohabit to a degree, to protect themselves; from dangerous clients or needing the protection of a pimp

Exploitation and corruption: harsher sentencing/longer prison sentence as it is a form of rape; current UK legislation can’t differentiate between friends and parasites or protect women from pimps. However, Matthews doesn’t discuss this or mention evidence, though it is true, it would just have been nice to see some discussion of this.

Disturbance/harassment/nuisance – criminalize and deter clients who are more easily deterred than sex workers (proven by the Home Office report that they are much more easily deterred).

Proof of annoyance should be required for conviction of either,  not just police evidence, treat both client and sex worker equally, respect for  their rights and civil liberties (how, Matthews? If they are not allowed to sell sex, isn’t that already a violation?)

Radical regulationism differs from the Wolfenden approach cos not liberal or focussed on public nuisance or public visibility of prostitution; however, Matthews’ radical regulationism does put a lot of importance on harassment/public nuisance; it is one of its 4 strands. The fact that he doesn’t want to illegalize it is still “liberal” – ie rejects New Right discourse of prostitution as dirty- just he sees commercialization as a bad thing, unlike liberal/libertarian perspectives which are neutral or see it as good, but that’s the only real difference between radical regulationism and the Wolfenden approach/current situation (especially since the 1985 and 2007 acts do criminalize clients).

(This view by an academic is an example of how things could be changed. Doubtless you have your own views. I included this view to show that, even while accepting decriminalization and not pushing for the other two options, real change can still be fought for. Realising the status quo is the best way doesn’t mean we can’t get radical.)

References/stuff you might like to read if you’re interested

R. Matthews (1986) “Beyond Wolfenden? Prostitution, Politics and the Law” in R. Matthews and J. Young (eds) Confronting Crime, London: Sage

R. Matthews (2008) “Prostitution, vulnerability and victimisation” in Prostitution, Politics and Policy, Abingdon: Routledge-Cavendish

The Scottish Executive (2004) Being Outside: A Response to Street Prostitution (about exiting strategies and small red light zones in non-residential areas of cities. Proves that there’s only about 2,000 prostitutes in all of Scotland who streetwalk or work out of flats. However, this isn’t counting call girls and those who work in massage parlours/saunas so is an underestimation.) Available at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/30859/0024989.pdf)

J. Phoenix (2000) “Prostitute Identities: Men, Money and Violence” British Journal of Criminology 40 (1) 37-55

R. Matthews (1993) Kerb-Crawling, Prostitution and Multi-Agency Policing”, Police Research Group Paper 43, London: Home Office

For Scottish Government information on the regulation of prostitution in Scotland (including information on recent legislation) see: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Justice/crimes/Response

Home Office (2004) Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution, London: Home Office (just Google it)

 
2 Comments

Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Feminism, Sex work

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Why decriminalization is best for sex workers and society

  1. BroadBlogs

    September 28, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    So important.

     

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