First published on Harlot’s Parlour.
(I’m not a sex worker activist and though I’ve been planning this post for months, I wasn’t sure if I should write it; if I’m not a sex worker activist, or even a representative sex worker, then how can I tell sex worker activists what to think? But after a brief conversation on Twitter, I decided to finally post this. – K )
If you’re for sex workers’ rights then you have to be for street sex workers’ rights too. Otherwise you’re not standing for ALL sex workers. If you think that your brand of sex work, whatever it is, should be decriminalised and that you deserve rights but that street sex work should remain criminalised, then that’s elitism. You’re saying that you’re “better” than street workers, or that you’re different to them in a way that you aren’t different to other sex workers who work in different areas of the industry but not on the street.
And if you take the view that street sex work is dangerous and therefore should be criminalised – well. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the antis’ argument against the entire sex industry (including the adult entertainment industry). So, basically, you’re an anti – just an anti who wants non-street work decriminalised but is still for the abolition of street work.
Finally, if you believed that street sex workers have agency and can choose to work, how could you deny them human and labour rights? So it’s clear that to be in support of criminalising street sex work, you have to see street workers as having no agency or in need of “rescuing” by sex worker activists. Again, this might sound all too familiar.
And let’s be practical – criminalising street sex work in the UK has been proven to create what academics call the “revolving door” effect: street workers are fined for soliciting and then have to do more sex work to pay off the fine. While working to pay off the fine, they’re arrested again and hit with another fine, and so on. Which actually stops them from “exiting” street work (oh, how I hate that phrase – for all other jobs we say “finding another job”.) So, if you’re eager to rescue street workers, criminalisation actually works against your objectives. Not to mention the fact that a woman or man with several soliciting offences on their criminal record is not going to find it easy to get employment in another industry.
The Merseyside model includes exiting strategies and only uses arrest as a last resort, though unfortunately the use of exiting strategies instead of fines is, in my view, just as intrusive and is also a harassment – not to mention insulting as it implies that street work is unacceptable and that the worker doesn’t have agency. (That’s the one bit of the Merseyside model that I would wish to see changed. I mean, if they’re so obsessed with rescuing, why not rescue street workers into another type of sex work, like indoor work or, if they fit agencies’ preferences (or there are ‘specialising’ agencies nearby), agency work?)) Not that I’m for rescuing anybody anywhere; it’s just an interesting question why the police feel that the entire sex industry is exploitative but other industries are totally fine.
The fact that street sex work is criminalised might be making it more dangerous. Since clients were criminalised for kerb-crawling, maybe the law looks more equal, but it might be having the effect of weeding out the clients who don’t want a criminal record, leaving only those who might already be known to the police. How are the workers and clients supposed to report any violence they witness or experience if they know they’ll get a court appearance and a criminal record? The clients know that the workers might not report violence so they might not be deterred by the possibility of police action. (This could also be true of the sex workers, who might be more prepared to perpetrate crimes against clients because they know the clients won’t report it.) I’m not just talking about violence here, but blackmail or theft as well.
Therefore, the more dangerous you think street sex work is, the more you should be in support of decriminalising it. While there is some evidence (in the Home Office report referred to below) that criminalising clients forces street workers to work indoors in relative safety, that was a small-scale study and it’s obvious that there are still street workers even though street work is criminalised in the UK.
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 sex workers in all of Scotland who street walk OR work out of flats – meaning that less than 2,000 are street workers, as the number includes independent indoor workers. 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 (There is violence, but it’s not as bad as some NGO’s make it seem, and it’s hard to see how criminalization would enable these sex workers to report violence to the police or leave violent boyfriends. Oh, and non-sexworkers also experience domestic abuse, even rape.)
R. Matthews (1993) Kerb-Crawling, Prostitution and Multi-Agency Policing”, Police Research Group Paper 43, London: Home Office