Photo: English Collective of Prostitutes

On Tuesday 3 November, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) held an evidence-gathering symposium in the House of Commons.

The English Collective of Prostitutes has campaigned for decades to decriminalise their work. Currently, prostitution itself is legal, but the activities that make up part of the work (such as brothel-keeping or working on the street) are illegal. Enforcement is inconsistent in the UK, but the ECP has been drawing attention to raids in Soho and the misuse of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) to curb prostitution recently.

After an amendment was added last year to the Modern Slavery Bill by Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart that sought to fully criminalise sex work, it became apparent more well-referenced and credible evidence was needed. Parliament records all evidence given in a research library, and at the request of John McDonnell MP, now Shadow Chancellor, the ECP set out to provide up to date testimonies from sex worker groups and researchers that parliamentarians can draw on when making policy. The Green Party has long supported the decriminalisation of sex work, and Natalie Bennett joined a packed room to speak about the journey the Green Party took to arrive at this stance.

Niki Adams, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes said: “The symposium made a very compelling case for decriminalisation. Politicians charged with the weighty responsibility of making laws should ensure that it is evidence based and reflects the growing concern that criminalisation undermines safety and causes great injustice. Especially at this time of austerity where more women, particularly mothers are going into prostitution”.

Ten international speakers were in attendance from all over the world, and one of the most harrowing and raw testimonies came from Pye Jakobsson, from the Rose Alliance in Sweden. Sweden implements the “Nordic model”, also dubbed the “Nordic Regime”. The Nordic Model derives from radical feminist thought that in order to curb prostitution, which it sees as violence against women, legislation should not harm the women but criminalise men, the customers. Pye effectively ripped that idea to shreds. She said that it is impossible to criminalise the customers but not sex workers when their right to work how they see fit isn’t protected under the law, and cannot employ safety measures.  In her words, the legislation pathologizes sex workers and sees them as in need of rescue, and that the root of the policy is to protect society from prostitutes that it sees as deviant, stemming from an utter contempt of their line of work under a veneer of concern.

Liz Hilton’s testimony from Thailand showed many of the same consequences of criminalising sex work. In her country, sex work is fully criminalised and she also described the opportunity it created for corruption by government officials. Most sex workers are single mothers without qualifications who make double the minimum wage as prostitutes, a feat in itself. They send home £300M to their families in rural areas, which is bigger than any government aid project. An estimated £53,000 a year is paid to government officials as bribes, and she said sex workers take turns to get arrested so that the police can meet their quotas, where they are sent to welfare programmes that teach them to sew unsellable doodads. She said: “Criminalisation has been a spectacular failure to end prostitution in Thailand and around the world”.

The relationship to the police is an important aspect of sex workers’ lives, one that Catherine Healey from New Zealand focused on. As the first country to decriminalise sex work completely, her talk showed decriminalisation radically altered their relationship to the police and how it reduced the fear of violence and harm. She told a story that was echoed by a representative from Scotland, that police used to use condoms as evidence of sex work during raids, which actually reduces condom use out of fear of prosecution and increases STDs. The police have been able to change their responses to reports of violence and rape from sex workers because they are no longer required to investigate prostitution, and has made sex workers a lot less fearful about coming forward and reporting violent customers. The law prioritises the rights, health and wellbeing of sex workers and she found that some of the myths spread by advocates of the Nordic Model are not true: an increase of brothels is related to the size of the economy, not legislation.

Canadian sex workers challenged criminalisation through a Supreme Court ruling, and Jenn Clamen told us that it their right to security and liberty was violated through criminalisation. Criminalisation directly causes harm – working indoors is safer than working outdoors, but even working inside their own homes was prohibited. 60 indigenous women who were likely working as street sex workers were murdered, and if decriminalisation had only prevented the murder of one of them, the court decided it was evidence that criminalisation is a threat to the security of sex workers. She added: “criminalization contributes to the targeting of sex workers for violence.” Whilst it should not take murder to change legislation, it was an inspiring testimony, and perhaps one that can pave the way for other countries to follow suit.

The event made a lasting and powerful impression on the attendees. It showed that policy-making should include current sex workers, and that it cannot stem from ideology, but must be from an evidence-base. Some speakers mentioned that a lot of sex workers enter the trade out of poverty, and that all prostitutes should be given the opportunities and resources to leave if they want to. The Green Party’s policy of a Citizen’s Income would work to effectively tackle the root cause of this issue. In the words of Natalie Bennett: “We need a two-pronged approach that defends workers’ rights and safety and where no-one is forced into sex work”.

The English Collective of Prostitutes is taking their international speakers on a speaking tour, and more details can be found on their website.