“I finished late last night and I had to shower a lot when I got home – it was a day of… special requests, so I had to wash everything. I am tired. I want to talk to you though, it is important.”
Erika is a sex worker and one of the 80,000 in the UK who work in unnecessary danger. She would be safer if the government decriminalised prostitution.
At the moment, selling sex is legal. Advertising yourself or soliciting on the street is not, neither is working in a brothel or working with anyone else, including a security guard.
Landlords can be prosecuted for knowingly renting out a brothel, and a person organising shifts for sex workers can be charged with brothel-keeping or coercion, otherwise known as trafficking. These brothel laws are what makes sex work more dangerous.
Erika was caught up in the infamous Soho raids, when she was dragged out of her room in her underwear by police officers. The officers questioned her for two hours, asking her if she was a ‘gypsy’, if she had a ‘boyfriend’, if she was a ‘beggar’. One of the officers asked her how much she charged, with a leer. She told him, “You will never be able to afford me.”
Erika’s flat was raided because she works with a ‘maid’ in the next room. Maids are actually security and are usually retired prostitutes. They knock when time is up, keep an ear out for any shouting and act as a barrier between dangerous clients and the sex worker.
However, because there are then two people working in the flat, it is classed as a brothel.
Consequently, sex workers are forced to work alone. If they decide to have a maid for security, they rarely call the police because they think they’ll be arrested. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) has evidence of police ignoring attackers and arresting the women who called them for help instead. Would you call?
If prostitution was decriminalised, the women wouldn’t have to be scared of calling for help. If someone attacked them, they could expect support from the police – just like you or I would. At the very least, they could expect the officers to turn up.
A few months before the raids, Erika was attacked by a client. He broke her jaw and hit her with a bottle of lubricant. He broke a tooth and strangled her but when the maid called the police, they didn’t arrive.
“The police have proved to me over and over again that I am worthless to them. I’m not going to call them again. I know they won’t come.”
At the moment, sex workers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In the eyes of English law, they are, by and large, both criminals and victims. They are criminals because they work with a security guard, meaning they are running a brothel. They are victims because those security guards are seen as pimps and traffickers, forcing them to work.
That makes life hard, and expensive, for the police as well. In 2011, a specialist anti-trafficking force called the UKHTC (UK Human Trafficking Centre) was given half-a-million pounds to find people who had been trafficked into the sex industry. They now have to run raids on flats like Erika’s to see if they can find the trafficking victims.
If prostitution was decriminalised, sex workers would register with the police who would then check on them regularly and run inspections on premises.
The sex workers have to have weekly STD checks and pay tax but they also have a much closer relationship with the police. Not only does that make it safer for them, it makes it easier to spot actual trafficking victims.
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003. Since then, there has been no increase in sex workers, HIV and gonorrhoea rates have dropped and the women say they feel much safer.
According to research by the University of Otago, 90% of sex workers “were aware that they had increased employment and legal rights”. Those rights include protection from violent attacks and having more power to refuse a client if they want to go condom-less.
Parliament is having a fairly polarised argument about decriminalisation at the moment. Some, for example Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, want decriminalisation, while others want a model adopted by Norway and Sweden called the Nordic Model. Politicians like Fiona MacTaggart are pushing for the latter, where the men who buy sex are the ones who get arrested instead of the women selling it.
This sounds great but in reality, it makes sex work more dangerous. It unwittingly gives the client more power. If the client is the one taking the risk, the client is the one who can make demands. In Norway, where the Nordic model has been put in place, There aren’t statistics on the number of attacks on prostitutes since the change but considering this law is supposed to protect them, sex workers saying it makes them unsafe speaks volumes.
MacTaggart and her fellow campaigners seem to believe that prostitution can be stopped but, like it or not, they just don’t have that power. By making it more illegal, this law does nothing but increase policing costs unnecessarily, increase the stigma surrounding sex workers and drive them all further out of the public eye.
Sex work is not going to go away. By accepting that fact and decriminalising the profession, politicians can then focus on what drives people to the industry in the first place. In 2008, MacTaggart bandied around the idea that 80% of sex workers were trafficked. That was completely wrong. What workers do say, however, is that prostitution is often the best choice of a bad lot and that is something the government can legislate on.
Cycles of poverty drive people to prostitution. Harsh immigration laws that intensify racist attitudes and make it difficult to work drive people to prostitution. Welfare cuts leaving 600,000 children in poverty will drive people to prostitution.
The government cannot stop people selling sex with a law but it can make it safer. It can make policing more effective and it can give sex workers reasons to trust its officers. Perhaps then, politicians could focus on the laws that push people into the business in the first place.