Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Moralising Sex Work

With the recent murders on sex workers in the UK (see previous blog post), BBC has published this article which discusses possible solutions to make sex work safer for the men and women in that line of work.

Currently in the UK, it is not illegal to sell sex, but brothels and selling sex on the street is illegal. There may be one person in one building selling sex, but no more. While there are justifications for this legislation, such as worries about facilitating human trafficking if brothels and street prostitution were to be decriminalised, and that street prostitution can be very unsafe, this legislation ends up offering little protection for sex workers.

The consequence of legislation that does not allow sex workers to meet customers on the street or in a brothel is that they either need to rent a room, hire a space or bring the customers to their own homes. The first two options could be expensive in the long run unless the sex worker would charge the client for rent or room hire, but the way that the market dictates business, the price increase could lead to a loss in business. The third option is just simply unsafe. Sex workers are at a high risk for sexual violence and other forms of violence as it is. If the sex workers would then be forced to reveal where they live to their clients, they could face serious danger, not to mention fear of being visited by the authorities and other people that would wish to make their opinions known about sex workers.

My personal fear is that our moral views impair our thinking when it comes to sex work and lead to unsafe legislation for the men and women voluntarily involved in that line of work. (As said before, trafficking is always, and should always be, viewed as a crime as there is an element of coercion/threat and/or debt bondage. More on that here.) Instead of providing them with safe places to run their businesses, the legislation punishes them because they are in a line of work that people do not agree with morally, and that people perhaps would not choose for themselves. So what we do, instead of working with these people, is to work against them.

Regardless of what view one has of prostitution - whether it should exist or not, or whether the need for it should exist or not - it exists. The reality is that people sell sex. The reality is that there is a market for selling sex, and people will sell sex. To legislate in a way that punishes these people and make their line of work highly unsafe and a high risk for violence in different forms is not going to change this - sex will continue to be sold. It is one of the very oldest trades and it will probably continue to exist for a long time yet, whether governments choose to let the trade operate in the open and regulate it, or keep it in the dark.

The focus therefore needs to lie on making this line of work safe for the people within it, rather than punish them or robbing them of their rights, or keep legislation in place that has proved itself not to make the situation safer for sex workers. Just because many people disagree with this trade does not mean that these people do not deserve the same rights to safety and freedom from violence and other abuse. It is a good thing that the police are putting a lot of focus on uncovering trafficking networks and trafficked people, but that does not mean that it is justified to neglect the people who are in the sex trade voluntarily. They are at high risk for abuse and sexual assault and should be offered protection accordingly. There is still a wide-spread belief that sex workers cannot be raped because they sell sex, but any sexual advance that has not been negotiated or agreed upon is still an offence regardless of whom it is done to. Unfortunately this leads to a stigma that is reflected in society and not even the police is safe from it.

It is a good thing that this is currently being discussed in the media, but let's make sure that it stays this way. Let's make sure that we do not let this topic disappear because we do not want to see the uncomfortable truths or that we want to pretend that these issues do not exist. Let's make sure that these people can also live safely without the fear of being used, abused and murdered, because all people deserve that right.


  1. I don't know about the issue enough to say much. But what about Netherlands and Germany? They have legalized brothels and such but I don't know about any of the repercussions.

    Conceivably I can see that the profession could be "normalized" in such a way that women (why not men) could form collectives to share costs of renting out places and make a legitimate living while paying taxes. The government can ensure that stringent safety protocols and health check-ups are in place. Moreover, I guess there can be sex workers' union to safeguard the interests of people in such a profession.

  2. There has been research that has shown that there has been an increase in trafficking to places that have legalised prostitution. I'm sure, however, there is research showing the opposite, too. Such research tends to reach different conclusions depending on the standpoint of the author/s. There is also a difficulty in establishing who has been trafficked and who has not because of the threat/coercion factor. A lot of the traffickers know where the victims' families live, so it's not always the victim who is under threat directly, but the family. This makes it harder for the victim to come out as a trafficked person as they are afraid of possible repercussions. But legalising obviously (if done right) means better control, safer work environment with possibilities of regulating who works in the business, STDs, violence etc. And as you rightly point out, trade unions et cetera could be established to ensure certain conditions.

    Men and women are both included in this post, if I have not written "men and women" (or "women and men") I use words such as "sex worker/s," "them," "their" etc. No gender or sex is excluded from this. Perhaps your own reading was influenced by your perception of the sex trade?
    As for the article, they are obviously wrong in excluding men, but perhaps it is due to the focus, which is the three women murdered. I have no research on this myself, but perhaps women are over-represented when it comes to violence against sex workers? I would think that that might have to do with the research being flawed with the common misperception that all sex workers are women, though.