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A Regressive Move Which Would Further Stigmatise and Endanger Sex Workers

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Last week Rhoda Grant MSP and Lord Morrow were invited to speak about their respective proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland and Northern Ireland at an event in the House of Commons tellingly entitled 'Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation: Tackling Demand in the UK'.

These proposals represent a radical change to the criminal law in this area and, if passed, would have severe consequences for sex workers. They are not supported by public opinion, academic evidence, sex workers themselves or by the majority of those delivering front-line support to sex workers.

Both Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow made the claim that their intentions were to improve the safety of sex workers and save them from what they repeatedly called "exploitation" and by that they meant being paid for sex. Their proposals are built not on a solid evidence-based foundation, as all legislation should be, but on the narrow ideological belief that consenting sex between two adults is wrong if an exchange of money is involved and that all sex work is in and of itself an act of violence against women.

In seeing sex work through this narrow, gender-stereotyped prism the proposals lack any understanding of the gender complexities of prostitution and the male and transgender, as well as female sex work sectors. This gender bias means that these proposals completely overlook the hundreds of male and transgender sex workers seen by many projects who will justly feel bewildered on hearing the implication that prostitution is by nature 'violence against women' when on many occasions there are, in fact, no women involved.

For many men working in the industry, legislation that proposes to prohibit consenting adults having sex in private - just because the exchange of money is involved - will bring back bitter memories of times gone when the state chose to get involved in people's private lives. In short, the proposed bill does nothing to reflect the true diversity of those involved in sex work, and by overlooking those who see it as an informed choice could well contribute to it being ineffective in supporting the specific needs of those who are trafficked, exploited or genuinely coerced.

There is also no acknowledgement of any distinction between consensual acts between sex workers and their clients and genuine violence, sexual assault and other crimes committed by a range of perpetrators against sex workers. This seriously undermines and diverts attention away from the very real incidents of harassment and violence reported every day to the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Scheme, a third-party reporting system for sex workers, funded by the Home Office and managed by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP).

The reality is that those who target sex workers do so because sex work is so stigmatised and criminalised and perpetrators perceive sex workers as easy targets, with crimes against them often going unreported due to fear and lack of trust in the police. It is also clear that increased enforcement of existing legislation merely displaces sex workers, which increases levels of risk and violence as well as reducing levels of reporting of incidents to police.

For example, in less than 30% of the incidents reported to NUM are the victims willing to engage with the police, yet in Liverpool, where the police recognise crimes against sex workers as hate crimes and enforcement of existing laws around prostitution is limited and strategically enforced, there has been progress in increasing the number of incidents reported to the police. This has resulted in the apprehension of some dangerous, often repeat, offenders and highlighted the escalation in violence and behaviours to aid the identification of these offenders.

There is a huge amount of trepidation amongst those who provide support and services for sex workers in Scotland and Northern Ireland and with good reason: these proposed changes will further stigmatise sex workers and create a framework within which it would be even harder to provide accessible health, safety and social care support. Sex workers will inevitably want to make themselves and their work less visible and will therefore be less likely to engage with support services or police.

Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow both lauded the Swedish model - where the purchase of sex is criminalised - as an ideal without possessing a thorough understanding of the impact the legislation has had since it was introduced in 1999. Classic displacement occurred with consistent reports of sex workers using their own cars to collect clients, doing business in taxis, advertising online (often on Danish websites) and dispersing to neighbouring countries to avoid the law.

According to the Rose Alliance, a sex worker led organisation in Sweden, there is no evidence at all that the indoor sex markets are slowing down and, if anything, more people are entering the industry. In addition, reports from sex workers and those working front line with sex workers confirms that, as expected, a drop in custom has resulted in lower prices charged, less choice in clients and clients pressing for quicker, more risky transactions all of which increases the levels of risk and danger. In addition, though the expected dip in the numbers of visible street sex workers occurred initially, according to the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, by 2007 "about two thirds of street prostitution [was] back."

When Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow were asked at the meeting to explain the basis on which they believed that the Swedish model had been a success and who they had consulted they were short of answers. Lord Morrow did say that he "spoke to the police in Sweden" which perhaps highlights how narrow their consultation was.

Despite claims by the advocates of these Bills that they are trying to protect sex workers it was clear at the meeting in parliament that they hadn't significantly consulted sex workers or people who provide frontline support for them on a daily basis and thus they have a narrow and superficial understanding of sex work. If they had consulted with the appropriate organisations and individuals they would know that these measures will further stigmatise and marginalise sex workers and, as we saw in Sweden, create higher levels of risk and danger.

Sex workers have a rich history of advocating for their human rights throughout the world and this was illustrated by the sex workers presence at the meeting in parliament who sent a clear message that these proposals infantilise sex workers and their clients by seeking to remove their autonomy over their own body as well as their sole livelihood and means to support their families. It was pointed out by a representative of the English Collective of Prostitutes at the meeting that for many reasons - such as being a single parent, or the fact that elements of their work is already criminalised and many have criminal records as a result - feasible alternative employment is not always available to sex workers, so these proposals, whatever their intentions, would plunge them into poverty.

Considerable emphasis was placed on the concept of 'poverty as a form of coercion' into the sex industry. And whilst Rhoda Grant pledged to fight poverty she was not prepared to recognise that her proposals would plunge sex workers into even deeper financial straits. Indeed, when asked about her justification for the collateral damage her legislative changes would cause, she suggested that damage to individual sex workers was a price worth paying for the settlement to be established. A fascinating insight into the mind of an individual so focused on the ideology that the impact for those she seeks to 'help' is of little consequence.

If Rhoda Grant and Lord Morrow's Bills are implemented, sex workers will be subject to more harm and risk and will have less recourse to support and protection from the law than they do currently. These regressive and dangerous proposals are built on an ideological foundation rather than couched in research or evidence and represent an attempt to impose moral judgement through legislation.

*Co-authored with Del Campbell, Community Engagement Manager, Terrance Higgins Trust and Georgina Perry, Open Doors Service Manager, NHS.