A recent Californian lawsuit filed by sex workers and one of their customers is arguing that sex workers’ rights are not being met under the current system that criminalises their work. It got me thinking about all of the research I did when I started my support site for people of the various sex industries WeConsent a few years ago.
As part of the research I attended a five day event called The Sex Workers’ Open University (what a great name!) where sex workers debated, presented and gave lectures to other sex workers and their allies about the legal and cultural problems and opportunities surrounding their chosen occupation.
It was a real eye opener for me, mostly because I was impressed by the level of organisation both current and historical around sex workers and how much they had to offer each other. One lecture explained the different legal perspectives to be found globally about sex work. Whilst some countries or states have outlawed sex work completely (California, for instance) others have opted for legalisation of sex work instead of complete decriminalisation.
The UK has a strange mixture in that it is legal to perform sex work, but from an obscure piece of historical legislation they are not permitted to form a brothel, meaning that they can’t work together, even in twos, which of course has serious ramifications on their safety; you are also not allowed to be a pimp or madam as it is assumed there is a power imbalance in such relationships. Many sex workers get around such laws by having a “maid” who organises a space in which sex workers hire separately. Though this is something which is still not the safest solution, it is much safer than working the streets. Things can be complicated further if you are a foreign sex worker working in the UK (and many other places too) because the default position argued by the authorities is that you have been trafficked and it is hard to prove you haven’t, especially when the authorities don’t have a strong history of listening to sex workers.
What is the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation? Sex workers nearly always prefer decriminalisation, which simply means the removal of the specific laws regarding their line of work which cause difficulty, such as the law on brothels. The aim is to have the same employee rights (health and safety regulations, etc.) as other workers, enabling them to get on with their jobs in full safety. This would mean for instance, they could go to the police with full confidence that their claims would be taken seriously and that they would not be putting themselves in the line of fire in doing so. This is especially important when remembering that sex work is often something someone does temporarily and there are some nasty and undemocratic laws that ensure you wont be able to get many jobs that require police checks afterwards.
Legalisation, which has happened in some countries involves the state becoming a pimp to the sex workers, running everything from health checks to the amount of sex worker individual and premise licenses that can be issued in any one area. Of course this takes a lot of power away from sex workers which is something many find unworkable so importantly, with the legalisation model, you necessarily get a black market too. People who either cannot work in the legal sphere (for instance, because the state refuses a license due to any number of political reasons) or will not because they do not wish to advertise their job status are forced to work in the industry’s underbelly, something dodgy customers are probably well aware of.
It is important to remember that just because something is legal, it does not necessarily follow that blame and prejudice will evaporate overnight. Again, this is particularly pertinent for a transient workforce. So women especially, who face more prejudice about their gender roles for instance, as mothers, are not going to want their name added to an indelible list.
Sex work is fair and decent work in my book and I think that sex workers should be given fair and equal legal support as we all enjoy in our jobs. It will be interesting how the human rights angle pans out in the California case. Fingers crossed people can get over the idea of “clearing out” the industry and work towards making it safe and something the workers themselves can feel proud of publicly (many already do privately). Sex work is a form of therapy, just like massage is, we just need to change the way we see it rather than change those that do it.