This blog article is dedicated to the Sex Workers of the World.
A powerful but truthful speech by Juno Mac, a feminist and supporter of the global decriminalisation of sex work. Here is what she has to say about ‘What do Sex Workers Want’.
I want to talk about sex for money. I am not a police officer or a social worker. I am not an academic or a journalist or a politician. I’m not a nun either. Most people will tell you that selling sex is dangerous, that no one would want to do it and that people get abused and killed. In fact, most people would say there should be a law against it.
Reconsidering consent, nature of work, capitalism, gender inequality, sexual and reproductive labour of women, exploitation and violence at work and what to do to protect sex workers.
There are 4 main legal approaches applied throughout the world and I am going to explain why they don’t work – why prohibiting sex work actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers are vulnerable to. What we as sex workers actually want.
The first approach is Full Criminalisation. Half the world including Russia, South Africa and the US regulate sex work by criminalising everyone involved – the seller, buyer and third parties – in the hopes that getting arrested will deter people from selling sex. But if you are forced to choose between obeying the law and feeding your kids, you’re going to do the work anyway and take the risk. It’s hard to get a job if you have a criminal record because potential employers won’t hire you. Assuming you still need the money you’ll stay in the more flexible, informal economy. The law forces you to keep selling sex which is the exact opposite of the intended effect.
The second approach is to regulating sex work in Partial Criminalisation where the buying and selling of sex is legal but brothel keeping (which means 2 or more sex workers working together) and soliciting on the streets are banned. It says – “We don’t mind you selling sex. Just do it behind closed doors and alone”. This means a lot of sex workers choose to work alone which makes them vulnerable to violence but we’re also vulnerable if we choose to break the law by working together. The knowledge of a sex worker breaking the law empowers violent offenders to threaten and abuse sex workers. The prohibition of street prostitution also causes more harm than it prevents. To avoid getting into trouble, street workers take steps to avoid getting detected. That means working alone or in isolated locations where they are vulnerable to getting attacked.
The third approach is if criminalising sex workers hurts them, why not criminalise the people who buy sex. The Swedish/Nordic model of sex work law. The idea behind this is that selling sex is intrinsically harmful and so you are helping sex workers by removing the option. Despite growing support, there is no evidence that it works. There is just as much prostitution in Sweden as there was before. Why might that be?
If the people selling sex don’t have other options for income, if you need that money, then the only option you have is to force you to drop your prices or offer more risky services. If you need to find more clients, you might seek the help of a manager. So rather than putting a stop to what is described as pimping, a law like this gives oxygen to potentially abusive third parties.
To keep a sex worker safe, clients are normally screened. With this model, the client might be too scared to give the sex worker that information and they might have no choice but to accept a booking from a man who is untraceable if he later turns out to be violent. If you need that money, you will do things like getting into a car quicker, making snap decisions so as not to lose a client, for example is this guy dangerous or just nervous. Can you afford to take the risk? Can you afford not to?
The last approach is Full Legalisation and regulation of prostitution. It is used in countries like Netherlands, Germany and Nevada in the US, but it is not a great model for human rights. Under state controlled prostitution, commercial sex can only happen in certain legally designated areas or venues. The sex workers are made to comply with special restrictions like registration and forced health checks. Regulations sound great on paper, but politicians deliberately make regulation around the sex industry expensive and difficult to comply with.
It created a “two tiered system”, meaning legal and illegal work. We sometimes call it ‘back door criminalisation’. Rich well-connected brothel owners can comply with the legislation but more marginalised people find those hoops impossible to jump through. Even if it was possible in principle, getting a license takes time and costs money. It is not going to be an option for someone who is desperate and needs money tonight. They might be a refugee or fleeing domestic abuse. In this system, the most vulnerable people are forced to work illegally so they are still exposed to all the dangers of criminalisation I mentioned earlier.
So it is looking like all the attempts to control or prevent sex work from happening makes things more dangerous for people selling sex. Fear of law enforcement makes them work alone in isolated locations. Clients and even cops know they can get abusive and get away with it. Binding criminal records forces people to keep selling sex rather than enabling them to stop. Crackdowns on buyers forces sellers to take dangerous risks and into the arms of potentially abusive managers. These laws also reinforce stigma and hatred against sex workers.
When France temporarily brought in the Swedish model, ordinary citizens took it as a cue to start carrying out vigilante attacks against people working on the street. In Sweden, opinion surveys show that significantly more people want sex workers to be arrested now than before the law was brought in.
If prohibition is this harmful, why is it so popular?
Firstly, sex work has always been a survival strategy for all kinds of unpopular minority groups – people of colour, migrants, people with a disability and LBGTQ people particularly trans women. These are the groups most heavily profiled and punished through prohibitionist law. These laws have political support precisely because they target people that voters don’t want to see or know about.
Why else might people support prohibition?
Lots of people might have understandable fears about trafficking. For instance, people think that foreign women kidnapped and sold to sexual slavery can be saved by shutting the whole industry down. Forced labour does occur…in many industries, especially where the workers are migrants or otherwise vulnerable and this needs to be addressed. But it is best to address it with legislation targeting those specific abuses, not an entire industry.
The way the term trafficking is thrown around implies that all undocumented migration into prostitution is forced. In fact, many migrants have made a decision out of economic needs to place themselves into the hands of people smugglers. Many of them do this with the full knowledge that they will be selling sex at their destination. Yes, it can be the case that these people smugglers demand exorbitant fees, coerce migrants into work they don’t want to do and abuse them when they are vulnerable. That is true of prostitution, but it is also true of agricultural work, hospitality work and domestic work.
Ultimately, nobody wants to be forced to do any kind of work but that is the risk that many migrants take because of what they are leaving behind. If people didn’t have to work illegally, their lives wouldn’t be placed in the hands of people who could harm them. The problems arise from the criminalisation of migration just as they do from the criminalisation of sex work itself. This is a lesson of history.
Prohibition barely makes a difference to sex workers but it does make a huge difference as to whether they are safe.
Why else might people support prohibition? As a feminist, I am aware of the deeply entrenched social inequality. It is a fact that most buyers of sex are men with money and most sellers are women with without. In a better more equal world, maybe there will be far fewer people selling sex to survive but you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence. If someone needs to sell sex because they are poor, homeless or because they are undocumented and they can’t find legal work – taking away that option does not make them any less poor or house them or change their immigration status.
We can’t make policy based on mere feelings. There is no call from banning rich people from hiring nannies or getting manicures even though most of those people doing that labour are poor migrant women. It is the fact of poor migrant women selling sex specifically that has some feminists uncomfortable.
People get hung up on the question of “would you want your daughter doing it?”. That is the wrong question. Instead, imagine she is doing it. How safe is she tonight? Why isn’t she safer? Does legislating it make it safer?
So, What Do Sex Workers Want?
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003. Decriminalisation and legalisation are not the same thing. Decriminalisation means the removal of laws that punitively target the sex industry – like treating sex work much like any other kind of work. In NZ, people can work together for safety. Employers of sex workers are accountable to the state and sex workers can refuse a client at any time, for any reason. 96% of street workers feel that the laws protect their rights. NZ has not seen an increase in the amount of people doing sex work but decriminalising it has made it a lot safer. The lesson from NZ isn’t just this particular legislation is good but, crucially, that it was written in collaboration with sex workers – namely the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC).
In the UK, there is the Sex Work Open University (SWOU) and English Collective of Prostitutes (ECOP). They are part of a global collective demanding decriminalisation and self-determination of sex work. The symbol of the organisation is the Red Umbrella. We are supported by global bodies such as UNAIDS, the WHO and Amnesty International, but we need more allies.
If you care about gender equality or proverty or migration or public health, then sex worker rights matter to you. Make space for us in your movement. That means not only listening to sex workers when we speak but amplifying our voices. Resist those who silence us, those who say that a prostitute is either too victimised, too damaged to know what is best for herself, or else too privileged and too removed from real hardship, and not representative of the millions of voiceless victims. The distinction between victim and empowered is imaginary. They exist purely to discredit sex workers and make it easy to ignore us.
No doubt many of you work for a living. Sex work is work too. Just like you, some of us like our jobs, some of us hate them. Ultimately most of have mixed feelings but how we feel about our work isn’t the point. How other feels about our work certainly isn’t either. What’s important is that we have the right to work and can work safely, and on our own terms.
You can ask expensive escorts in New York City, brothel workers in Cambodia, street workers in South Africa and every girl on the roster at my old job in Soho and they will all tell you the same thing. We want full decriminalisation and labour rights as workers.
I am just one sex worker on the stage today but I am bringing a message from all over the world.
Sex workers are real people.
– The prohibition of sex work causes more harm than it prevents.
– All the attempts to control or prevent sex work from happening makes things more dangerous for people selling sex.
Juno Mac published this quote during her speech which sums up my feelings on this topic.
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”
– Arundhati Roy