Friday 16 May 2014

On achieving decriminalisation of sex work: Framing the debate.

I'm not an expert on sex work. Nor am I an experienced campaigner for reform of the laws regarding sex work. I have however considered at great length the political presentation of arguments for drug policy reform (with a decent record of success) and I've found myself recently turning my attention to the political situation in the UK regarding sex work.

While the drug policy debate seems to be heading irreversibly towards decriminalisation and regulation, the sex work debate is a car crash in comparison. The notion that criminalising sex work clients will make everything all better is spreading like wildfire across Europe, with rational politicians and academics struggling to resist the impassioned fervour of women claiming that criminalising clients will end demand and somehow stop sex trafficking.

The situation for sex workers in Sweden and Norway instead appears to be relatively bleak, with the superficially attractive arguments for the criminalisation of clients unfortunately leading to what appear to be largely negative outcomes for sex workers and their clients.

Once upon a time I too found the Demand Change arguments attractive. Like all normal human beings I found the notion of sex trafficking as presented in factual and fictional media to be viscerally repugnant, and Demand Change are able to exploit that revulsion in order to win support for their political aims.

There was something that troubled me though. How could reducing demand for a service be of benefit to the willing providers of that service? It didn't make sense, so I tried talking to Demand Change about reducing the 'supply' of sex workers by addressing the drug addiction that motivates those 'survival sex workers' engaged in the most marginal aspects of the industry. They weren't interested. I then started investigating whether 'changing demand' had been in any way successful, and found that it hadn't.

In investigating the alternative decriminalisation of sex work I found it to be supported by both evidence and logic. If you allow sex workers to work together and organise themselves in the way they see fit, then they can protect their safety so much better. If the worker and client are committing no crime, the relationship they have with the police is going to be so much more conducive to detecting and punishing abuses (including trafficking).

So why if decriminalisation is such a superior model, is it not this model which is spreading across the European continent?

I have my suspicions that it is the emotional argument that is being lost. While the advocates of the criminalisation of clients have tapped into people's visceral reaction to sex trafficking, decriminalisation advocates seem reluctant to conflate the majority of sex work with rare instances of trafficking or coercion or 'survival sex work' motivated by addiction.

If the more likely policy solution to sex trafficking (and coercion in sex work in general) is to be found in decriminalisation then surely decriminalisation advocates should be able to take the opposition on on their own turf and win the argument. Transparency and co-operation are the enemies of secret exploitation and both can be better achieved through decriminalisation.

My recent imperfect attempts at amending Scottish Liberal Democrat policy were not embraced by charities representing sex workers because they were unhappy at the conflation of sex work with violence against women, trafficking and drug abuse. I am happy to accept that trafficking, coercion and survival sex work motivated by drug addiction are relatively rare in the broad range of sex worker experiences, but I'd hope that sex worker representatives could recognise the potential in them taking a firm, determined stance to eradicate these aspects of sex work. Taking such a stance while promoting decriminalisation as a means to improve conditions for all sex workers, might rather serve to highlight to the public that there is a very important distinction to be made between sex work conditions that should be either acceptable or unacceptable to society.

I fear that decriminalisation advocates will not get very far if they choose to shy away from discussion of trafficking, coercion and survival sex work. They will get a far more positive reaction from the public and politicians if they address the issue saying "these aspects of sex work are intolerable and we want to work with you to eradicate them". I think that only with that firm foundation of solidarity, will calls for decriminalisation be seriously entertained. One of the greatest strengths of the decriminalisation arguments is the likelihood of police, clients and workers working together to identify and combat instances of trafficking and abuse. Sympathy for the non-coerced sex worker majority is not a rich seam in society ready to be mined. If change is to come, decriminalisation advocates have to share and utilise the abundant sympathy for trafficked and coerced women. Calls for decriminalisation in order to benefit this minority will also bring enormous benefits to the majority, and focusing on the suffering of this minority and survival sex workers would hopefully reduce their incidence. As they become less of a pressing issue, the sex worker majority will benefit from a transformation in the way the public sees sex work, and the public will likely be grateful to decriminalisation advocates for their role in reducing the suffering of the minority.

It appears from where I stand that both sides are guilty of conflation. Advocates of the Nordic model see all sex work as violence against women. Decriminalisation advocates, by asking mention of trafficking and drug abuse to be excluded from the debate, risk people thinking they think that all sex work is just fine.

Decriminalisation advocates can win if they turn up to play on the same pitch as the Nordic advocates, laying out a clear distinction between tolerable and intolerable sex work conditions, and working with public opinion in order to improve policy for the benefit of all sex workers. Change is more likely to be achieved if we first address the needs of those enduring the greatest suffering.

I share these thoughts in a genuine attempt to be helpful, in specific reference to Scottish Lib Dem policy development, and without a full knowledge of how decriminalisation advocates have been operating up until now in different contexts.


Anonymous said...

might rather serve to highlight to the public that their is a very important distinction to be made between sex work conditions that should be either acceptable or unacceptable to society

I think your problem is going to be that to a majority of the population there is no such thing as 'acceptable conditions' for sex work: they find the idea of money-for-sex as a transaction fundamentally immoral.

As such you, and the majority of the population, are simply starting from completely different premises on this issue, and so neither side's arguments can possibly gain any traction with the other because they are, in effect, speaking entirely different languages with words and concepts that exist in one side's view of the world (the idea of harmless-but-immoral behaviour, for example) completely missing from the other's.

Anonymous said...

Ewan - I think it would be useful if you could outline which aspects of the sex industry you think should be decriminalised. In my experience the vast majority or services and charities would want the sale pf sex decriminalised but not the purchase of.

Anonymous said...

" the idea of money-for-sex as a transaction fundamentally immoral"

Absolutely - and this is the point. In doing that, as with drugs, the majority see it as an 'ok, this is allowed' stance. For drugs, this can be strongly supported with hard evidence, cost savings, minimal harm, minimal moral implication, no harm to others, only temporarily to ones self.

When dealing with sex, so so many more factors play a part. Morality, ethics, relationships, feminism, message about worth, career prospects, 'doing the right thing',etc.

It's much much deeper issue and I don't think decrim will ever happen due to the moral argument.

Regardless if you have all the evidence in the world, encouraging, allowing, or enabling women to be successful, legally, as sex workers, is going to be a very difficult argument to win, if that's your aim. Many hear decrim and simply hear that I think.

Anonymous said...

Recent polls tend to show there is a majority who see that the buying and selling of sex should not be criminalised. Think the last poll was only a few months ago.

Reading the article, Ewan supports the total decriminalisation of sex trade, that is the buying and selling. That is the impression I get. You can't decriminalise one side and criminalise the other side. It does not work. The Nordic model harms sex workers, they have to support their clients, otherwise they don't get customers. All the talk of the Nordic model in Ireland, there is not one piece of law changing that reduces the criminalisation of sex workers.

I dispute that sex worker out reach organisations support criminalising the clients. All the outreach organisations in the UKNSWP support total decriminilisation of sex workers, clients and managers.

Morals have nothing to do with this. Safety and harm reduction is achieved by decriminalisation. I also fervantly believe the law has no right to intrude on what goes on in our bedrooms, so long as what goes on is consensual.

Those supporting decriminalisation do not want trafficking. We abhor it. We do speak about the survival sex, we do talk about poverty. As Ewan said, reduce the affect of drugs and some of the survival sex work will be reduced. Reduce poverty and those forced into sex work for economic reasons will reduce. This who support decriminalisation already say this.

The big trouble is there is this belief that most sex work is forced, and trafficking is prevalent. It is extremely hard to get this falsehood out of the media, and out of politicians minds. This unfortunately causes people to focus on combating the myth of large numbers trafficked, despite time and time again research which shows otherwise.