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Imagining a world where sex work is decriminalised

Activists have been fighting for sex work to be decriminalised for decades, but what would that actually look like? Writer Brit Dawson investigates

This article is part of our Future of Sex season  a series of features investigating the future of sex, relationships, dating, sex work and sex worker rights; tech; taboos; and the next socio-political sexual frontiers.

When I ask London-based sex worker Rosa to imagine what her life would be like if sex work was decriminalised, she responds: “That’s easy. I’d be working in a cooperatively-run brothel with my sex worker friends, outside of London where we could support each other and keep each other safe. We’d also have a cute little tea room on the side.”

Rosa has been a sex worker for ten years and for the past five, it’s been her sole source of income. After losing earnings due to the pandemic, she started doing more online work, including shooting porn and creating content for subscription sites like OnlyFans – but most of her money comes from selling sex. And, because of the UK’s current laws on sex work, she’s typically forced to do it alone, putting her in added danger whenever she goes to work.

“Two or more people working together constitutes ‘brothel-keeping’,” she explains, “so it’s extremely difficult to find safe places to work from as a sex worker.” If Rosa did work with an escort friend, the pair could not only be charged for running a brothel, but, if they rented a flat or organised a work rota, they could also be charged under the guise of ‘controlling prostitution’. So, instead of risking criminalisation, Rosa and her escort friends usually have to settle for sharing their locations with one another when they have a booking.

Like most sex workers in the UK, Rosa has to make this sacrifice despite her work being totally legal. In fact, it’s not illegal to sell or buy sex in private or in a brothel, nor to work as an outcall escort. What is illegal, however, is managing a brothel, and sex workers are often falsely charged with this offence. Laura Watson, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), recalls a sex worker who went to prison under this charge, despite only working from the brothel she was accused of managing. The evidence? “She opened the door in her regular clothes rather than in her underwear,” reveals Watson, “which [the prosecutors claimed] showed that she was running the place.”

This isn’t the only way the law unfairly targets sex workers. It’s also illegal to ‘cause or incite prostitution’, which in practice, says Watson, “means that, if someone comes to you and asks for your help to start sex work, you’re not allowed to give any advice or guidance”. Furthermore, she adds, sex workers who share tips with colleagues – like suggesting a safe place to work – can also be prosecuted for ‘inciting prostitution’. Even if a sex worker asks you to help them out by driving them to a booking, you can be charged for ‘controlling prostitution’ (it’s worth noting, says Watson, that this law doesn’t include controlling in a harmful way, ie by force or coercion). It’s also illegal to loiter or solicit sex in a street or public place – a law that criminalises clients, too. In Northern Ireland, it’s actually a crime to buy sex, which heightens sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, as they’re forced to take increased risks, like not taking the time to properly vet clients, or meeting them in more dangerous locations to avoid police detection.

Watson adds that these laws particularly impact migrant women, because it contributes to their immigration status. She references one case, in which a sex worker was arrested for loitering and soliciting, but was charged with not being “conducive to the public good” – a harder case to fight than a deportation notice, says Watson. In other cases, migrant sex workers are deported for allegedly not working because, according to the Home Office, sex work doesn’t count as work. Other marginalised groups, like sex workers of colour or trans women, are also especially targeted by criminalisation, and even less likely to report violence due to the discrimination they already face by police.

Rosie Hodsdon, the executive assistant at National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a charity that works to end violence against sex workers, points out that many sex workers are “forced to choose between working in ways that keep them safer, or working within the law”.

There have been times I’ve been less assertive with my boundaries with a difficult client because I’m on my own... If I knew someone was in the next room, I would feel a lot safer” – Vivienne

This is true for Vivienne*, for whom selling sex – “at various levels of safety, legality, and at a range of rates” – has been her main source of income for six years. “There have been times I’ve been less assertive with my boundaries with a difficult client because I’m on my own,” she tells me. “If I knew someone was in the next room, I would feel a lot safer. Still, when I have been working with another worker, I’ve been afraid that if I called the police for help in an emergency, we would be vulnerable to arrest.”

On top of this, the elements within the current system that allow sex workers safer ways of working are under threat. Among these, explains Hodsdon, is the recent government action to implement the Nordic Model, which would criminalise those who buy sex. This was, depressingly, put forward by Labour MP Diana Johnson, as part of her ‘sexual exploitation’ bill. The model – versions of which are currently in place in Northern Ireland, Sweden, Canada, and more – has been widely criticised by sex workers and allies, with statistics suggesting the model actually increases stigma, violence and police prejudice.

As well as escalating criminalisation efforts, there’s also a movement to eradicate strip clubs across the UK. Local councils are increasingly attempting to introduce nil-cap licensing policies for sexual entertainment venues, meaning no licences would be granted, thus banning clubs. Hodsdon says this would only serve to “push sex workers out of jobs where they experience both physical and legal security and into more dangerous, underground locations and working practices”. This recently happened in Edinburgh, resulting in sex workers launching a legal challenge against the ban, which is set to be enforced in April next year. In Bristol, a tireless campaign by the Bristol Sex Workers Collective led to the nil-cap policy proposal being rejected by councillors last month – a major win for sex workers.

There’s also growing momentum to censor sex workers online. The government’s controversial Online Safety Bill, which intends to limit access to “harmful” content on the internet, includes a clause that would criminalise advertising sex work online. This is another measure that would force sex workers into more precarious and dangerous ways of working, as they’d have to find work via offline means. The bill is currently on hold until a new prime minister is in place, but, if implemented, would be a devastating blow to sex workers in the UK – and you only need to look to the US to see just how devastating. Since former president Donald Trump implemented FOSTA-SESTA in 2018 – two bills that banned the online advertisement of sex work and made websites liable for what their users say and do – sex workers say they’ve lost financial stability, safety, and access to community.

All of this only heightens current criminalisation and further stigmatises sex workers, making their lives harder at every turn. “You end up living a double life, even if technically selling sex is legal,” says sex worker and activist Lydia Caradonna. “I have a whole fake job story I use for my family. I even had to fake employment income to rent somewhere, and I was lucky to be able to do that.” Not just that, adds Caradonna, but the work experience she’s gained from campaigning for her rights will never come in useful for future job prospects “because employers would never hire a former prostitute”. Because of this, she says, “you end up stuck in the industry” and, if you end up with a criminal record, “your chances of finding another job evaporate completely”. 

Caradonna has been in the sex industry for six years, with her work in a brothel making up the majority of her income (she also took on a part-time job in 2020 when she couldn’t work during the pandemic). Here, she’s experienced the full effect of criminalisation. “I’ve been subject to traumatising police raids before,” she tells me. “They claim they’re doing it to protect us, but it’s a violent and degrading thing to go through.” Often, officers turn up in vans, sometimes fire engines – and, if you don’t let them in, they’ll simply bash down the door. 

Ironically, when sex workers actually need protection from the police, they don’t provide it. Last month, Caradonna was assaulted by a client, who then took the money he paid her back. “All we could do was ban him from booking again,” she reveals. “What am I going to do, call the police and get my workplace shut down? You just have to put up with it, and clients know that we won’t get the police involved.”

The first step towards eradicating stigma, violence, and police mistreatment is to completely decriminalise sex work in the UK – something sex worker-led organisations like ECP, SWARM, and Decrim Now have been fighting for for years. There’s even a wealth of evidence to support decrim, backed by the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, with countless studies finding that criminalisation makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation, stops them from seeking justice, and negatively affects a variety of their human rights. This is, sadly, backed up by statistics, which suggest that 180 sex workers in the UK were murdered between 1990 and 2016, while 2,537 people were arrested for sex work offences between 2013 and 2017 alone.

“I’ve been subject to traumatising police raids before... They claim they’re doing it to protect us, but it’s a violent and degrading thing to go through” – Lydia Caradonna

So, what exactly needs to be done? “On a basic level, we need to repeal all of the laws that currently criminalise those involved in selling sex, including those that criminalise the organisation and management of prostitution,” says Caradonna, speaking as the spokesperson for Decrim Now. “Brothels and managers exist already despite the law, but they currently operate out of sight with no protection for the workers. This would give sex workers the right to work cooperatively and allow those who are working for managers to organise and demand rights at work. At Decrim Now we believe that the next step is to unionise workers to improve working conditions, as with any industry.”

ECP’s Watson says the only way to achieve decriminalisation is to have a massive movement behind it, which activists are working relentlessly to achieve. Both Watson and Caradonna look towards New Zealand – where sex work was decriminalised in 2003 – as an example of organising and gaining momentum, as well as for what kind of legislation could be implemented afterwards. In New Zealand, thanks to the Prostitution Reform Act, it’s legal for citizens over the age of 18 to sell sexual services, including via solicitation in public, or to run a brothel. Anyone engaged in the sex industry gets the same rights as other citizens – during the pandemic, for example, this meant that sex workers in New Zealand were able claim unemployment benefits, unlike others working in the global sex industry during that time. Migrants on temporary visas, however, are currently prohibited from working in the sex trade – though Catherine Healy, the co-founder of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (which played a major part in decriminalisation) tells me activists are still fighting for this right.

In 2008, a government report ruled that the New Zealand act had “been effective in achieving its purpose” of safeguarding sex workers. As well as not leading to an increase in the amount of sex workers engaged in the industry, decriminalisation improved relations between sex workers and the police, and didn’t result in a rise in human trafficking. In these later years, Healy says more opponents have “come cautiously onside, as evidence builds to support the benefits of decriminalisation”, particularly those in anti-trafficking circles, as well as the police.

But, even though it’s been nearly two decades, Healy says the fight is far from over. “I once thought we’d be swinging in our hammocks if sex work was recognised and all the repressive laws related to it were repealed,” she explains. “I now know that we can’t relax as activists – not yet. We have to keep going. Perhaps fighting for sex workers’ rights is [actually] the oldest profession.”

Still, although it’s set to be a long process, activists in the UK have already made progress over the years. “There have definitely been some victories,” affirms Watson. “For example, the law recently changed so that if you have a conviction for loitering and soliciting that’s over 13 years old, you no longer have to disclose it to future employers. That was a big victory because it meant a whole sector of women – many of whom aren’t even working in the sex industry anymore – are free from that discrimination.”

Hodsdon says NUM’s work with the police has “helped to provide some practical support for sex workers”, including enabling authorities to send alerts to sex workers if they have information that could keep them safer – for example, if a dangerous person has been targeting sex workers in their area. What’s more, she adds, NUM has provided training to specialist officers, “who can support sex workers in reporting crime within the criminal justice system”, as well as contributing to police guidelines, which “provide national guidance on how sex workers should be supported by the police”.

Another key area of success is the increase in public support for decriminalisation. According to a 2019 study, more people in Britain support sex work law reform than oppose it. One recent thing that’s had a big impact on this, suggests Watson, is the exposure of police behaviour – particularly in light of Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, which triggered a wave of revelations that proved misogyny is rife in the UK police force. “[The exposure of this behaviour] has helped our case, in a way,” Watson tells me, “because it means that when we say, ‘The police are harassing, bullying, and violent’, it’s not so outlandish. It’s always been the case for sex workers, [but now more people believe it].”

Of course, decriminalisation is just the first step, and doesn’t address the reasons why many people (most of whom are mothers working to support their families) enter the sex industry in the first place. That being: poverty, which is only getting worse as the cost of living crisis ensues. Energy bills rose by 54 per cent in April, plunging millions into fuel poverty and forcing many households to choose between heating and eating. “We’ve seen increases in the number of women coming to us who are going into prostitution for the first time or going back into it after many years, just to pay for this astronomical increase in bills and the cost of living generally,” says Watson. ECP already warned of this in January last year, revealing that increasing numbers of women were turning to sex work, as the pandemic pushed them into “desperate poverty”.

“Being free of criminalisation would be a massive change. Not facing police harassment and abuse, not having to pay off police and court fines, not being labelled a criminal – all that stuff would be a massive burden off sex workers’ backs” – Laura Watson

What we need alongside decriminalisation, Hodsdon asserts, is “an improved system of welfare, a more humane immigration and asylum system, increased support for parents, carers, and those with disabilities, an overhaul of student loans, decriminalisation of drugs, a stronger healthcare system, better housing provision, and more to tackle poverty, austerity, essential resource-need, and deprivation”. She adds: “The discussion doesn’t end with decriminalisation – it starts there.”

While decriminalisation alone can’t tackle the injustices and inequalities that lead many people into sex work to begin with, it would, undeniably, make life easier and work safer for those involved in the industry. “Being free of criminalisation would be a massive change,” says Watson. “Not facing police harassment and abuse, not having to pay off police and court fines, not being labelled a criminal – all that stuff would be a massive burden off sex workers’ backs. Plus, sex workers could be more public, [which would enable them] to counter a lot of the lies and misinformation that’s spread about sex work, and used to justify the continued criminalisation.”

How do sex workers imagine this decriminalised future? “I would work in a collective with several friends,” says Caradonna. “On a given day, I might be doing sex work or I might be doing an admin task to support other workers – advertising, answering phones, cleaning the workspace. We would all contribute a set number of hours to maintaining the workplace, instead of giving a manager a large chunk of our earnings everyday. I would be able to turn down clients, call out of work without repercussions, and set my own hours. I think I would feel happier and safer able to work with friends and stay in control of what I am doing.”

Vivienne hopes for a similar future. “I would rent a communal incall flat with other sex workers,” she tells me, adding that in this fantasy, she’s been able to afford her own home and had no trouble explaining her income, nor securing a mortgage. “I would spend a few hours a day in the flat meeting clients who’ve allowed me to screen them thoroughly – and they’ll know that everything that takes place is completely legal, so they have no power to threaten or blackmail me. My friends will also be seeing clients in the flat, and I know that I can call them if I need help. If I decide I want to work in a brothel or an agency (maybe I get sick of doing my own admin and marketing), I will know that I’m entitled to the same employment rights as any other worker, and that my trade union will have my back in workplace disputes.” 

“Ultimately,” Vivienne concludes, “I would be able to continue to do the only job that has been truly compatible with my physical and mental health, as well as my work-life balance, safely and without fear.”

*Name has been changed