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The law and policy of sex work: II

Posted at 13:29 on 20 Nov 2010 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Politics, Sex worker rights

Continuing my discussion of the recent trend of sensible thinking regarding UK sex work legislation, it would be remiss not to mention the Westminster Skeptics talk on the subject by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, with a reply by Dr Brooke Magnanti (AKA Belle de Jour). While prohibitionism still dominates the mainstream, it's pleasing to see researchers like Dr Brooks-Gordon given an audience at city debates. Her contribution can only aid the cause of those who wish to see a less ideological and more evidence-based approach to sex work legislation.

The talk was organised by blogger-turned-journalist David Allen Green, who recently wrote an article for the New Statesman arguing that our domestic laws regarding sex work are a mess, and putting a case for decriminalisation. I was heartened to see this argument presented by a male lawyer in a mainstream paper (albeit a left-leaning one). It does no harm to advocates of sex worker rights to have more privileged allies championing our cause - there are many who will take arguments presented by white, male, well-paid, City-bred writers far more seriously. It's generally useful to have the face of patriarchal respectability on side.

I missed the talk itself (one of the downsides of no longer being a London resident), but watched the twitter hashtag collect comments with interest. It was affirming to see the responses of audience members whose pre-conceptions of sex work were being challenged:

@taniaglyde Bungling inflation of trafficking figures. From tens to 100k! #westskep
@dnotice Govt position on Prostitution = War on Drugs. Simplistic; assumes criminal laws are correct & we just need to try harder to "win" #westskep
@zoeimogen Apparently the police have a *financial* interest in prosecuting sex work - they get to keep proceeds. How wrong is that? #westskep
@taniaglyde Fundamental human right of freedom of association is denied to sex workers. #westskep

Thanks to the powers of modern technology, my curiosity about what had been said was assuaged a few days later when a podcast of the event was posted online. The sound quality is a bit flaky, but it's well worth a listen. For the benefit of those who don't get the opportunity, and to put some legislative facts in a form that search engines can read, here are some key snippets from Dr Brooks-Gordon's overview of the current law and policy controlling sex work:

  • The current best guess of number of sex workers active in the UK is 48 393 (contrast with the 80 000 statistic you often see quoted by govt). Even if you believe sex work to be a social "problem", it's less of one than is claimed by legislators.
  • Current legislation includes controlling offences such as "Manage/Assist management of a brothel" brought in under the 2005 Amendment to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, for which the penalty is a fine or 7 years prison, and which criminalises workers operating under the same roof for safety's sake.
  • The offence "Causing, inciting or controlling prostitution for gain" (sections 52-54 of the Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation Sex Offences Act 2003) similarly threatens agents, administrators and employers who are as likely to be protecting sex workers as harming them, and carries a penalty of a fine or 7 years prison. The wording includes anyone who helps a sex worker find work in exchange for financial or emotional reward or goodwill.
  • Sections 57-59 of the same Act cover "arranging or facilitating travel" into, within or out of the UK and carries a fine or up to 14 years prison. This permits a ridiculously broad definition of "trafficking" which includes giving a sex worker a lift, and it's not uncommon for agency workers to rely on trusted chaffeurs to drive them to clients' houses and wait outside as security. Dr Brooks-Gordon argues that "Trafficking definitions need to align with the Palermo protocol so that the 'three Fs' of fear, force or fraud are incorporated into legislation. Sex workers have also campaigned for 'control' to be tightened up so the innocent maids and receptionists are not falsely imprisoned."
  • The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (commenced in 2010) includes Premises Closure Orders, which permit police to close down premises on suspicion of prostitution taking place now, in the past or in the future. On the basis of speculation about future acts, police are thereby empowered to evict a sex-worker from their home and confiscate their savings, with no legal recourse.
  • The Policing and Crime Act also includes the well-intentioned but highly unrealistic Engagement and Support Orders. Following police intervention, these prescribe three meetings between a sex worker and a supervisor to 'educate' them out of sex work. If after these three meetings the person exhibits no change or evidence of exiting sex work, they go back to court and are fed back into the criminal justice system at the expense of the state. This strategy completely ignores the varied context which might make sex work the best choice for that person. Even if the worker is highly vulnerable and does not have much opportunity for self-determination, this is hardly a viable structure for giving them the help they need to turn their life around. Vulnerable people who turn to sex work because their lives are in chaos require professional care, not a cursory "re-education". And sex workers who are content with their choice deserve the chance to live their life free from state intervention.
  • Pamphlets and posters distributed by police - intended to alert potential clients to the possibility that the sex worker they are visiting might be coerced or trafficked - have similarly broad, ambiguous wording. The slogan "walk in a punter, walk out a rapist" implies that no consensual commercial sex relationship is possible between sex worker and client. The myths propounded about trafficking (particularly in government-funded reports) make this implication particularly strongly if the worker in question is migrant.
  • Dr Brooks-Gordon said that "the law is replete with flawed and inadequate reports". For example, an original estimate of 4 000 trafficked sex workers in London (arising from the debunked Poppy Project estimation that 80% of sex workers who are foreign nationals are trafficked) was inflated further in a Home Office internal document; which was then further "rounded up" by some journalists to 25 000 or 100 000. Laura Agustin has some good analysis of this, and you may be familiar with the Guardian report on how trafficking figures were exaggerated.
  • Actual trafficking figures arising from police activity are far lower. No annual figure of migrant sex slaves found by police in the UK has been higher than 100. Police studies Pentameter 1 and 2 in 2007 and 2008 found 71 and 88 trafficked people respectively - less than 0.02% of the (actual) estimated total number of sex workers operating in the UK.
  • As Laura Agustin's research shows, far more common than trafficking are people who migrate to work in the sex trade for a reason. For instance, many migrant sex workers leave their own countries due to police violence. The UK has a minority population of trans or queer sex workers escaping homophobia or transphobia in e.g. Eastern Europe.
  • Discussing the type of person who chooses sex work, Dr Brooks-Gordon cites a study which suggests that 48% of off-street sex workers have a nursing, teaching or caring qualification.
  • One question often asked: is sex work demand driven, or supply led? (Speaking personally, my own experience is certainly the latter - I set out to explore things I wanted to do, at a deep level of personal fulfilment - creating kinky erotica is the culmination of all my prior experience of kink, performance and creative expression - and discovered to my surprise and pleasure that there was a market for it. My experience is privileged, but not unique.) Dr Brooks-Gorden floated the idea that with increased tuition fees coinciding with recorded higher numbers of students in sex work, government is in fact pushing supply rather than reducing demand.
  • Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, police are entitled to keep 25% of proceeds from brothel raids. The state and its enforcers have a huge vested interest in keeping sex work criminalised.

Heresy Corner has an interesting analysis of the language used by both sides of the debate. The discussion is also worth reading, including contributions from Magnanti and Agustin.

While legislators claim to be acting in the best interests of vulnerable sex workers, the evidence suggests otherwise. Vested interests, inaccurate data, prejudiced reports and broad, ambiguous legislation create a climate in which moralistic rescuers have too much power to intervene and too many distorted reasons for doing so. If we really want to help vulnerable people exit the sex industry, we should be preventing them from entering the criminal justice system, offering integrated, long-term care, and not conflating them with the (far more numerous) independent people who are capable of self-determination, and have made a choice which seems best for them.

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