Sex workers’ safety should matter to all of us

*Note – you will notice I use the term sex work instead of prostitution throughout this article. It is the preferred term of sex workers and it wouldn’t be right to contradict their wishes and insist on using a term that they are uncomfortable with, even if it is the more often used term in the media and in legislation*

The Amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that proposed criminalisation of sex workers’ clients was defeated at Westminster yesterday, and sex workers’ rights organisations breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Meanwhile in the North of Ireland, sex workers fear increased violence after the DUP and Sinn Fein joined together to vote through criminalisation just days ago, with the same expected to follow in the Republic within months. For more info on the Amendment to the Bill and why it was dangerous, check out SCOT-PEP’s response.

I used to be in favour of the Swedish Model (criminalisation of the purchase but not the selling of sex), from a well meaning but misguided viewpoint. I hold my hands up to that – I was wrong, it is harmful. I support harm reduction, and decriminalisation rather than legalisation. That means harm reduction for addicts – heroin on prescription and safe places to take it, and an end to criminal charges for possession, plus the release of prisoners convicted of crimes of poverty. Harm reduction too for abortions – free and available to all at the point of need, where the only questions asked should be ‘do you want this?’ and ‘do you need support?’

There is no logic to refusing to extend this to sex work. The evidence shows that criminalising clients leads to extremely dangerous working conditions for sex workers, but no reduction in the number of sex workers and no reduction in the number of clients, which ultimately is supposed to be the aim of the Swedish Model. Sex work is pushed underground, and the most vulnerable (usually street based) sex workers suffer most under client criminalisation – not just from increased violence from clients, but from the police. In Scotland we also see police violence against sex workers. Criminalisation doesn’t ‘end demand’ when we still live under patriarchy, classism, racism, just as heroin addiction will always exist where poverty is rife and lack of mental health and support services is chronic, criminal or not.

The Swedish state shows its lack of care for vulnerable women with its deportation of migrant sex workers – in fact you don’t even have to be a sex worker to experience discrimination around the Swedish Model as a woman of colour – just ‘looking Asian‘ can be legally upheld as reason to deny you service in the name of “preventing prostitution”. The Swedish state didn’t care either about the safety of domestic abuse survivors when they removed sex worker Petite Jasmine‘s children from her care on the basis that she was engaged in the “self harm” of sex work. They gave custody to her abusive, stalker husband – and after years of fighting for access to her kids, he murdered her on a state supervised visit. It’s hard to take from this that the Swedish state view the perpetrators of violence as the real problem, as the criminalisation model promises.

As John McDonnell pointed out in yesterday’s Commons debate, we reduce the incidence of coerced or hunger-driven sex work by tackling poverty and the dearth of job opportunities. We tackle trafficking without conflating it with all sex work – and we bear in mind that globally the majority of human trafficking involves domestic servitude or forced labour.

Vice recently reported on Cambodian sex workers “rescued” into forced sweatshop labour by “feminist” anti-sex work NGOs.

This isn’t about the mythical “happy hooker”, this is about the rights of everyone – particularly vulnerable people – to work safely. We need to stop placing sex workers in one of two categories – privileged choice or desperate misery – as if life and choice under capitalism isn’t more complicated than that. All sex workers are real people with real lives and real responsibilities like the rest of us and need to be able to pay their bills and feed themselves, and yes – often feed addictions and pay off debts – without having to work under conditions where they are at risk of violence and even death.

Safety is the number one priority. But even going beyond that, I don’t believe we can have a meaningful conversation about men as clients and the role of patriarchy in all types of sex and all types of work without first acknowledging the right of sex workers to work safely (regardless of what we personally think of clients). I have a dim view of men who pay for sex, but it’s not about me. The saying goes “nothing about me without me”, yet certain Western feminist organisations and Professional Media Feminists with their huge platform insist on excluding sex worker voices in public, sometimes law-making debates about their own lives. Who else could know their experiences and needs? It’s telling when people not involved in sex work claim to speak for the vulnerable and voiceless but won’t actually share platforms with women who really do sex work.

While I do have major concerns with some of the most vocal anti-sex work feminists (particularly where they refuse to engage with sex workers, and betray their desire to patronise and talk down to women they see as lesser than them), there is still a large part of me that fundamentally agrees with their stated aim: I do want there to be less demand, and I do want there to be real alternative options for women who would rather be doing other work, which is a significant percentage. I entirely disagree however with the means (criminalising women’s workplaces, making their work more dangerous, having the police turn up at their homes, laws about them that don’t reflect their voices, needs and realities). I also disagree that those means actually do contribute to the stated ends. Those ends don’t exist in the Swedish Model. There are not alternatives to sex work, in fact there are less alternatives every day in the UK with benefits sanctions and unemployment and it’s not about to change any time soon –  it’s certainly not being proposed as a serious and necessary part of client criminalisation legislation. There is not less demand – men are not put off by criminalisation, but it does give them the upper hand in creating unsafe conditions. We need to find a path that can reflect the realities of why sex workers work, what keeps them safe and unsafe, why men pay for sex and what would *really* work in getting them to genuinely change their attitudes to entitlement around sex, rather than simplistic black and whites that enable corruption and increase vulnerability like the Swedish Model.

The work of organisations like SCOT-PEP is vital, and all politicians and indeed feminists should be willing to listen to the voices of sex workers when making decisions that affect their safety, their livelihoods and their lives. Otherwise the debate is not just meaningless, it’s dangerous.

A decade ago, Leith Residents Association was organising against the women who worked in the tolerance zone by forming vigilante gangs and going out and threatening the women with baseball bats. The tolerance zone was closed due to this local campaign, leading to a huge spike in violence against street-based sex workers perpetrated by men posing as clients. With the women unable to work safely, the number of violent attacks they reported to outreach workers went up from eleven, in the final year of the tolerance zone, to a hundred and eleven in the year after it closed

Sex Worker Open University at Edinburgh Reclaim the Night

Featured image credit: latinousa


Further Reading:

Sauna Raids and Silenced Sex Workers

Zero Tolerance Isn’t Working at the Arches or Anywhere

Methadone Isn’t the Problem or the Only Solution

The Kids Who Grow Our Cannabis


Find us on Facebook at

Follow us on Twitter @unsavourycabal


2 responses to “Sex workers’ safety should matter to all of us

  1. Good post. The one thing I would like to point out, without taking away from the many good points raised, is that sex workers do not face “increased violence from clients” but from violent offenders posing as clients. Other than that it is very refreshing to read from someone who once was in favour of the Swedish Model and has since come to support decriminalisation. Thumbs up!

  2. Reblogged this on The Consultation and commented:
    It takes REAL cojones to change course *AND* actually admit you have been wrong (most people who change course just hope nobody notices!) Welcome back from the dark side.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s