Update (12p.m. Tuesday, 21st May 2019): A fresh call to decriminalise prostitution from the Royal College of Nursing was reported today by the BBC. The appeal was based on the claim that the current law around prostitution puts sex workers' health in danger by forcing them not seek out medical help from the NHS due to the risk of prosecution.
This article was originally published on Thursday 7th March 2019.
There are more than 72,800 sex workers in the UK, according to the government, yet this sizeable group of mostly women are among the most marginalised people in society. On International Women's Day, which champions the rights and safety of all women, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a national sex workers organisation, has launched a campaign and petition to ensure their safety at long last. Sex workers will also be striking and demonstrating in London for the cause this evening.
In the same week as International Sex Workers Rights Day, the #MakeAllWomenSafe campaign – and accompanying petition to decriminalise sex work on the UK government's website – is calling for legislation to be abolished that makes it illegal for prostitutes to work from a collective space like a brothel.
The current law, the ECP argues, puts women in serious danger, and more than 3,500 people have shown support for the campaign at the time of writing. "Even though their job is legal, prostitution laws prevent women from working together," the petition reads. "Sex workers often have to choose between keeping safe and possible arrest, or avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger. No woman should be put in danger by the law." An accompanying short film (below) highlights the risks many women face.
The law as it stands: Sex work – the exchange of money between two adults for consensual sex – is legal in the UK, but there are three laws surrounding the buying and selling of sex – relating to soliciting, brothel-keeping and controlling – which the ECP argues make sex work "more dangerous and ironically harder [for women] to leave."
The difference between legalisation and decriminalisation: This can be confusing – they're not the same thing and some people favour legalisation, while others advocate decriminalisation. As the ECP explains, "Decriminalisation means the removal of all criminal laws that are specific to sex workers. Legalisation is government controlled prostitution with separate laws," the latter of which would criminalise women for working outside designated zones or brothels.
What sex workers and campaigners want: The ECP is calling for decriminalisation, which it says would better safeguard women's safety. "Through #MakeAllWomenSafe, we want to highlight the injustice of the laws which prevent women working together for safety and to demand change," Niki Adams, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told Refinery29. "Our petition calls on the government to promote safety by introducing legislation to decriminalise sex workers working on the street and together in premises.
We're forced to choose between possible arrest and keeping ourselves safe, or avoiding a criminal record and putting ourselves in danger.
Niki Adams, the English Collective of Prostitutes
"Even though our job is legal, the law makes it illegal for us to work together with a friend. We're forced to choose between possible arrest and keeping ourselves safe, or avoiding a criminal record and putting ourselves in danger. No woman should have to make that choice." As well as it being illegal for two or more sex workers to work together, under current law, street-based sex workers are prosecuted for loitering or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution.
By advocating for sex workers' safety, the ECP argues, you're helping to ensure all women's safety. "At the moment violent men are getting away with it because sex workers can’t report them and make sure they are brought to justice. Serial attackers are encouraged to attack again and again," says Adams.
Decriminalising sex work could save women's lives: Over 100 women have been killed while doing sex work since 1990, according to data curated by National Ugly Mugs, which records crimes against sex workers. This figure is widely assumed to be an underestimate, given that criminalisation and stigma associated with sex work prevent women being open about their job.
Over two-thirds of sex workers have suffered physical attack. "Women go to enormous lengths to try and stay safe but all these efforts are undermined by the laws which prevent us working with other women," Adams adds. The ECP isn't the only group calling for decriminalisation: other supporters include Amnesty International, UN Aids, Human Rights Watch and even the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs.
How decriminalisation could transform sex workers' daily lives: "I can’t begin to describe what a difference it would make if the law was changed," a sex worker named Yasmin, who has worked in the industry for eight years, told us, adding that being able to work alongside a friend would be transformative. "I’d be able to do that without getting ripped off by a boss. I wouldn't have to think twice about calling the police if something happened because we wouldn’t be worried that by informing the police about where the flat is, that we would get closed down."
Yasmin also believes more violent men would get taken off the street. "If we as sex workers were able to report every incident, and the police were under manners to do something about violence against women, then more of us would be saved from violence."
Sign the petition to 'decriminalise prostitution to promote safety' on the UK government and parliament website.
On International Women's Day, 8th March, the Women's Strike Assembly is striking in solidarity with sex workers and also calling for decriminalisation. Find out more here.