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JosephineMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 07-Jul-16 12:19:53

Guest post: "As sex workers, our lives depend on decriminalisation"

Decriminalising sex work is the only way to ensure safety in the industry, says sex worker and activist Laura Lee

Read Kat Banyard's view on why she thinks the sex trade can never be made 'safe' here

Laura Lee

Sex workers' rights campaigner

Posted on: Thu 07-Jul-16 12:19:53

(390 comments )

Lead photo

"When the police work with us, not against us, we are best placed to identify and report others in danger."

I was 19 years old when I made the decision to sell sex. An unorthodox choice, certainly, but one which helped me get through university without crippling debt, and later, a choice which would allow me to return to university as a single parent and complete my second degree. Please don't fall into the trap of assuming that because I'm a white, middle-class, educated woman I can't possibly understand the abject misery that is sometimes seen in our industry. I stood on Burlington Road in Dublin in the dead of winter, often drunk or out of my head on cocaine, or both, selling sex at £30 a time. That's not privileged. Now, with over 20 years behind me, I can finally put that experience to use, and educate people about the realities of our industry, and what would make us safer.

As the debate around the sex industry gathers steam, there are two schools of thought. Punish the punters by making it illegal to purchase sex, or decriminalise the laws around sex work. Let's look at both.

The law that criminalises the punter was introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has been an abject failure. Its aim was to reduce prostitution by reducing 'demand', but the Swedish government admits there has been no change to the number of buyers, or sellers. So what has changed? Violence against sex workers has increased sharply, with police targeting their homes to arrest buyers, often resulting in their being made homeless. The most vulnerable sex workers on the streets cannot be reached by outreach services, to facilitate condom distribution or needle exchange, as they need to work away from police detection. Sex workers are refusing to report violence to police, as they know they place themselves at risk from the very people supposed to protect them. Stigma has increased, with sex workers in both Sweden and Norway reporting having their children removed, and deportation of migrant sex workers is rife.

Decriminalisation refers to the removal of all criminal prohibitions and penalties on sex work. It allows us to work together for safety, makes it easier to access justice and support services, and facilitates a better response to true exploitation in the industry.


One of the most infuriating strands to the current feminist discourse around sex work is the assertion that we are abused, or even raped, every time we sell sex. That statement is injurious and grossly insulting to those who have survived abuse and rape, and it also strips sex workers of our agency. As much as we campaign for the right to say 'yes', we absolutely reserve the right to say 'no'. I detest the use of the word 'empowerment' in any debate on sex work. My job is no more empowering than anyone else's; it allows me to support my family and pay my bills. But as a community, there is no doubt that we are more empowered to say 'no' when we are permitted to work together for safety.

Under current legislation, and even more so under the Swedish model, sex workers are not permitted to work more than one to a premises. If I ask a friend to share an apartment with me so I feel safer in accepting visiting clients, we can be arrested and charged with 'pimping' from each other. That practice is commonplace. As cash, mobile phones and laptops are often removed as 'evidence', the women concerned are left with nothing but a criminal record, simply for wishing to stay safe.

So what is decriminalisation? Not to be confused with legalisation, it refers to the removal of all criminal prohibitions and penalties on sex work. In doing so, it protects the human rights of sex workers, as acknowledged by WHO, UNAIDS, The Lancet and more recently, Amnesty International.

Decriminalisation allows us to work together for safety, which is crucial. Decriminalisation also makes it easier to access justice and support services, and facilitates a better response to true exploitation in the industry. When the police work with us, not against us, we are best placed to identify and report others in danger.

On June 1 2015, the Northern Irish Assembly made it illegal to purchase sex. I have launched a High Court challenge to that law and will take it to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. You may not like or be comfortable with the exchange of sex for money and that's fine - that's not what this debate is about. It's about our right to safety in the workplace. 154 sex workers have been murdered since 1990. We ask for your support for decriminalisation. Our lives depend on it.

Read Kat Banyard's post here.

By Laura Lee

Twitter: @GlasgaeLauraLee

Natsku Thu 07-Jul-16 12:47:19

Absolutely agree with that. Its the best way to make things safer for sex workers.

sixinabed Thu 07-Jul-16 12:50:58

This post is very powerful and I didn't know that clear downsides to the Scandinavian model. Would decriminalisation mean that sex work would become just another employment option so that unemployed women on benefits could be coerced into doing it? Genuine question - this is something I've seen mooted as a logical conclusion of decriminalisation, but I've no idea if that is realistic or scaremongering?

TheRealPosieParker Thu 07-Jul-16 13:00:48

I don't support it. In every place where there is relaxing of laws around prostitution, let's not muddy the water with loose terms, there's an increase of trafficked women and children as sex slaves.

I need more convincing to allow men who purchase sex to get off scot free whilst the sex work lobby prepares to throw the most vulnerable under the bus.

As for children being removed? So what? Why would anyone think it's a good environment for a child to be raised by someone who, according to you, chooses to allow men to fuck them for money? "I stood on Burlington Road in Dublin in the dead of winter, often drunk or out of my head on cocaine, or both, selling sex at £30 a time." seems like a good situation to raise kids? (I understand this was you in your twenties, but how do you know the women who have had their children removed weren't doing this?)

Sorry I think raising children and being involved in any kind of sex work is problematic.

CrabbitArse Thu 07-Jul-16 13:12:37

(I understand this was you in your twenties, but how do you know the women who have had their children removed weren't doing this?)

And how do you know they were Rosie?

sausageeggbacon111 Thu 07-Jul-16 13:20:10

5 years ago I would have been totally against decrim, the more I read and the more I listen to the more I feel it is the better option. Trafficking and Child rape will continue either way. I suspect the Nordic model would protect the traffickers as people in the industry and the punters would be far less likely to report anything. Of course it is a belief the same as thinking decrim would make matters worse. A quick google of escorts Stockholm shows just how effective the law really is. I think working with the women in the industry with no fear is going to be more effective in the long term. It would also allow things like Ugly Mugs to create a safer environment. Just my opinion.

TheRealPosieParker Thu 07-Jul-16 13:28:19

I don't know. But I doubt that children who are removed from safe homes.

TheRealPosieParker Thu 07-Jul-16 13:29:04

Trafficking increases when laws are relaxed, that is a known fact.

stubbornstains Thu 07-Jul-16 13:29:11

I am completely behind you OP. I remember, before the election, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party being totally slated in a Q&A on here, because they'd had the temerity to ask sex workers what they wanted before drafting their policies on decriminalising sex work.

I don't know what the best policies on this would be. But luckily there are people who do know- those who work as sex workers every day.

However, expect to be howled down now by lots of posters who have had no experience of sex work telling you that you have no right to have an opinion on what goes on in your own industry, that you are letting feminism down, that you somehow don't know what you're talking about, that you're some kind of victim etc.

(We've already had the "bad mother" comment, ffs hmm).

Sarcastathon Thu 07-Jul-16 14:35:17

I've been unemployed on and off for most of my adult life and on benefits. They can't force you to do any job, for example I wouldn't want to be a policeman, a mortician, or a butcher. I've never had anyone try to make me do any of these things. That's not how unemployment benefits work.

BombadierFritz Thu 07-Jul-16 15:18:28

So the swedish model made no change to numbers involved in prostitution and the german model of decriminalising led to an increase in prostitution and sex trafficking. Tbh i prefer the swedish outcome.

sixinabed Thu 07-Jul-16 15:37:53

But Sarcastathon - I thought that you could be penalised for not applying for a job for which you would be qualified? So not be forced to do it, but coerced if the alternative is being sanctioned? Ive not been on JSA, but I understood from others who have that this is the way it works.
A lot of people do not have the qualifications needed to be a policeman, mortician or butcher, and those jobs may not be advertised very often. The only qualification you need for sex work is being of the desired sex. Of course in order to be sanctioned for not taking sex work, it would have to be advertised like say a cleaning job would be.

I have no idea if that would/could be an outcome of decriminalisation? Do brothels in Germany advertise for sex workers? BTW, I am just trying to work out whether this could be an outcome or not - I'm not arguing that it would be.

thecraftyfox Thu 07-Jul-16 15:50:57

Your job might be mo more empowering than others, but how many women need to be drunk or high to get through the reality of what they do (was the street work before or after working in a massage parlour?).
You've said before you don't want your daughter to go into prostitution? Why is that?

Sabrinna Valisce is an exited woman who experienced sex work in New Zealand before and after decriminalisation. Her experiences would suggest, along with mega brothels in Germany, that once prostitution is decriminalised that the power goes to brothel owners, women have to pay fees and things like "all inclusives" become the norm, taking any power away from women selling sex.

Finally, with the recent murder of Daria Pionko in a "permitted red light district" which had support from National Ugly Mugs, how do you expect to be taken seriously that women are safer when men are allowd to buy their bodies.

TheRealPosieParker Thu 07-Jul-16 15:55:42

Also "choosing" to do sex work is inherently bad for women as a class. The spillage of lap dancing style videos, porn, sex work it's all the same bag of shit for women. In 2016..... pfft.

ChocChocPorridge Thu 07-Jul-16 17:07:33

I can't support this - the only way that prostitution could be decriminalised is if it then required all the standard H&S regulation that any other job involving body fluids is - protective gear, licensing, insurance etc.

The people at the bottom of the prostitution heap would not be able to afford that, the people buying these women would not want that, and now, we've handed the police another stick to beat them with - non-compliance.

Sorry. I can't see how that is a desirable outcome.

I've read accounts from the super-brothels - even the least horrific ones are not something I want men to be doing in my town.

Waitingfordolly Thu 07-Jul-16 17:30:13

It depends on your level of analysis. If that's "women who currently work in the sex trade" then decriminalisation might be better, but if you look at "all women" you may get a completely different answer.

Xenophile Thu 07-Jul-16 17:44:38

Interestingly, the author of this, frankly inaccurate and rather dangerous piece is on Twitter, taking the piss out of people posting. So, like so many of her writings, I very much doubt this was written in any kind of faith, let alone good faith.

The Nordic Model has been shown in all reputable research (ie, not funded by people with a vested interest in ensuring it fails) to be the best chance of safety for women who wish to continue to sell sexual services and the best chance of exiting for women (up to 92% of "sex workers") who wish to exit. In countries where the Nordic Model is in place, there has not been a single murder of a prostituted woman and the much touted increase in physical abuse is probably best explained by the women being able to and encouraged to report this kind of behaviour in their customers.

What decriminalisation does is creates situations such as New Zealand and Germany, where sex trafficking has gone through the roof, where super brothels are able to sprout up, where women are forced to work in trailers in restplatz to pay off 'debts' by servicing tens of men a day. The only people who benefit from decrim are brothel owners and the type of men who pay to negate all consent. Make no mistake, those men couldn't give a damn what age the woman he's fucking is, whether she's there by choice, is pimped, on drugs or whatever, all he wants to do is stick his cock into a body that can't protest. Ugly mugs is a great thing to help the women to help each other, but the real picture is painted on websites where johns rate the woman they paid for. That's where you find out what men really think, and it's not pretty.

AntiqueSinger Thu 07-Jul-16 17:51:26

Sorry I can't support it either. Ultimately it is about morality. What has been interesting about Germany is the way the decriminalising of sex and the superbrothels have affected the mind set of young men in particular towards sex and relationships, with an increase in a view of objectification of women in general, and a lack of ability or desire to develop relationships based on real intimacy. The easy availability of sex and the removal of the taboo around prostitution has led to a 'coarsening' of social sexual values.

Ultimately I think the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few on this issue. What you're really asking for when it comes down to it is for everyone to accept prostitution as a valid lifestyle, and a huge societal shift in our psyche. There are occasions where that is necessary of course (racism, homosexuality, women's equality,) but I don't think legalising prostitution should be one of them. There's no way it would not have further negative consequences on the way men and women relate to each other.

TheRealPosieParker Thu 07-Jul-16 18:02:12

What is the point of a guest post if the deluded author doesn't bother to engage?

LassWiTheDelicateAir Thu 07-Jul-16 18:28:05

Posie I don't think you have been around recently? It seems only a week ago we had a very similar thread. I'm happy to endorse your posts.

Ultimately it is about morality

Oh absolutely. Talking about morality in this context will of course get twisted by the pro punter / pro pimp lobby to suggest it's meant in a very narrow sense of disapproving of anything other than heterosexual married sex. It isn't of course. Your points about a coarsening of attitudes are spot on.

Petal40 Thu 07-Jul-16 18:33:23

No...totally don't agree or support that...laws need to be harder to punish the men and remove the women and children to a safe house...prison for any man caught buying sex...removal of children in this situation untill mum is able to care for them without inviting strange men in to their lives...but hay what the hell do I know...I've never sold sex so I guess I'm not allowed an opinion and therefore I don't have a clue what I'm talking about

FloraFox Thu 07-Jul-16 18:56:07

Didn't you tell the NI Assembly that you represent no one but yourself and that you have never encountered a woman who has been forced or trafficked into the sex industry? I think it's clear you are speaking from a position of privilege and highly motivated to spread disinformation about the Swedish model.

LordyMe Thu 07-Jul-16 19:14:24

I don't support this at all. I don't think you should work as a sex worker. Regardless of decriminalization or not you would be a whole lot safer if you did other work. You might not earn as much but that's a small price to pay.

I disapprove of the sex trade wholeheartedly and feel desperately sorry for those women (and men) who are are forced into it.

MumOnTheRunCatchingUp Thu 07-Jul-16 19:31:16

God no. No way would I support this

Jeez hmm

Dutchcourage Thu 07-Jul-16 19:32:31

I don't support it.

It brings with it too many risks. Young makes are seeing a false representation of how females should have sex/make love and I think making this more accessible will make this situation worse:

More importantly people supplying child sex will have more doors to fm hide behind.

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