Our response to UN Women’s consultation on the sex trade

Who we are

Survivors for Decrim is a collective of people who sell or trade sex (or who have exited the sex trade), who are survivors of violence or trauma, and who support the full decriminalisation of sex work. Trauma experienced by people in the sex trade is too often made invisible, treated as a joke, or tokenised. Our stories are used to advocate further criminalisation, despite the reality that criminalisation itself fuels and facilitates violence against us. Further empowering police and immigration officers cannot end or heal violence against people in the sex trade.

Within debates about the sex trade, survivors are often used to suggest that people currently selling sex are caricatures of “happy hookers”, and/or can’t be trusted to know what’s best for themselves. We totally reject these ideas. Further, the idea that ‘survivors support the Nordic model’ is widespread, but we would contend that this belief rests on a highly selective reading of reality – one which excludes the vast majority of people who sell or trade sex, who are also survivors.

Real justice and safety for people who sell sex has to mean the full decriminalisation of sex work, an end to punitive measures which attempt to limit migration, repeal of harmful drug laws, and redistribution of wealth to ensure that nobody need to experience the violence of poverty.

Comments on the consultation process

We have zero confidence in how this ‘consultation’ has been run. The questions are extremely jargon-y, and require high-level knowledge of UN treaties and agreements, which are incredibly inaccessible to the vast, vast majority of sex workers (us included). The process seems designed to advantage funded NGOs, who can employ a policy officer to work on unpicking the complexity of the questions and producing a response. This puts individual sex workers and unfunded sex worker groups (such as ours) at a huge disadvantage: it is not in our job-descriptions to navigate UN bureaucracy, and we are taking time away from our many other responsibilities (such as earning money with which to support ourselves, or engaging in caring responsibilities) to attempt to reply to you. As workers who are often on the breadline (and doing other unpaid work to support our families and communities), the ‘opportunity cost’ for us in responding to this, compared to a salaried policy worker, is significant. You claim that you are keen to hear from organisations in the global south, but this is a sad joke given how inaccessible you have made this consultation.

1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?  

In our view, the key issue in terms of interpreting these rights with regards to the sex trade is the importance of underscoring that the rights and safety of people who are currently selling or trading sex cannot be ‘collateral damage’ in pursuit of some ‘ideal’ feminist future. Too often, the safety of people currently selling sex is brushed aside or glossed over – for example, when policymakers focus on “sending a message” with regards to prostitution, rather than thinking about the material effect on sex workers now. Such thinking means that we are further vulnerable to violence such as rape, assault, robbery, arrest, eviction, or deportation.

Sweden’s “attitudinal change” with regards to sex work is a good example of this. Policymakers who lobby for the ‘Swedish model’ often cite the fact that in Sweden, attitudes towards the sex trade have shifted as a result of the 1999 law, with most Swedes now considering it unacceptable to pay for sex. This is cited as a feminist victory, despite the fact that the very same research also shows that at the same time, attitudes towards sex workers themselves have also hardened, with a majority of Swedes now thinking that the sex worker should also be prosecuted. If a policy around domestic violence made the public more disapproving of perpetrators, but also more disapproving of those who were experiencing domestic violence, we do not think this ‘attitude shift’ would be hailed as a feminist triumph. Yet apparently this is good enough for people who sell sex? Sex workers are ‘left behind’ when allegedly progressive people argue for policies which will increase the hatred – and therefore violence – we experience, on the basis that punishing men who pay for sex is more important than the safety of those who sell it.

Conversely, the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, along the lines of New Zealand (albeit with New Zealand’s protections extended to migrant workers), could enact these principles of universality. For example, sex workers, like all other workers and all other women, deserve access to workplace safety. In contexts where our workplaces are criminalised, this is not possible: our criminalised workplaces cannot be covered by standard labour protections that other workers enjoy. Where sex work is decriminalised, we can access these protections: notably, a sex worker in New Zealand was able to take her manager to court for sexual harassment and to win her case. The tribunal noted, “Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations … Sex workers have the same human rights as other workers”. Here are the principles of universality in action.

With regards to abortion access, it is commonplace to observe that the choice is not between “no abortions” and safe abortions; it’s between unsafe abortions and safe abortions. On a similar note, let’s not pretend that the choice here is between on the one hand, “no sex industry workplaces” or New Zealand’s safer sex industry workplaces. Even the Swedish police acknowledge that managed workplaces have proliferated in Sweden in the last few years (up from ninety to two-hundred and fifty in Stockholm between 2009 to 2012). The choice is between unsafe workplaces where we have no labour rights, and safer workplaces, where we do. It is clear that if you believe that people who sell sex deserve safety, rights, and workplace protections, the only legal model that can deliver that is full decriminalisation.

2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as

  1. a)      reproductive rights
  2. b)      women’s ownership of land and assets
  3. c)       building peaceful and inclusive societies
  4. d)      ending the trafficking of women
  5. e)      eliminating violence against women.

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

We imagine that many responses will talk about the links between sex work and trafficking as a way to recommend the further criminalisation of prostitution (and by extension, the further criminalisation of migration, as anti-prostitution measures are invariably used to target migrant sex workers).

As people who have experienced trauma in the sex trades, we know that many people who sell sex experience abuse and exploitation in the workplace – and that this is particularly true of migrant workers. We also know that fears over trafficking are also about deeply racialised anxieties. Indeed, “concerns over trafficking” are very clearly used by governments to provide progressive cover for brutal anti-migrant policies, as when UK policymakers suggested bombing refugee boats on the Mediterranean as a way to ‘fight traffickers’.

As Emi Koyama writes, “[the spectre of the trafficker] is very scary … yet is more comforting than a more accurate and nuanced view of the world which says we must pay attention to the impact of poverty, racism, sexism, neoliberalistic global capitalism and its assault on the public safety net, homophobia and transphobia, and unjust immigration laws”. It is striking to us that bold claims are made as to the structural workings of “end demand” approaches in terms of migrants who trade sex, and yet these campaigners – who pride themselves on their structural analysis – tend to leave the criminalisation of migration untouched.

To us, a structural analysis of the experiences of migrants in the sex trades has to start with borders. It is obvious that people seeking to cross borders without documents may seek the specialist help of third parties. It is equally obvious that at that point, those people are by definition putting themselves into the hands of those the international community considers criminals, and if they wish to cross those borders (which they may be desperate to do so; escaping war or horrendous conditions within a refugee camp), they need to accept the terms offered to them. That may mean a large upfront sum; it may mean an agreement to work in a specific workplace for a period of time upon arrival in the destination country, regardless of the conditions of that work. If you wish for people who are crossing borders to have more power in the conditions in which they cross borders and the conditions in which they work in their destination country, then you need to give them a way to travel legally and safely, and work legally and safely. The criminalisation of sex work as a “solution” to trafficking is a complete distraction (and a deeply harmful one at that) from the criminalisation of migration, which is the root cause of migrants’ vulnerability to exploitation as they cross borders and work – in any industry.

It is worth noting that even supposedly “progressive” forms of criminalisation of the sex trades take a hugely punitive approach to migrant sex workers – arguably revealing the purpose of these policies, which is not humanitarianism but instead, racist policing. Both Sweden and Norway aggressively deport migrants who are selling sex, even if those migrants have EU citizenship rights, and as such, the right to be in the country. As the Swedish media states, “the police have been actively deporting prostitutes from Sweden, regardless of their citizenship, arguing that they represent a threat to the basic interests of society”. The Swedish police in their own reports discuss their efforts to deport Romanian sex workers. And in Norway, Amnesty International found hundreds of accounts from migrant sex workers discussing being evicted and deported by the police. One woman was deported just three days after suffering a violent attack, with a severe head injury. The vast majority of these accounts came from black women; highlighting how inextricable anti-prostitution policy is from anti-migrant policy and racist policy. It is striking to us that those who advocate the Nordic model have zero words of criticism for these racist policies, which again suggests that on some level, these outcomes may be intended.

Clearly criminalisation – whether of migrant or sex work – exacerbates the conditions in which people are vulnerable to exploitation. The only way to fulfil the SDGs around the sex industry are through full decriminalisation – including of migrant workers – and an end to anti-immigration laws.

3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

Women who sell sex are more likely than male sex workers to be profiled as such, and therefore to be targeted by anti-prostitution policy such as arrest, prosecution, eviction, deportation, and loss of child custody. This is especially the case for women who experience multiple oppressions: women of colour; trans women; working class women, migrant women. It is now clear that the criminalisation of the sex industry cannot protect women who sell sex. As the Norwegian government wrote in 2004, regarding the sex purchase law in Sweden, “violence has increased after the change in the law … the prostitutes who are still working in street prostitution experience a tougher existence. More abuse takes place than previously, as the women cannot afford to say ‘no’ to clients they have their doubts about”. The head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit has statedI think of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law. It shouldn’t be as easy as it was before to go out and sell sex”. This is clearly not an approach that is compatible with human rights or reducing harm.

Instead, women who sell sex need full decriminalisation. By this we mean not only to be decriminalised ourselves, but also for those who associate with us – partners, friends, colleagues, clients, managers and landlords – to be decriminalised too, so that we do not suffer the harms of indirect criminalisation. These harms can manifest as vulnerability to violence through inability to screen clients, or vulnerability to eviction through policies such as Norway’s Operation Homeless. We need access to the basic rights, justice and labour laws that other workers can mostly take for granted.

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