In Depth

The pros and cons of decriminalising prostitution

English Collective of Prostitutes argue current laws mean sex workers are putting themselves in danger

A sex worker campaign group is calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution to protect vulnerable women.

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) says current laws cause sex workers to put themselves in danger and avoid reporting violent offences.

Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the collective, told The Guardian that a common trend is for women to work alone, risking their safety in the process, because working together increases the risk of arrest. This has become more of an issue recently, she said, as police have been cracking down on brothels.

While there are no official figures, Adams said that “the number of women involved in sex work has increased under austerity”.

“In Doncaster there has been a 60% increase since benefit sanctions hit [according to local charities]. In Sheffield it’s been 166%, which is massive… and this is from outreach workers, who are not likely to be sensationalist,” she said.

The ECP’s call for the decriminalisation of prostitution has support from within Parliament.

In 2016, the home affairs select committee recommended legalising soliciting and allowing sex workers to share premises without losing the ability to prosecute anyone who used brothels to control or exploit workers.

While the Home Office agreed that the legislation needed to be reexamined, there are currently no plans to change the law.

Here are some of the pros and cons put forward by people on both sides of the debate.

Con: Prostitution exploits women

Many feminists argue that prostitution is rooted in the patriarchal oppression of women and is an affront to gender equality.

The former UN special rapporteur on trafficking, Sigma Huda, says: “It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experience does not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability.”

Pro: Sex work is a choice and empowers women

Sex workers’ rights groups argue that many sex workers enter the industry voluntarily. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) argues that current legislation “treats our consent to sex as less valid than that of other women”.

“Neither having sex nor getting paid [for it] is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful,” says the IUSW.

Pro: Human rights and medical experts support it

In 2016, Amnesty International published a draft policy arguing in favour of decriminalisation, saying sex workers should be entitled to the same rights as other workers. It argued that the criminalisation of prostitution “threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy, and security” of a sex worker.

The World Health Organisation also condemns the criminalisation of sex work, and backs research in The Lancet which shows that decriminalising prostitution would help lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/Aids.

Con: Prostitution is dangerous

Many campaigners and feminists argue that prostitution, whether voluntary or not, is a form of violence against women. Care, a Christian charity argues that physical abuse and rape is commonplace in prostitution and campaigns for the criminalisation of all purchases of sexual services. In London, sex workers suffer a mortality rate that is “12 times higher than average”, according to their research.

Pro: Decriminalisation will actually make sex workers safer

Rights groups argue that criminalising prostitution means that sex workers are less likely to contact the police to report abuse. The laws in the UK also take away sex workers’ rights to work together. If sex workers are allowed to work together in one building, they will be safer, says IUSW.

“If I decided I was too nervous to work alone, I would not be allowed to have a friend over to work in a pair for safety: it would technically mean I was running a brothel,” one sex worker told The Independent.

UK laws “make life harder for those it purports to protect by precluding the possibility of establishing informal networks of self-regulation and protection”, argues Luke Gittos, law editor for Spiked Online.

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