Decrim Now: The Climate For Sex Workers in the UK

With the introduction of the Nordic Model to UK Parliament by the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin explores the climate for sex workers in the UK and the need for full decriminalisation.

ILLUSTRATIONS Ella Devi Dabysing

On 9 December 2020, Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull, introduced the Sexual Exploitation Bill to UK parliament as one ‘to bust the business model of sex trafficking’. However, along with addressing sexual exploitation, this Bill also aims to decriminalise selling sex while criminalising purchasing sex. This approach, commonly known as the Nordic Model or the Swedish Model, has already been implemented in other European countries, including Norway, France, Sweden and Northern Ireland, as well as Canada.

While, in theory, the Nordic Model aims to protect sex workers, evidence suggests that in countries where it has been established, this legislation has instead led to an increase in the exploitation of, and violence against, sex workers. Research, such as that carried out by Medicins du Monde, indicates that criminalising clients only serves to create more dangerous working conditions for sex workers. This report, compiled through surveying 583 sex workers, includes a plethora of first-person testimonies and summarises that “the law has had a detrimental effect on sex workers’ safety, health and overall living conditions… It has led to increased impoverishment, especially among people already living precariously, namely undocumented migrant women working in the street… The law has pushed sex workers to operate under more risky conditions with dangerous implications for their health.”

Decriminalising sex work could lead to a 46% reduction in new HIV infections in sex workers over 10 years.

World Health Organisation (WHO)

The criminalisation of purchasing sex reduces the number of clients, which drives sex workers to take more risks in order to compensate for the loss of income. Moreover, those clients that remain are likely to wish for anonymity, to meet in isolated areas and to rush negotiations, which makes it more difficult for sex workers to carry out vetting procedures and increases the likelihood of interaction with drunk, abusive and aggressive clientele. A wide range of sources indicate that the Nordic Model leads to an increase in violence against sex workers, including the large-scale study by Medicins du Monde in France and research conducted in the Republich of Ireland, which found that crimes (including violent offences) against sex workers increased following the introduction of the Nordic Model.

The Nordic Model has received significant criticism and pushback from sex workers, sex worker rights organisations, academics, health workers, direct service providers and international health bodies, with campaigns stating that decriminalisation would be the best practice to ensure that sex workers are afforded the basic safety and support that any individual deserves when at work.The World Health Organisation (WHO) also highlights that, “decriminalising sex work could lead to a 46% reduction in new HIV infections in sex workers over 10 years; eliminating sexual violence against sex workers could lead to a 20% reduction in new HIV infections”.

We stand with The English Collective of Prostitutes, x:talk, Scot-PEP and Umbrella Lane in calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work.

Polly (she/her), SWARM

SWARM is one such organisation advocating for full decriminalisation. Founded in 2009, SWARM is a collective established and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and co-operation. Through community resource building, such as providing sex workers with skills, knowledge and mutual aid support, public education to help dismantle stigma against sex work, and campaigning, they aim “to build a diverse and inclusive community of sex workers in the UK who work together to improve working conditions and resist violence”.

Polly (she/her), an organiser with SWARM, spoke with BRICKS regarding the recent developments. “We were appalled by the introduction of Diana Johnson’s ten minute bill. Given how incredibly disruptive and immiserating the sudden loss of income during the pandemic has been to those involved in prostitution, we are astonished and horrified that MPs within the Labour party are pushing for legislation which attempts to cause a further loss of income to these same people by “ending demand”. We have just seen what a sudden drop in ‘demand’ does and the effects on sex workers are panic, extreme stress, destitution and increased risk-taking due to desperation. We stand with The English Collective of Prostitutes, x:talk, Scot-PEP and Umbrella Lane in calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work.”

The report on SWARM’s Hardship Fund, which was set-up in March 2020 to support sex workers, provides extensive insight into the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the community over the past year. With much of sex work being close contact, the multiple lockdowns and social distancing measures in the UK have placed many in highly precarious positions, with individuals being left without a source of income and facing homelessness.

In order to continue to work, many sex workers have been forced to move into an online space. Founded as a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CYBERTEASE is a sex workers collective and a virtual strip club.

Victoria (she/her), a member of the collective, tells me that they “function as a workers co-op routed in the politics of unionisation and committed to the de-stigmatisation of sexual labour, with all proceeds being split equally amongst organisers, hosts, performers and partnered DJs, Queer House Party”.

Since March 2020, CYBERTEASE has produced 16 online events and supported over 50 international sex workers. However, with the increasingly puritanical censorship of the bodies and words of marginalised people on social media, many sex workers are finding themselves facing yet another hurdle.

I feel the new Instagram policies are targeting the very people who need their platform to survive.

Victoria (she/her), CYBERTEASE

Instagram’s updated Terms of Use, which came into effect in December 2020, included Community Guidelines that expanded on the various ways in which representations or photographs of nude bodies, whether presented in a sexual manner or not, would be banned from the platform. Furthermore, they outline that ‘offering sexual services’ is not allowed, without providing any detail on what this looks like, and whether online strip shows, for example, fall under this umbrella.

It is clear, however, that those who are already depreciated by society are, undoubtedly, going to be most harshly impacted by these new rules. With these communities experiencing Instagram’s insidious ‘shadow bans’ for over a year, freelance sex workers are now having to self-censor – writing pen!s, $ex and p0rn – out of fear of being deleted; of being erased.

“We wanted to create a platform for sex workers, regardless of whether they are a stripper, to have the chance to earn money in a safe and welcoming online environment. But I feel the new Instagram policies are targeting the very people who need their platform to survive. They have always been very lenient on celebrities or brands, as they have a lot of followers and probably bring Instagram revenue. It has impacted our ability to reach potential new audience members and other sex workers who could benefit from our platform”, says Victoria.

Mainstream spheres of sexual entertainment and education often centre misogynistic and heteronormative representations and, far too often, the very sites that promote themselves as providing for a community fall prey to the capitalist structures that place those with existing power above the members of that very community. In August 2020, Bella Thorne, an American actress who gained prominence in roles on the Disney Channel, joined OnlyFans, the subscription-based social-media platform commonly used to share content that is too explicit for other sites with stricter Terms of References. In a single day, she made $1 million; in a week, $2 million. However, her growing revenue was accompanied by growing criticism from the sex workers who rely on OnlyFans for a regular and stable income, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bella Thorne, who claimed to have only joined the site to carry out research for a film project (this has since been proven a lie by the alleged director, Sean Baker), then sold “nudes” for $200. When the image turned out not to be a nude, but rather a photo in lingerie, thousands of users requested refunds from the site at such a rate that many sex workers believe that it prompted OnlyFans to change its policies. These changes include an upper limit of $50 for exclusive content and $100 for tips – there had previously been no maximum amounts on either fee – and a change from weekly to monthly payments for creators.

The ways in which mainstream society stigmatizes sexual labour, presenting it as a ‘quick and easy’ way to make money, enables forms of appropriation that, as is clear from the above example, directly harm the sex worker community.

Stigma also drives the introduction of harsh prostitution laws, such as those proposed in the Sexual Exploitation Bill, placing the perceived moral superiority of the pearl-clutching privileged above the safety and wellbeing of sexual labourers.

The current climate for sex workers in the UK has cast an even darker shadow over an existing and ongoing crisis, caused by this very vilification of sex work and worsened by austerity measures. Due to financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions or long waits for universal credit payments, many more have either taken up sex work for the first time or returned to sex work over the recent years. Unsurprisingly, the devastating effects of poverty have coupled with inherent gendered and racial biases to create a significantly more hostile environment for sex workers with intersectional identities, such as sex workers of colour, working-class sex workers, migrant sex workers and Trans+ sex workers.

“Within the Nordic Model, sex workers are still persecuted by authorities to catch the clients. I’d instead like to see full decriminalisation of sex work, full-service sex workers to be allowed to work in brothels to be able to keep each other safe, support for sex worker unions, and nationwide campaigns that normalise sex work within society”, shares Lucia Blayke (she/her), founder of London Trans+ Pride and Harpies, a strip club that celebrates LGBTIQA+, especially Trans+, talent.

Those who support the implementation of the Nordic Model claim to do so in order to protect those who are driven to this so-called ‘survival-sex’. However, if the voices of the community were truly uplifted and centred, it would become apparent that the way in which this will be achieved is not through further criminalisation. Rather, individuals doing sexual labour, whether through an ‘empowering’ choice or through a need to avoid poverty and homelessness, would be far more readily supported through policy changes that provided a reasonable universal basic income, free childcare, appropriate benefits and safe housing.

As Polly summarises so eloquently, “What stands between sex workers and viable routes out of prostitution is access to money and healthcare. Full decriminalisation could remove police from intervening in our lives, and remove barriers to justice, capital and healthcare”.

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