In the UK, it is estimated that there are over 70,000 sex workers in the UK, and around 90% are women. Many of these women are vulnerable, exploited and subject to extreme poverty. This situation has of course been worsened by austerity cuts, the introduction of universal credit, and most recently the Coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many have been pushed into debt, homelessness and desperate situations.
It is at this time that the debate around the criminalisation of sex work has been put under the microscope once again, with MP Diana Johnson’s introduction of the Sexual Exploitation Bill. The bill has been presented as a way of tackling trafficking and improving the lives of sex workers. However, organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, argue that this legislative change would actually make the lives of sex workers “harder and more dangerous”.
This stance against the criminalisation of sex work is echoed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and many more.
So what exactly is the Sexual Exploitation Bill, and why is it so flawed?
MP Diana Johnson presented her Sexual Exploitation Bill to the Commons on 9 December 2020. According to Johnson, who is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, the bill seeks to curb trafficking and sexual exploitation, through criminalising paying for sex. Sharing similarities with the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act in the US, the bill also seeks to shut down “pimping” websites.
Speaking about her motivations behind the bill, Johnson said: “Our government just sits back, allowing sex buyers to continue abusing and pimping websites to continue profiting”. Subsequently, in her address to the Commons, she called for the government to put an end to Britain being a “pimp’s paradise”.
Research from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade in 2018, discovered that sex trafficking is taking place on an “industrial scale” in England and Wales. Specifically, the investigation found that hundreds of vulnerable women, predominantly from Eastern Europe were being trafficked. This was facilitated through “prostitution procurement websites” such as Vivastreet and Adultwork. Johnson called this a “national scandal”.
Johnson’s position on the need for legislative reform has garnered support. Specifically, the Lancashire Police Force has spoken out directly against the current legislation in place across England and Wales. DS Stuart Peall, who himself led a nine-month investigation into a criminal gang who had exploited and trafficked Romanian women, said: “Until we bust the business model of sex trafficking, by cracking down on demand and pimping websites, the sex trafficking will continue. Right now, sex trafficking is too profitable and too easy in this country”.
These sentiments are shared by Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista: “The UK is a high-value, low-risk destination for sex traffickers. To start winning the fight against sex trafficking, the home secretary must crack down on pimping websites and combat demand by criminalising paying for sex”.
However, although Johnson claims that the bill would “decriminalise victims of sexual exploitation” by “removing sanctions for soliciting,” the bill has faced stark criticism over the additional risks that such legislation would place on sex workers. Ultimately, the bill fails to recognise the complexity and nuance that lies at the heart of this debate.
While Johnson and her supporters argue that criminalising paying for sex will effectively tackle sex trafficking and improve the lives of sex workers, evidence suggests that it would actually harm rather than help.
Research led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), revealed that the criminalisation of sex work has dangerous consequences for sex workers. The research published in PLOS Medicine reviewed data from 33 countries including the UK. Ultimately, it found that sex workers exposed to “repressive policing practices” were more likely to experience sexual or physical violence by anyone, for example, a client, a partner, or someone posing as a client. Further to this, it was also found that sex workers subjected to these policing practices were twice as likely to have HIV and/or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in comparison to sex workers who were not subjected to these practices.
Speaking about the research findings, Pippa Grenfell, co-author and Assistant Professor of Public Health Sociology at LSHTM, said: “It is clear from our review that criminalisation of sex work normalises violence and reinforces gender, racial, economic and other inequalities. It does so by restricting sex workers’ access to justice, and by increasing the vulnerability, stigmatisation and marginalisation of already-marginalised women and minorities”.
Sweden introduced partial criminalisation back in 1999 and is often hailed as a beacon of light when it comes to the criminalisation of sex buyers. The legislation was introduced to decrease the level of sex work, yet research shows that there i,s, in fact, no “convincing evidence” that levels have decreased. Moreover, research has also found that the legislative changes just relocated sex work underground.
In France, this kind of legislation was introduced back in 2016. However, a two-year evaluation of the law found that the criminalisation of sex-buyers detrimentally affected sex workers. Specifically, the study found that 42% of sex workers were more exposed to violence, 63% experienced a deterioration in their living conditions, and 38% found it increasingly difficult to demand condom usage.
Meanwhile, data from National Ugly Mugs showed that in the year following Northern Ireland’s introduction the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, sex workers reported 54% more crime. Reports of violent crimes also increased by 77%.
Research published in The Lancet, also indicates that in fact there is no causal relationship between the criminalisation of sex work and a decrease in trafficking. In contrast, there is evidence that decriminalisation provides more protection and safeguards for sex workers. Numerous studies have found that decriminalisation of sex work improves safety, enhances access to health services, decreases the likelihood of violence and rape against sex workers and improves sex workers’ access to justice.
There have been a number of vocal opponents to the Sexual Exploitation Bill, who have criticised it for being dangerous and counterproductive.
In a statement, Amnesty International, said: “We know that internationally the criminalisation of buyers has exacerbated violence and stigma against sex workers. Sex workers who are undocumented or with insecure immigration status are affected the most. Poverty and marginalisation are the root causes of sex work that must be addressed. Full decriminalisation of sex work provides the most effective framework to improve the human rights of sex workers, including the right to health and to access justice”.
Meanwhile, Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes said that MPs should be helping sex workers in more effective ways: “This week, like every week since the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the ECP and other organisations have been giving out emergency payments and food vouchers to sex workers worried how they are going to make ends meet and get through Christmas”. She added: “If women MPs want to help women exit prostitution they should be supporting this lifesaving work, targeting benefit sanctions and demanding money for mothers, not proposing legislation that further criminalises sex work which will inevitably drive it further underground, making it harder and more dangerous for women”.
National Ugly Mugs (NUM) has also spoken out directly against Johnson’s bill: “NUM is a UK-wide victim support and violence prevention charity for adults in sex industries. In 2019, we processed almost 1000 reports of crime and harm to sex workers and disseminated almost 370,000 alerts to sex workers warning them of dangerous individuals. Through our work we see that stigma and criminalisation (direct or indirect) deter sex workers from accessing police and public services”.
The organisation also urged MPs to look more closely at the impact that the legislation will have on sex workers’ lives: “We oppose Dame Diana Johnson’s Bill to criminalise paying for sex as any legislation that criminalises revenue streams for individuals reliant on this income is de facto criminalisation of sex workers. As we are in the throes of the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, we urge you to join us in ending survival sex. Whether we agree with the sale of sex in our society or not, our first step must be eradicating poverty and structural inequities. We urge you to hear from sex workers, about the impacts of this legislation”.
The bill is scheduled to have its second reading later this month, on Friday 29 January 2021. However, the legislation is in serious need of re-examination. Time and time again, the criminalisation of sex work has been found to put the lives of sex workers at further risk, rather than providing them with safeguards and protection. Ultimately, the evidence shows that this bill will not put an end to sex trafficking in the UK, and instead will expose sex workers to even greater danger.