Government clampdown threatens safety and rights of sex workers

In September Jacqui Smith announced at the Labour Party Conference that from October the government will be taking steps to clamp down on the sex industry in the UK. The new measures will give police new powers to prosecute those paying for sex, to shut down ‘brothels’ and force sex workers into compulsory rehabiliation.

She announced that the government would ‘start work to outlaw paying for sex with someone forced into prostitution at another’s will, or controlled for another’s gain’.

Of course, Feminist Fightback and Sex Workers’ Rights Activists also object to coerced labour and coerced sex, whether in the sex industry or otherwise. But Feminist Fightback views these proposals as an attack on the rights and safety of sex workers. Criminalising the clients of sex workers is dangerous for sex workers themselves. It means that male, female and trans-sex workers are forced underground and into clandestine work. This results in more reliance on third parties in order to arrange work, giving such third parties greater power, control and ability to exploit workers, reducing their safety and independence.

For street sex workers, already the most vulnerable group of sex workers, it can have even more serious consequences. Women are forced to take more risks. They have less time to decide whether or not to get into cars, are forced to work alone rather than in pairs or small groups and pushed into darker more isolated areas. Just two years ago in Ipswich we all witnessed the tragic consequences of zero tolerance policies on sex work.

Clients are an important source of information about exploitation and trafficking. The Poppy Project – a Home Office organisation working with victims of trafficking – estimate that 2% of their referrals come from clients. By criminalising clients further, this important source of ensuring safety for victims of trafficking comes under attack.

The Home Secretary further stated that, as part of the new policy, labour would ‘give councils and the police new powers to close down brothels and clamp down on exploitation’. There is extensive academic research that indicates that indoor sex work is much safer than selling sex outdoors. Current legislation states that more than one woman working in a property constitutes a brothel. Clamping down on ‘brothels’ will often attack women working independently in a safer environment where they are in control of their work and working safely.

There are many reasons that women choose to work in the sex industry. Often because women’s work is underpaid and undervalued, sometimes because it is the best possible alternative in a limited scope of choices or because it allows freedom and independence relative to other jobs available. Frequently it is a combination of these. Pushing sex work underground endangers all sex workers and obscures from view the very women these policies profess to help.

These measures are not about protecting women. They are likely to have the opposite effect. They are however wholly in line with a history of attempts to regulate sex workers’ bodies and women’s sexuality more generally. They avoid difficult questions about why, in a world of huge global disparities of wealth, women may come to the UK to work in sex work and how current immigration and border controls surrender some sex workers, and workers in many other industries, to exploitative and dangerous working practices.

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