Opinion: As Liberals, we must stand up For sex workers

Today, 17th December, is the 10th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. It seeks to raise awareness of the violence and hate experienced by sex workers around the world and help fight the stigma, discrimination and persecution brought on by society’s attitudes towards sex work and dangerous prohibitionist laws.

It’s is all the more poignant this year following the anti-sex work actions that have occurred throughout 2013. From Rhoda Grant’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland, to the condom ban in Edinburgh saunas, through to the recent raids in Soho only two weeks ago, the right of adults to safely engage in wholly consensual activity, which just happens to involve  money exchanged for a service, is under attack. And now we even have a more widespread call to introduce the ‘Nordic Model’ of shifting criminality onto the clients of sex workers, the same policy that has already been successfully defeated in the Scottish Parliament.

We have already seen from Sweden that this system does not work, and most importantly that it causes problems, not least with access to condoms and information regarding safe sex. In contrast, take Australia, where in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory the purchase and selling of sex between consenting adults is legal in all its forms, which has seen a safer environment for all involved [1] and a positive knock-on effect for wider society

Sex work is work, and it should come with the same workers’ and human rights as any other job. For the vast majority of sex workers, sex work is a choice. To ban either the purchasing or sale of sex, let alone the whole industry, doesn’t protect the small number who are trafficked into sex work. It insults and demeans sex workers and causes more harm to the minority that are trafficked by pushing all activity underground and out of sight, where real abuses can take place and could actually increase trafficking.

Sex work does not create demand, it meets it. In fact, neither criminalising clients nor decriminalising sex work [2] have shown to affect demand. Sex work provides a safe space for people to explore and express their sexual desires and preferences, especially in cases where there is no other outlet. From the person who has a sexual drive/preference different to that of their partner or partners, to the disabled individual who may only be able to get sexual contact via a sex worker, sex meets a variety of needs that crosses all races, genders, abilities and sexualites. To deny the rights of sex workers is to deny the rights of us all.

As with any other policy area, we should consult those involved in the industry regarding any form of regulation. Instead, we dismiss their views as nothing but the false consciousness of victims, and listen to those who seek to outlaw the activity as part of a wider war on personal choice, bodily autonomy, sexual freedoms and expression. Far from being victims who are unable to speak up for themselves, sex workers are making their voices heard and we should be listening to organisations like Sex Worker Open University, who are building a sex worker-led community to increase awareness of and advocate for sex workers’ rights and changes in the law.

As liberals we believe in standing up for those who are oppressed. We believe in the freedom of choice and expression, even if we disagree with those choices and what’s being expressed and we believe that people should be entitled to work free from violence, harassment and intimidation.

[1] Australia’s National HIV and STI Strategies, 2005 comparative study

[2] Harcourt C, Egger S and Donovan B (2005). Sex work and the law. Sexual Health 2: 121-128.

* James Shaddock is a Liberal Democrat member from Portsmouth

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Eddie Sammon 17th Dec '13 - 6:29pm

    I’m delighted to hear a passionate defence of legalised sex work. The deeply offensive Nordic Model is an infringement on human rights and must be fought at all costs.

  • this is olive area where we could be ‘Liberal’ and differentiate ourselves from the other two (3if you includeUKIP) conservative parties. The legalising of providing sex for money would lead to a much safer environment for sex workers and clients and end the very nasty ‘control’ of sex workers by criminal elements. it is also a basic liberal tenant that two (or three) consenting adults should be at liberty to do what they want to do, if they are doing no harm to others

  • “Sex work is work…” Prostitution is not just a normal job. Its inherently unhealthy from the public health point of view as well as for the individuals involved. They are 100% going to get genital warts, the most common STD, which can lead to cervical cancer. Along with a succession of others which may or may not be treatable/make them sterile/very ill in their – I suppose you’d call it – ‘career’. What it is not is “a safe space”.

    “For the vast majority of sex workers, sex work is a choice. ” Its nothing to do with economic circumstances, poverty and powerlessness. Women the world over and through the ages have made a free choice to have sex with a succession of strangers – because that’s what they want to do. Yeah, right.

  • “To deny the rights of sex workers is to deny the rights of us all.” An odd end for a paragraph that’s more about the rights of clients to have prostitutes available to them. And where you single out the disabled as more in need. You should check out the numerous dating sites for the disabled. I’m sure there are plenty of non-prostitute contact sites for couples where one has a lower sex drive too.

  • Jeremy 17th Dec ’13 – 9:44pm
    ” Prostitution is not just a normal job. Its inherently unhealthy from the public health point of view as well as for the individuals involved. ”

    Jeremy’s statement seems to be informed by righteous indignation rather than public health considerations.
    I don’t know if Jeremy knows a lot about the work of the Health and Safety Executive but if he studies their reports he will find that lots of “normal jobs” are actually quite unhealthy and quite dangerous.
    Does he think that the people who keep the main sewers beneath the streets of London work in a nice clean office environment? Does he think that those miners who were not put out of work by Thatcher do a little light digging in a rose scented mine? Who empties his dustbin – a nice clean model straight out of the Lucy Clayton agency? Does Jeremy never buy cheap goods manufactured in parts of the world where working conditions are unregulated ad the workers’ health is not even a consideration ?

    Wise up Jeremy, lots of jobs (normal jobs for millions of people) have inherent health risks both for the individuals directly involved and others.

    I am expressing no personal view here on prostitution. My comment is on health in the workplace.

  • ” Prostitution is not an issue of ‘choice’ – most women enter prostitution because of lack of choice and many are coerced by pimps or traffickers.

    75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children (Melrose, 2002); 70% spent time in care and 45% report experiencing sexual abuse during their childhoods (Home Office, 2006). Once in prostitution, 9 out of 10 surveyed women would like to exit but feel unable to do so (Farley et al, 2003).”


  • Eddie Sammon 17th Dec '13 - 11:02pm

    The only people who should have a say on whether sex work should be banned or their client’s criminalised is the sex workers. I am inclined to believe and going by evidence that they do not want their work to be banned, only perhaps better regulated.

    Here is a recent article from a sex worker saying they live in fear of being “saved”.


    Educate more yes, regulate more yes, but ban a service that hardly affects you? No.

  • “Women the world over and through the ages have made a free choice to have sex with a succession of strangers – because that’s what they want to do. Yeah, right.”

    No doubt for many it is indeed a matter of survival. It’s not clear from your comments what you are actually suggesting, but if you are suggesting prostitution should be criminalised you need to explain what provision will be made for those who are currently using it as a means of survival.

  • Eddie Sammon – what about their mothers and fathers – given 75% start “working” when they’re children – should they get a say?

  • Jeremy 18th Dec ’13 – 1:00am
    Eddie Sammon – what about their mothers and fathers – … should they get a say?

    Jeremy your response to Eddie, indeed all your comments in this thread seem to me rather emotional. I cannot pretend to know very much about prostitution, sex workers or people who sell sexual services. But we would be fools not to recognise that this has been a persistent feature of every culture and society throughout history. That is not to say that we should do nothing about it. I an ver emotional response the best one?

    I read your comments and ask myself what they sound like if I substitute the name of another job or profession as follows ;-
    Bus drivers – – what about their mothers and fathers – … should they get a say?
    Accountants – – what about their mothers and fathers – … should they get a say?
    Deputy prime ministers – – what about their mothers and fathers – … should they get a say?

    I hope you get my point?

  • Jeremy. Your statistic is a false statistic. It was from research based on a survey of Underage sexworkers. You had to be under 18 to even participate on the sample. I suggest you read it. Melrose is not pleased this research is wheeled out by the abolitionists and misqoted in this way.

  • JohnTilley – No,

    Eddie Sammon argues that only prostitutes should get a say in the laws regarding their ‘trade’. Something that seems based on the assumption that they’re all freely choosing adults and it doesn’t much affect anyone else in society. I respond with a straight forward (to answer your aside not-emotional) question intended to make him think again. You don’t directly answer it – your response is to equate prostitution with accountancy. No, I don’t get your point. It just left me scratching my head.


    Here are a couple of more links to the other point of view from the one expressed in the opinion piece.

    A podcast:


    And ‘Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment’. “We call for enlightenment because before we can expect social change, prostitution must be recognised for the abuse that it is.”


  • Well said James

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '13 - 9:44am

    Child prostitution will remain illegal, we can’t just ban it because some start when they are children. Should we ban cigarettes because many start when they are children?

    I don’t even want to have this debate, it’s the most illiberal thing ever, if people want to target child prostitution and people traffickers then target them, but what an adult does with their body in a bedroom is nothing to do with you.

  • JohnTilley PS – the bit you took out when you quoted me was the important bit. What about their mothers and fathers – GIVEN 75% START “WORKING” WHEN THEY’RE CHILDREN – should they get a say?

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '13 - 9:54am

    Sorry about my tone, I don’t want to fall out with anyone over pretty much any issue, I suppose if you don’t understand the opposition’s point of view then it gives you strong feelings against it. I’ll read through the arguments again later, I just struggle to see the reason to intervene into the free adult aspect of the sex trade. On the same justification we could ban alcohol and a whole load of harmful activities.

  • Eddie Sammon 75% is not “some”: its most. Did you listen to the podcast? Did you read this page?


    You don’t think adult women who were drawn into prostitution as children and continue into adulthood are victims of continued abuse? That’s 75% of them. You think it stops being abuse the day they turn 18?

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec ’13 – 9:44am
    ” Should we ban cigarettes because many start when they are children? ”

    Eddie, There is a self-evident case for banning cigarettes; it is the only product that kills fifty percent of those who buy and use the product as recommended by the manufacturer. That is why Big Tobacco has to keep recruiting more children to replace the customers who die as a result of smoking.

    I don’t think that even Jeremy would claim that fifty percent of those involved in prostitution die as a result.

  • Jeremy 18th Dec ’13 – 9:49am

    So are you saying that what you really object to is children being forced or tricked into prostitution, rather than prostitution as such?

    Because I had got the impression that what your comments were based on moral outrage or righteous indignation about anybody who provides sex for money. Possibly you have a religious standpoint? Tell us where you are coming from and we may be better able to understand why you feel so strongly.

    Also you appear to concentrate entirely on female prostitution, why is that?

  • JohnTilley – this is going to be my last post as I’ve done enough now. You still didn’t answer the first question I put. Instead making guesses about how strongly I feel and why I might – really not relevent to a debate. Did you listen to the podcast? Did you read this page? They put things better than I could.


    You didn’t answer this one I put to Eddie Sammon either:

    You don’t think adult women who were drawn into prostitution as children and continue into adulthood are victims of continued abuse? That’s 75% of them. You think it stops being abuse the day they turn 18?

  • Charles Beaumont 18th Dec '13 - 11:10am

    Surely there are two issues here: one is the terrible crime of human trafficking and pimping and the other is the activity of selling sex. The latter may often involve women who have been victims of the former. But the bottom line should be whether as liberals we deplore a situation in which one person pays another person to engage in an act which is otherwise perfectly legal, where both parties have freely engaged in the transaction.

    The analogy should be the restaurant trade: most meals consumed are not bought or sold, but why do we object if they are? If the restaurant trade were to be taken over by human traffickers, or if certain restaurants were known to employ illegal immigrants at below the minimum wage, it would be a matter for policing the activities of that restaurant, not closing the entire industry.

  • Callum Leslie 18th Dec '13 - 11:44am

    Jeremy, you haven’t addressed that your statistic is wrong. The 75% figure comes from a study of 47 sex workers WHO ENTERED THE INDUSTRY AS CHILDREN. They were also all street sex workers, which makes up less than 20% of overall sex work.

  • The alleged number of people entering the profession young is under status quo conditions of semi-tolerated prohibition. When professions are legalised the number of people who start working below legal age is pretty small.

    Nobody goes and works in a factory or does 1001 other professions for the love of the job. Most people do their jobs not out of love but because “they have to”, although without prostitution they would have the same options as a man in the same position, just the same as people still have a set of options, albeit reduced when a factory closes.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '13 - 5:41pm

    Jeremy, regarding the 75% stat I’ll say that if it seems to bad to be true then it usually is. Not the most appropriate response, but I don’t think it’s a good use of my time to start fact checking it. Callum looks as though he has already done a good job of debunking that stat.

    I don’t doubt that many sex workers are being abused, but to stop two adults from doing something through mutual consent would be abuse by the state.


  • Callum Leslie – Yes, I have to make another post to thank you for that. I’ll have to be less trusting of statistics. The cited paper is here. Whatever the actual statistics are for age generally, the paper is appalling reading – children as young as 11, average age 14 and a half.

  • Jeremy, could you address the point that the statistics you quote are under the current legal arrangements and actually show that prohibition is creating problems? A lot of us are not sure why you think those statistics would get worse rather than get better if the business was legal.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Dec '13 - 8:20pm

    The way I see it is that sex work is here to stay whether we like it or not and however people come into it. I find it hard to see that this is a job that people choose in very many cases. Financial survival may force them into it and then there are issues of addiction, too. To pretend that there is no exploitation going on in the sex industry is naive. But what’s the answer? By sweeping it underground, there will be more exploitation and more risk to sex workers. I’d much rather see it regulated and power resting with the workers and not abusive pimps or customers. Moral judgement should not get in the way of the safety of very vulnerable people.

  • Geoffrey Payne 19th Dec '13 - 12:59pm

    I agree with Caron. There are some who operate at the top end of the market who make a lot of money and are happy with their choice of what they do. But most prostitutes eek out a miserable existence and encounter the worst of male sexism and often abuse. Government policy should seek to encourage such women, and it is mostly women, to seek help. This is not done by passing stricter laws.
    As for male prostitution, it would be interesting to compare the similarities and differences with female prostitution, I do not know what that trade is like.

  • jeremy, you have to be less trusting of those who promote the abolitionist message on prostitution. the mis quoted Melrose.

    The data on which I am drawing in this paper was generated by in-depth interviews with forty-six women, all of whom had become involved in prostitution before they were 18.

    Other statistics abolitionists use come from very scewed and unrepresentative samples. Please don’t take their quoted statistics as the truth. Mellisa Fareley who is used by the abolitionists used samples of sex workers who were street workers, who worked in war torn counties, She also generally left out any positive stories. The Canadian courts discounted her evidence when Toronto was forced to accept some decriminilisation. The final verdict from the Supreme Court of Canada is due today.

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