Opinion: Why Liberal Democrats must oppose any criminalisation of sex workers

Amsterdam red light district by Trey Ratcliff On Tuesday, Parliament will debate the Report Stage of the Modern Slavery Bill, and in particular, an amendments that would criminalise the purchase of sex in England and Wales, similar to the one that was passed in Northern Ireland just a couple of weeks ago. It’s important that, as Liberal Democrats, we oppose those amendments.

When Belinda Brooks-Gordon and I, with the help of too many sex workers to list, put forward a policy motion towards safer sex work at Conference in Glasgow, we did so out of concern that at any moment, that a sex buyer law – also known as the Nordic Model – would be proposed at any time. While supporting a wholesale review of our sex work policy to ensure it is effective for the twenty-first century, we had to ensure that, out of urgency, we explicitly opposed this sort of law. This sort of law is incredibly dangerous, not just for sex workers but for society at large.

Opponents of sex work, as it was mentioned at Conference, are very clever. After the debate, I was helping the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats stand and we realised that one of the amendments was a stealth attempt to support the criminalisation of pornography. It would also go against the major aim of the motion: to ensure that sex workers can work safely. To that aim, opponents of sex work have also tabled an amendment to repeal laws relating to solicitation to claim they’re decriminalising women – regardless of the other amendments, we must still support that one.

This isn’t to say that we support the exploitation or trafficking of women; far from it. But just focusing on sex work is missing the forest for the trees. As liberals, our aim is to fight the causes of exploitation, so that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. To focus on criminalising sex work–whether openly or by stealth–is to force sex workers into poverty, and to ignore the domestic exploitation of many others. That’s why our policy not only supports decriminalising sex workers, we also support stronger protections and safer worker conditions for them.

On Tuesday, we’re going to hear representations that the Nordic model is going to protect women, whereas that could be further from the truth. Many people will point to an translation of a Swedish government report into their fifteen-year-old law. But that report doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; an anti-trafficking researcher showed that despite being pressured to reach a favourable conclusion to the law, the report couldn’t even say if the law reduced sex work, let alone violence against women.

When researchers actually speak to sex workers, a grim picture is created. A BMJ study of street sex workers in Vancouver found that criminalising the client doesn’t protect sex workers at all. They’re still harassed and criminalised by the police. They’re forced to make snap decisions, unable to properly vet their clients, which makes them cut corners on safer sexual practices and put them at risk of violent attacks. It doesn’t deter clients at all. As one of those sex workers said, “Harassing the clients is exactly the same as harassing the women.”

We are going to face pressure from all sorts of partisans to support this law: from religious orders who the Irish government are chasing up to compensate Magdalene laundry survivors, to women’s caucuses of major trade unions. This sort of alliance is unhealthy, and can will only hurt women.

We are a party proud of backing evidence-based policy; let us listen to the Lancet and the WHO when they say that decriminalisation is the only way to effectively fight the HIV/AIDS crisis. Let us listen to sex workers when they say this will make their situations worse. Let us ensure these women aren’t consigned to a deeper level of poverty and a higher level of danger.

I urge you all to read the English Collective of Prostitutes briefing, contact your MP – whether Lib Dem, Labour, or Tory – to get the voice of reason heard, and ensure our parliamentarians follow party policy we proudly agreed just four weeks ago, to oppose New Clauses 6, 7, 22, and 23 while supporting Amendment 1.

Photo of Amsterdam red light district by Trey Ratcliffe

* Sarah Noble is an activist in Calderdale. Alongside her role on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats executive, she shares a keen interest in devolution and transport policy.

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  • Thanks for this, Sarah

  • The women involved in sex work obviously deserve protection, but that isn’t the only factor involved. Local communities that have their bin areas and local parks littered with used condoms and syringes also deserve to have a voice In fact cases like Rotherham, Manchester and probably most places with red light areas show that the police and social services in fact ignore abuse, ignore the routine harassment of young females and already pretty much accept sex work as a lifestyle choice. The results are not great.

  • Joshua Dixon 3rd Nov '14 - 12:13pm

    This is so, so important. I hope our MPs will stand by party policy and help protect sex workers.

  • David Graham 3rd Nov '14 - 12:13pm

    UK sex work is an enormous iceberg, mostly submerged and invisible. Most women (including many transwomen) work alone contacting clients via laptops and phones. Most from overseas are simply economic migrants who were well aware of what they came here for and are happy about it. Those are volunteers doing it consensually, causing nobody any trouble. They are not victims requiring rescue, they can speak for themselves and say this is a terrible and extremely illiberal idea. Pimps, ponses, coercion, trafficking are all very rare and can be perfectly well addressed through existing law if need be. This will hugely increase theft, assault, rape, murder, victimisation, coercion against sex workers, empower pimps, abusers, bullies, exploiters, with no corresponding benefit to anybody, listen to them when they say NO!

  • Excellent article Sarah

  • “As liberals, our aim is to fight the causes of exploitation, so that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity.”

    Haha. Right on, sister…

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Nov '14 - 5:17pm

    While I agree with the overall sentiments of this article, and recognise the context in which it is written, I do find a society in which relationship-free sexual stimulation in short spurts is treated a commodity to be not a little sad.

  • “…I do find a society in which relationship-free sexual stimulation in short spurts is treated a commodity to be not a little sad.”

    Why? At risk of being a bit crude, it’s only fucking. And I see no real reason why making it into a commodity should sadden you any more than the trading as commodities of food, water, housing, healthcare (in some countries), etc. There’s nothing particularly special about sex, objectively at least.

  • Nom de Plume 3rd Nov '14 - 7:43pm

    One of the best written articles that I have read on LDV. Regardless of content.

  • Belinda Brooks-Gordo 4th Nov '14 - 2:00pm

    Excellent article Sarah. An inspiring meeting was held last night by the ECP at which MPs from all parties attended and I really hope that this opposition amendment does not make it past today.

  • There’s nothing particularly special about sex

    I’ve the fact the people have that attitude which is sad.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Nov '14 - 4:26pm

    Totally agree Sarah, passionately.

  • Glenn,
    Historically most cities had a red light quarter, where prostitutes lived and worked: in London this was Soho and Shepherd’s Market. Families and those who did not to live next to prostitutes chose not to live in these quarters. The problem is the often association of drugs with the poorer end of prostitution which occurs in parks and certain areas which results in drug gear and used condoms .

    I would suggest that people have a right not to live next to prostitution. If prostitutes want to be free to ply their trade , they are not free to reduce the freedoms of others.

  • Peter Watson 4th Nov '14 - 6:53pm

    @Tony Dawson “”I do find a society in which relationship-free sexual stimulation in short spurts is treated a commodity to be not a little sad”
    @Feodor “There’s nothing particularly special about sex, objectively at least.”
    @Dav “It’s the fact the people have that attitude which is sad.”

    An interesting point that I’d not really thought through before.
    We pay people(soldiers, perhaps doctors if we stray into the areas of euthanasia or abortion) to kill on our behalf.
    We pay people (soldiers again, and others) to risk their lives and possibly die for us.
    We pay people (boxers) to beat each other for our entertainment.
    We pay people (nurses, carers, etc.) to do some pretty unsavoury things for us.
    Is sex really a special case? Instinctively it feels that it is, but rationally … I don’t know.

    (Apologies if I’m missing some obvious points or sensitivities in this debate – as I mentioned, it’s not an area I’ve thought about before but it makes an refreshing change from the usual LDV threads I follow)

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