Thousands of sex workers could be endangered by Home Secretary’s proposed changes in the law

Press release from the International Union of Sex Workers

“You’re putting us in danger Jacqui,” sex workers tell the Home Secretary

Government plans aimed at curbing exploitation in the sex industry will imperil workers’ lives and human trafficking victims’ chances of rescue, warns the International Union of Sex Workers.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the Labour Conference in Manchester that the Government plans to

  • Make kerb crawling punishable as a first offence – instead of police having to demonstrate “persistent” kerb crawling as at present
  • Hand more power to police and councils to close brothels
  • Outlaw paying for sex with someone controlled for another’s gain

But the measures would further complicate already outdated, confusing and ineffective laws governing the sex industry, says the IUSW.

“The Government could have made sex workers safer, but they’ve failed. The measures they are proposing endanger us all,” said IUSW spokeswoman Catherine Stephens.

And an early reference by Ms Smith to the “blight of street prostitution” has drawn criticism: “Sex workers are part of the community, not a blight upon it,” said Ms Stephens. “There is much evidence of violence inflicted on street sex workers by so-called community members. Such vigilante action will be encouraged by this inflammatory and objectifying language.”

Evidence from SCOT-PEP, the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, shows that in Edinburgh – where kerb crawling laws have only been recently introduced – they can lead to assaults on street sex workers doubling.

They are blamed for the breakdown of street sex workers’ networks, relied on for safety, as they disperse as members seek un-patrolled locations to safeguard their customers. This in turn makes them more difficult for outreach workers to locate for safe sex counselling, drug rehabilitation or support in pursuing routes out of prostitution.

Ms Smith’s plans to give councils and the police powers to close brothels and “clamp down on exploitation” drew further criticism.

“Sex workers themselves are the most determined to oppose exploitation and coercion within our industry, and closing our workplaces is not the way forward,” said Ms Stephens. “Increased raids and closures of brothels will directly endanger the thousands who choose to work in this way, and indoor sex workers will pay the price if this measure is introduced.”

Present law fails to make any distinction between clean, well run, tax paying brothels with fair and safe working practices, and those in which workers are coerced, exploited or treated as slaves. This wastes valuable criminal justice resources and creates a major barrier to decent owners and managers providing the facilities, say the IUSW.

“We welcome the recognition that sex work can be a freely made choice, and the fact that the government has not bowed to pressure to criminalise all purchase of sexual services,” she added.

“Brothel and agency owners and their clients are the most likely to see and report victims of trafficking – by continuing their criminalisation, and extending criminalisation to some clients, the government makes it less likely abuse will be reported, increasing the vulnerability of those they wish to help. Trafficking victims will pay the price.”

The IUSW calls for decriminalisation of the sex industry as the first essential step towards greater safety, fairness and social inclusion.

But changing the law is not the only way to make sex work safer – the government can be more effective through measures such as:

  • providing a hotline for clients to report trafficking anxieties
  • reversing government-endorsed restrictions on advertising sexual services in local newspapers
  • taking violence against sex workers seriously by categorising it as hate crime
  • adopting a more human rights-based approach in supporting victims of trafficking, as in Italy
  • including people from the sex industry in development of policy.

The union called for funds spent on ‘John Schools’ – rehabilitation courses for kerb crawlers – and on anti-trafficking posters to be diverted to a campaign to inform clients how to report concerns (an estimated million plus people pay for sex) and to support the rights of sex workers to have unionised, legal and safer working spaces. This, the IUSW said, would bring us closer to winning the war on trafficking.