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Following the debate on sex work policy that was held at the Green Party conference this September, I decided to make use of the opportunity presented by the fact that I had in the run-up to the European elections in May written to their leader, Caroline Lucas, since she was standing as my local Member of the European Parliament.
At the debate, she urged her party to consider changing from a full decriminalisation approach to prostitution and instead adopt the Swedish Model. This marked a change in the policy from that which she had outlined in her reply in the Spring, which favoured something closer to the Dutch or New Zealand model. So I wrote to her again, explaining why the Swedish model is opposed by just about all the sex workers’ rights advocacy groups I know:
I am writing to you because you are my local MEP, and during the election process this year I wrote to you asking about your policies on sex work, pornography and alternative sexualities.
A number of sources have recently reported that you are urging the Green party to consider moving away from the decriminalised model favoured by New Zealand or Holland (your reply earlier this year mentioned the Dutch version, but other sources suggest that the current policy is closer to the New Zealand version), and instead adopting the policy currently used by Sweden.
The experience of sex workers in Sweden has been that the new laws in Sweden have put them at much greater risk than before.
The concerns surrounding sex work are:
- Violence committed against sex workers by clients and/or serial killers
- Trafficked or enslaved women being abused sexually by pimps/brothel owners and clients
- Difficulty of leaving sex work for other forms of work (which becomes a form of coerced sexual existence)
While ever any form of criminalisation is in place, women engaged in sex work (whether willingly or unwillingly) will be forced to hide their activities in order to maintain their custom. In the Morning Star report, it says that you read out a letter claiming that, “poverty and patriarchy drive prostitution”; it follows from this that criminalising the buyer will drive prices down, forcing women to accept more, and more dangerous, clients in order to make ends meet (or, in order to earn enough to satisfy their pimps). This both exposes them to greater risk from violence committed by clients, and greater abuse from pimps/brothel owners.
The fact that sex workers have to hide their activities from the police means that the law cannot offer them the same protection as it offers to other people. Only decriminalisation can offer the full protection of the law to sex workers, who are in many ways the most vulnerable adults in our society.
If the Green Party is truly concerned about the wellbeing of sex workers, and is concerned about freedom of choice, then the most important area to address has to be the issue of sex workers’ ability to leave sex work for other work. Again, since prostitution is often driven by poverty, this means first and foremost ensuring that every human being in this country has the means to live well; only when there is a viable alternative to sex work will those who are in it by necessity be able to leave it, and until then making laws against it (whether they criminalise the sex worker or the client) will do little to change conditions for the sex worker.
Secondly, work must be done to end the stigma surrounding sex work; this stigma means that working (or having worked) in sex work often results in precluding people (especially women) from gaining other employment. Making laws against sex work serves only to perpetuate the prejudice against sex workers, even if those laws target the clients instead. Instead, it must be made as easy as possible for sex workers to find alternative employment when they wish to leave sex work.
I am certain that some policies can be agreed upon by both sides of this debate: for instance, education programmes to help under-qualified sex workers obtain the qualifications necessary to find other work; rehab programmes to help deal with drug addiction where that is a driving force for sex work; debt relief programmes; programmes to provide employment references for people leaving sex work so that employers do not have to be told about past involvement; and any other schemes that simply smooth the path from sex work into other work.
I am fully convinced, after reading and hearing the testimony of Swedish sex workers, that the Swedish model is harmful to the women it is supposed to protect. I am equally convinced from the evidence presented to the New Zealand government after the first 3 years of New Zealand’s decriminalisation, and from the testimony of sex workers in other parts of the world, that full decriminalisation is the only way to protect the lives and interests of those involved in sex work.
For that reason, I would find it hard to support any party that supported continued criminalisation of sex work, whether by the standard laws, or by the Swedish model. I therefore urge you to reconsider your support of the Swedish model and continue to lead your party on the policy of full decriminalisation.
Caroline Lucas replied personally to this email (I am sure she had a researcher compose a good portion, but to me it has the feel of a genuine letter), with a considered and reasoned response, with just one or two minor flaws, which I shall explain in my second post.