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Why sex worker activists should support decriminalisation for street work

(I’m not a sex worker activist and though I’ve been planning this post for months, I wasn’t sure if I should write it; if I’m not a sex worker activist, or even a representative sex worker, then how can I tell sex worker activists what to think? But after a  brief conversation on Twitter, I decided to finally post this. – K )

If you’re for sex workers’ rights then you have to be for street sex workers’ rights too. Otherwise you’re not standing for ALL sex workers. If you think that your brand of sex work, whatever it is, should be decriminalised and that you deserve rights but that street sex work should remain criminalised, then that’s elitism. You’re saying that you’re “better” than street workers, or that you’re different to them in a way that you aren’t different to other sex workers who work in different areas of the industry but not on the street.

And if you take the view that street sex work is dangerous and therefore should be criminalised – well. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the antis’ argument against the entire sex industry (including the adult entertainment industry). So, basically, you’re an anti – just an anti who wants non-street work decriminalised but is still for the abolition of street work.

Finally, if you believed that street sex workers have agency and can choose to work, how could you deny them human and labour rights? So it’s clear that to be in support of criminalising street sex work, you have to see street workers as having no agency or in need of “rescuing” by sex worker activists. Again, this might sound all too familiar.

And let’s be practical – criminalising street sex work in the UK has been proven to create what academics call the “revolving door” effect: street workers are fined for soliciting and then have to do more sex work to pay off the fine. While working to pay off the fine, they’re arrested again and hit with another fine, and so on. Which actually stops them from “exiting” street work (oh, how I hate that phrase – for all other jobs we say “finding another job”.) So, if you’re eager to rescue street workers, criminalisation actually works against your objectives. Not to mention the fact that a woman or man with several soliciting offences on their criminal record is not going to find it easy to get employment in another industry.

The Merseyside model includes exiting strategies and only uses arrest as a last resort, though unfortunately the use of exiting strategies instead of fines is, in my view, just as intrusive and is also a harassment – not to mention insulting as it implies that street work is unacceptable and that the worker doesn’t have agency. (That’s the one bit of the Merseyside model that I would wish to see changed. I mean, if they’re so obsessed with rescuing, why not rescue street workers into another type of sex work, like indoor work or, if they fit agencies’ preferences (or there are ‘specialising’ agencies nearby), agency work?)) Not that I’m for rescuing anybody anywhere; it’s just an interesting question why the police feel that the entire sex industry is exploitative but other industries are totally fine.

The fact that street sex work is criminalised might be making it more dangerous. Since clients were criminalised for kerb-crawling, maybe the law looks more equal, but it might be having the effect of weeding out the clients who don’t want a criminal record, leaving only those who might already be known to the police. How are the workers and clients supposed to report any violence they witness or experience if they know they’ll get a court appearance and a criminal record? The clients know that the workers might not report violence so they might not be deterred by the possibility of police action. (This could also be true of the sex workers, who might be more prepared to perpetrate crimes against clients because they know the clients won’t report it.) I’m not just talking about violence here, but blackmail or theft as well.

Therefore, the more dangerous you think street sex work is, the more you should be in support of decriminalising it. While there is some evidence (in the Home Office report referred to below) that criminalising clients forces street workers to work indoors in relative safety, that was a small-scale study and it’s obvious that there are still street workers even though street work is criminalised in the UK.


R. Matthews (1986) “Beyond Wolfenden? Prostitution, Politics and the Law” in R. Matthews and J. Young (eds) Confronting Crime, London: Sage

R. Matthews (2008) “Prostitution, vulnerability and victimisation” in Prostitution, Politics and Policy, Abingdon: Routledge-Cavendish

The Scottish Executive (2004) Being Outside: A Response to Street Prostitution (about exiting strategies and small red light zones in non-residential areas of cities. Proves that there’s only about 2,000 sex workers in all of Scotland who street walk OR work out of flats – meaning that less than 2,000 are street workers, as the number includes independent indoor workers.  Available at:http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/30859/0024989.pdf)

J. Phoenix (2000) “Prostitute Identities: Men, Money and Violence” British Journal of Criminology 40 (1) 37-55  (There is violence, but it’s not as bad as some NGO’s make it seem, and it’s hard to see how criminalization would enable these sex workers to report violence to the police or leave violent boyfriends. Oh, and non-sexworkers also experience domestic abuse, even rape.)

R. Matthews (1993) Kerb-Crawling, Prostitution and Multi-Agency Policing”, Police Research Group Paper 43, London: Home Office


About Kalika Gold: VirginWhore

I'm blogging to document my experience selling my virginity. The blog is also a liberal feminist blog for the promotion of sexual freedom. I'm currently working with author Ruth Jacobs and writer Slutocrat to get the Merseyside model implemented across all UK police forces. I'm also doing a postgrad and have a part-time job in a cafe.

17 comments on “Why sex worker activists should support decriminalisation for street work

  1. stephenpaterson
    18 June, 2013

    I agree with you over ‘exiting’. As indoor ‘escort’ sex work (ie not involving parlours/brothels) is as legal as any other occupation (including policing), there should be no reason in theory why the police could not attempt to divert street workers into that, which would appear to be in at least many cases rather easier than attempting to get them to wholly alter their occupation. So the reason must be political.
    Criminalising sex work, indoor or outdoor, undoubtedly DOES make it more dangerous.
    I’m unsure how your sources relate to your piece. Roger Matthews is forever being used by the prohibitionist lobby, much prefer Jo Phoenix myself.

    • Kalika Gold: VirginWhore
      19 June, 2013

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it must be political – stigmatising the sex industry and fulfilling saviour fantasies of rescuing damsels in distress.

      As for prohibitionists using Matthews, they never have arguments of substance; it’s all in how you use it. In my view, the work of Matthews’ that I’ve read proves nothing to help the antis and in fact proves that criminalisation is harmful, a waste of time and money, or at best only ‘good’ at cutting down street work and forcing sex workers indoors. If I remember correctly, Matthews was the one who suggested “radical regulationism” – i.e. decriminalization with a couple of tweaks. He was against both legalisation and criminalisation – hardly a friend of the antis! Though they will use his work as they please, no doubt.

  2. Douglas Fox
    19 June, 2013

    As an activist I always argue for decriminalisation without prejudice, that means that all forms of selling sex should be treated equally. I have also however argued for pragmatism.

    Selling sex on the street is a business and like all street based business there are places where “selling” will create a disturbance, ie I live on a residential street and having a van parked up selling hot dogs would be both a nuisance and an eyesore. Similarly any sex worker selling sex on the street would equally be inappropriate, as would a large brothel with neon lights and lots of “trade,” while a discrete flat/house with one or two sex workers selling sex, discreetly, would most likely cause no hassle or offence or even be noticed.

    Therefore while arguing for decriminalisation for all I would be pragmatic in also arguing for appropriateness of places of sale. Larger brothels for example I would argue would only be appropriate in certain places and likewise street sex work would also only be more appropriate in certain environments etc etc.

    I think such an approach is essential if we are to win the support of the public and of politicians. Of course a debate would need to take place to decide what was or would be considered appropriate…which is another argument.

    • Kalika Gold: VirginWhore
      19 June, 2013

      Yeah, that makes sense. For example, residential areas aren’t allowed to have, say, hotels or restaurants in them – you can’t just turn your flat into a cafe without planning permission, and such permission would be unlikely to be granted. However, selling home-made flapjacks out of your hose is legal because it doesn’t create a disturbance. So sex work should follow the same rules.

  3. barriorojoblog
    21 June, 2013

    I praise for ur article. I don’t know how sex workers activism is going in England but in Spain some of the so called “escorts” or high-class prostitutes are very far away from street-level prostitutes (same happens with their punters, they are against this kind of prostitution). They say that low level prostitution gives a very bad and ordinary image of prostitution and that it’d be better if it didn’t exist because main concerns of people about prostitution (neighbour nuisances, trafficking and sexual slavery, drug addiction, pimps, veneral diseases, etc) are mainly linked to this kind of prostitution.

    I’m against their point of view, pointing out that the dark legend about prostitution in general and street prostitution in particular is not true and has been built up to attack it. If we let street prostituion to be criminalized (in spain is banned in some towns, with fines but not jail, it’s not an offence) then abolitionists will win a battle and go on with their crusade against prostitution.

    Having prostitution decriminalized does not mean we want to have no rules. Well, I’d love it but I’m aware it’s not possible (today). By a regulation street prostitution could pay fees, have an hour to begin and an hour to finsh, places where work, be subject to health controls… we are ready to act under the legality. Question is, are our authorities willing to do the same?

  4. Aphrodite Phoenix
    23 June, 2013

    Being against street prostitution is not elitist. It’s no more elitist than being against homelessness.
    The original prostitutes were sacred and adored by the public, and lived in the beautiful temples that were raised to honor Goddess. Figuratively speaking, the street prostitute is the priestess who has lost her rightful temple. Perhaps she doesn’t even know she deserves one.
    I don’t advocate “getting them off the street”, as if they were so much vermin. I advocate enforcing exactly what they need and deserve: a safe, warm, clean indoor place to work and thrive and be proud in.

    • Kalika Gold: VirginWhore
      26 June, 2013

      While I understand your concern, I wonder if sex work has to be “sacred” or if sex workers should be “adored by the public”? Actuaries, plumbers and politicians aren’t sacred or adored. If sex work is work, it should be boring, vexing, sometimes great, sometimes shitty like any other work. Glossing it with goddess-like terminology is “purifying” the image of sex work to make it fit more mainstream stigma. Kind of how the LGBT community sometimes shames people for acting “too gay” and incurring the wrath of straights.If street workers are lost or fallen from some odeal, it’s kinda reminiscent of the patriarchy’s ideas of nonvirgins as fallen women. You have good girls and bad girls, virgins and whores, You have a right way of being a woman/having sex and a wrong way of being a woman/habing sex. Tjat’s what the indoor work/street work dichotomy reminds me of. I do respect your views, just throwing in my twopennyworth.

      • Aphrodite Phoenix
        26 June, 2013

        When I refer to prostitution as “sacred” I’m referring to its prepatriarchal history. I feel that this history (“herstory”) should be referred to, and often, because prostitution in today’s world is so despised and stigmatized. I like to make people aware of the original esteem of prostitutes and how they were understood as healers, and how their fall to societal loathing is integral to the patriarchal take-over.

        I’m not saying that the work is always sacred, or should or must be. But the ideals that serve as the underpinning of any worthy movement are always important to remember, and make other people aware of.

  5. barriorojoblog
    24 June, 2013

    Ok, nice. U say that u know what is best for them. But… have u asked them what they prefer? Why they are in the street? Your temple maybe is a jail for them, and they don’t want luxury but freedom.

  6. Aphrodite Phoenix
    24 June, 2013

    I’m sorry if I implied that I’m not into their freedom. What I envision would increase their freedom, not restrict it. You refer to my words as “your temple”. I don’t mean “my” temple. I mean THEIR temple, however they want to define it. Prostitution is a very individual-oriented thing, as it should be.
    I am NOT talking about managed brothels. I’m talking about a totally independent situation, where each worker is totally in control of everything: where she is, what she charges, who she sees, everything. Under a warm safe roof.
    I think that it’s ok to assume that I “know what’s best for them” when I’m referring to anyone’s shelter and comfort. It’s pretty elementary stuff.

  7. Pingback: Arguing Against the Industry of Prostitution – Beyond the Abolitionist Versus Sex-Worker Binary | feimineach.com

  8. Aphrodite Phoenix
    26 June, 2013

    When I refer to prostitution as “sacred” I’m referring to its prepatriarchal history. I feel that this history (“herstory”) should be referred to, and often, because prostitution in today’s world is so despised and stigmatized. I like to make people aware of the original esteem of prostitutes and how they were understood as healers, and how their fall to societal loathing is integral to the patriarchal take-over.

    I’m not saying that the work is always sacred, or should or must be. But the ideals that serve as the underpinning of any worthy movement are always important to remember, and make other people aware of.

    • Douglas Fox
      7 July, 2013

      I agree with Aphrodite that sex workers often know little of their rich heritage and often this heritage is ignored by activists. Sex work experiences are varied. The “sacredness of sex” is important for myself personally in my understanding of my work. As an activist I remind people that for some, perhaps many, sex workers, the sacred, spiritual roots of their work and within their work, ie, the basic fact that sex is itself healing, is so important. Encouraging the public and the media to understand that populist images of the sex worker as the victim are a creation of those who understand sex itself as being something dangerous rather than as something positive.

      My only slight “nitpick” at Aphrodite is that sex work is not just about women or herstory..it is the “human story” and about the how the human imagination is reflected within sex including our understanding of the divine. Recapturing that relationship between sex and spirituality, as something joyful, positive, inspiring and healing is essential in battling stigma.

      • Yes, sex is a fundamental part of what makes us human. It’s just as valuable a part of us as is the ability to reason, create art and do science. That was a very perceptive point about antis perceiving sex itself as dangerous or scary. I’d add that I personally believe that antis feel sex is dangerous for women in particular, or that women don’t want sex ouwith monogamous relationships, hence most wouldn’t want to work within the industry, and therefore those who do can’t possibly be there by free choice.

      • Aphrodite Phoenix
        10 July, 2013

        I apologize Douglas for sounding so woman or herstory orientated. Of course sex work is the human story. I want nothing more than to see the public—through sex workers among other catalysts—to recapture and impart and do sexual healing with everything you say in your last sentence.

        Perhaps I identify too much with the stigma against sex work created by my own gender. You’ll recall that here’s an entire section of my book entitled “RAGE”, after all—rage against my own feminist peers for failing so miserably to see self-determined sex workers for who we really are.

        Again, I apologize for being so “herstory” focused. Thanks for pointing that out.

  9. ninaperez
    2 July, 2013

    Reblogged this on The Displaced Feminist.

  10. Pingback: Arguing Against the Industry of Prostitution – Beyond the Abolitionist Versus Sex-Worker Binary

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