Catching up with Part 1 of what was a very intense Wednesday afternoon, with two hours of the Safety First Coalition lobby followed by two hours of the abortion lobby, with a short gap in between in which I discovered that after-hours it is almost impossible to get anything to eat or drink in the House, unless your friendly (or not) local member feeds you. I say almost – because if all else fails there’s the expensive and not very good “special” House of Commons gift-shop chocolate….
So to serious matters. The lobby had two excellent and important speakers, Catherine Healy from New Zealand and Pye Jakobsson from Sweden.
Jakobsson said that Swedish sex workers were not consulted about the introduction of the laws making up what has become known as “the Swedish model”, basically consisting of criminalising the clients of prostitutes, rather than the workers. She said that an EU delegation visiting last summer said that freely working prostitutes should have say in the law, but the responsible minister in parliament had suggested that this very controversial, against what everything that Sweden stands for.
Jakobseen added with a wry laugh: “If speak out loudly saw if I am not a victim that just shows how victimised I am.” Later she added: “Before had a whore stigma, now have a victim stigma.”
The UN had been asked to evaluate to impact of the law, but again the minister said that was not going to happen.
She said the impact had been worst on the most marginalised group, street workers, who had less time to evaluate. They now got into car, then negotiated.
“It has not had much effect on me as an educated woman working indoors.” But for more vulnerable indoor workers, they were finding it harder to evaluate clients. Previously a client who was jumpy and agitated was a danger sign. “Now all clients are nervous and jumpy.”
Before there had been little or no pimping in Sweden, she said, but now, as it was harder to find clients, and internet pages were regularly taken down, workers were being forced to resort to working for pimps who provided working space at great cost, and internet sites that had similar huge charges but security measures about the authorities. Additionally, if a man and women were found with condoms, these could be part of “proof” of the man’s offence.
There had also been an unexpected impact on male prostitution and transgendered workers. Even though the law was gender neutral, the whole package of measures around it was based on the assumption that sale of sex is a crime against women, so there is no effort to protect vulnerable males. A survey of 19-year-olds found that more males than females had sold sex.
There are also likely to be public health effects – the main organisation working to combat HIV infections had taken out “sex workers” as risk group for fear of falling foul of law
Did the law actually help fight trafficking? Since there was no before and after data it was difficult to tell. Proponents of the law say it keeps women off the streets, but most traffickers want to keep women inside because they want to control them. Traffickers were sometimes caught when clients calling the police; that was not something that happened now.
The client’s “crime” was only treated as minor, with the same punishment as petty theft. A male judge in southern Sweden got to keep his job after a conviction, but a woman in the police academy who was outed by the tabloids as working as an “escort” lost her job.
Catherine Healy said that in New Zealand a few years ago a consensus arose that sex workers needed a better relationship with law, a view held even by those opposed to all prostitution. The talk was about protecting human rights, and occupational health and safety.
The decision was for the total removal of the laws against brothelkeeping, living on earnings, and soliciting. She pointed to the last of these as particularly important, since a soliciting conviction was a major impediment to other employment
Prior to the law change even discussing sex work was legally problematic, even the discussion of basic safety measures. So she said, orders would be placed such as “can you give us some of those gumboots”.
She said that brothelkeepers complained the law change had “taken away mystique”, and fewer women were coming forward to work than when they’d been able to talk to workers about being “escorts”. This meant of course that it was entirely clear to workers what they were getting into.
Opponents of legalisations talked often about the vulnerability of sex workers, “but their solution is to make them more vulnerable”. With legalisation they can be part of the same protective frame that sits around any other worker, any other contractor. The sex workers get contracts in writing. And the act says explicitly that anyone can decline any act at any time at any reason. Health ministry rules were displayed on the wall – sex workers can use as a tool in negotiating with clients.
Workers were now electing to take more control on their own terms – working from home, city apartments, or on street. Before the law might have forced them into certain places. Under the old law if a worker was convicted in massage parlour for soliciting, she would have to go streets.
But there were still problems in the law, one being around the position of migrant workers. “We do have significant migrant sex worker population, as we’ve always had, but they don’t have same rights as local sex workers. They can’t emigrate to do it.” That obviously could put workers in a vulnerable position.
Unlike the claims of the law’s critics, it didn’t decriminalise violence, didn’t send out a message that all women were available, didn’t send out a message to youth that sex work is honourable occupation. “Although I think it is honourable occupation.”
Enshrined in the law was monitoring over five years. A significant amount of that research will be out this year. “The findings looking very positive in the protection and welfare of sex workers.”
“In the main the debate has settled down, although because election year the law is likely to come up.”
In response to a question, Healy said that the numbers of sex workers had probably stayed the same, but figures would show more “brothels” – but that was because one woman working out of a flat was classed as a “brothel”. Previously women had been herded together in “massage parlours” and similar, but many more were now choosing to work independently.
A speaker from the Royal College of Nurses whose name I didn’t catch pointed out that two years ago its conference voted (with 87pc support) to lobby for decrimininalistion. “Once you step outside religion and politics and look at health there is no justification for criminalisation. I hope we are grown up enough in 2008 to have grown up sensible debate about consenting sex. The current laws inhibit access to healthcare and make these women – our mothers, our daughters, our sisters – feel like second-class citizens, and sometimes even healthcare workers treat them like second-class citizens.”