Notes from Sex Law Decriminalisation Lobby

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.”


  • January 20, 2008 - 11:12 am | Permalink

    Interesting that both speakers used the phrase “sex workers”, though not extending this misleading genteelism to cover pimps, who work in the same trade.

    The last time I wrote on this topic ( you didn’t respond, though others did, at length.

    Which words do you think we should use, and why?

  • January 20, 2008 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the term sex worker – because “prostitute” is not clearly defined (is someone who offers phone sex, for eg, a prostitute? and most strippers would certainly not accept that term, but they are clearly part of the sex industry. And what about workers who offer sexual massage but not more?)

    The English Collective of Prostitutes members I’ve heard speaking tend to refer to “prostitute women”, because it is a group that seems to chiefly involve and be concerned with women, so I sometimes use that term when appropriate. I haven’t discussed it with them, but I have the feeling that this is part of a bid to reclaim that term from the stigma often attached to it.

    I didn’t feel that either of these speakers was particularly concerned about the terminology – I’ve largely paraphrased here, so I’ll often have used the term I am most comfortable with when they might have used another.

  • January 20, 2008 - 3:28 pm | Permalink

    ..but “sex worker” is not properly defined, either. Does it include pimps and others who work in the trade? There are lots of reasons why it’s an unsatisfactory term.

    It seems to me that your views on the correct nomenclature are coloured by the preposterous notion you advanced once that
    “we should stop regarding sex work as having any sort of stigma… It should be a job choice like any other…”

    Do you still really think this is sensible?

  • January 20, 2008 - 4:50 pm | Permalink

    The way I use the term I mean the person who actually provides the service. I wouldn’t call say a woman who solely was a receptionist in a brothel a sex worker, although you might say they worked in the sex industry. I would say the same thing about a pimp.

    Yes – I do think removing the stigma would be positive – as indeed, as you can see from the quote above, does the Royal College of Nurses.

    Different societies have had very different views of what we’d call prostitution – from temple workers who were servants of the god, to ancient Rome (pre-Christian) where it seems to have been regarded as a business as any other.

    And in the Sunday Times today is a story of a woman who has done rather well after involvement in the industry:

  • January 20, 2008 - 6:43 pm | Permalink

    It was “…It should be a job choice like any other” that struck me as really unconsidered, not to say loopy, and still does, though you are absolutely right to say that the ancient Romans thought differently on this, as on other matters.

    Obviously you never read the post in which I pointed out the lunacy and naivety of the Green Party’s policy on prostitution, sorry, the sex trade. In case you feel that it’s worth a look, I’ve linked my name in this comment to that piece, so a click will take you there.

    And if you follow the “Opinion Poll” link it will eventually take you via the comments on it to Chameleon’s fascinating essay on terms which have been used in the past.

    But if you feel that the topic is not worth pursuing you’re probably right, so just delete this comment; I shan’t bother you again.

  • January 21, 2008 - 2:00 am | Permalink

    I did read that post, but I don’t (obviously) agree with it, and this is a topic on which I’ve engaged in considerable debate in a number of forums.

    What worries me is how passionate and angry the debate from “your” side often becomes. I can see that there is an argument from your side – I think it is incorrect, but I accept that it is being argued by people who’ve thought about the issue.

    Yet there seems to be a refusal to accept that so have I, and others putting the decriminalisation case, which is neither marginal nor particularly radical – being backed, as I said, by the Royal College of Nurses, most New Zealand political parties, and many other groups around the world. I do not accept that it is “lunatic” or “naive” – and am surprised that you should resort to such invective.

  • January 21, 2008 - 11:22 am | Permalink

    Hardly “passionate and angry”, just unimpressed.

    Citing The Royal College of Nurses in your support is a bit desperate. I mean, they are hardly experts on prostitution, are they? At least, I hope not. And “New Zealand political parties” don’t lend much weight either.

    Those who really know what the sharp end of the trade is like are unanimous in believing that decriminalisation would be a disaster, for the reasons I have explained.

    I think we’re both getting a bit bored with this so let’s leave it there.


  • Jane
    January 22, 2008 - 8:40 am | Permalink

    Making payment for sex illegal would be seriously detrimental. This is common sense.

    If brothels were accepted there would be no need for anyone to work on the streets, the five girls in Ipswich could be alive today.

    I read that the Bishop of Portsmouth has endorsed the Womens Institute who have also called for decriminalisation.

  • January 22, 2008 - 10:45 am | Permalink

    Wow! So the big guns of sociological debate have come out in favour of legalised brothels! No point in arguing further, really.

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  • January 22, 2008 - 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jane – I just went looking for the Women’s Institute reference, and found one here:

  • January 23, 2008 - 10:28 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. We pragmatic libertarians had always assumed that decriminalisation (with corresponding regulation and taxation) would vastly improve matters, and it’s nice to see hard evidence of that. Here via ASI.

  • January 25, 2008 - 9:08 am | Permalink

    Here via Liberal England from the britblog roundup

    I always have thought that if you have the money and someone is selling something then you should be able to buy it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

  • January 25, 2008 - 11:53 am | Permalink

    Then obviously you haven’t thought very deeply.

  • January 25, 2008 - 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Care to mention why? instead of a one line inflammatory comment?

    Go on explain it to me in words of one syllable if necessary

    What is there that is being sold that hurts someone and you don’t know about it?

    Anyone with half a brain will know when they buy something or some service where its provenance is from or they don’t bother unless perhaps they are like you?

    Eg if I see someone on the street selling DVDs cheaply I know it is part of a racket and I don’t buy them (God knows I hardly buy them anyway as they are a money sink)

    Just what do you mean to say by that last comment Id really like to know?

    Caveat emptor as they say

    Buyer beware…..

  • Tony
    January 26, 2008 - 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Well, Henry, it seemed to me that anyone who believed that prostitution never hurt anybody must have let a remarkably sheltered life, but then I saw that in your blog profile you are described as politically aware, witty, intelligent, amusing—and an ex-doctor to boot! So perhaps I was doing you an injustice, in which case I apologise most sincerely.

  • January 26, 2008 - 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Apology accepted

    People sometimes have to sell their body because sometimes they want the money. Whether they do it out of necessity or for their own reasons such as a super high sex drive or because they want something that money can buy such as drugs then that is their lookout.

    Organised prostitution as part of trafficking and illegal smuggling is easy to spot so you don’t patronise those people.

    In fact I once needed a massage from the parlour down the street, I was stressed and they offered “extras” I knew exactly what they meant and I refused and I got my massage and never went back.

    It all depends on the circumstances at the end of the day

    Would you deny a man or a woman trying to survive off selling themselves…

  • Tony
    January 26, 2008 - 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I think perhaps you rather misunderstood my reply; witty, intelligent, etc, you may well be, but there is little evidence of such qualities in your writing.
    Never mind, let’s not sully Natalie’s urbane blog with unseemly brawling.

  • January 27, 2008 - 9:28 am | Permalink

    well actually someone suggested that I put those qualities up cos that is what they saw So if you cant see it no matter….

    Legalising prostitution makes it safer for everyone concerned.

    Nevada has done so for years.

  • sam
    January 29, 2008 - 12:43 am | Permalink

    “A survey of 19-year-olds found that more males than females had sold sex.”

    If you believe that boys are prostituted more than girls then you’ll believe anything you’re told.

    “What worries me is how passionate and angry the debate from ‘your’ side often becomes.”

    If you’re worried by anti-john advocates being too passionate and angry then you must be positively losing sleep at night worrying about the johns who passionately rape and angrily murder prostituted women in obscene numbers. As a feminist , I’m a lot more concerned about pimps and johns who have passionate, angry emotions which escalate to misogynistic abuse than the debate tone of people who advocate for men’s right to pay for sex, since we’re being purely practical here.

    You obviously will disagree, but I do not think it is any kind of compassionate or humanitarian position to say, “I don’t believe men have a right to pay to facefuck poor women, I just believe poor women have the right to get facefucked by as many men as it takes to lift them out of abject poverty.”

    Too bad pimps pocket an estimated 90% of prostitution profits, making them the ones who really know how to work sex.

  • January 29, 2008 - 1:37 pm | Permalink

    That survey of 19yos was in a particular social context and no doubt a particular social group. But I suspect that male selling of sex is very significantly under-reported in most statistics.

    I am indeed passionate about the women being murdered and forced into prostitution, but I think the way to deal with it is work out the method that best protects woman, rather than lashing out with ineffective laws that actually endanger them.

    I’d be interested in the source of your pimping statistic – does it reflect all forms of prostituion, or just street prostitution: in which country, when, in what legal regime?

  • sam
    January 29, 2008 - 10:37 pm | Permalink

    “But I suspect that male selling of sex is very significantly under-reported in most statistics.”

    Why is it so important to you that men sometimes buy boys and men for sex? What difference does it make that an estimated 10-15% of prostituted people are male when a statistically insignificant number of sex buyers are women?

    It feels like you’re trying to erase the highly gendered truth of prostitution in order to bolster your position that prostitution is just a job. It has echoes of anti-feminist “but men get raped too!” on it, as if the 10% of male rape victims somehow erases the highly gendered truth that a statistically insignificant number of rapes are committed by women.

    If that’s not your intent, can you please explain what your practical intent with pointing out that men sometimes sexually exploit boys and men is?

    “work out the method that best protects woman”

    How does legalizing men’s rightto sex reduce the rape or murder of prostitutes? Brothels are built with ‘panic buttons’ in them because legitimizing prostitution does not prevent rape. Prostitution was decriminalized in Ipswich but those women were still murdered.

    I have asked this before but have never gotten an answer, so maybe you can provide one since you seem to think that johns in Sweden increased their violence after 1999: why would johns who are not violent to prostitutes suddenly become violent towards them because of a change in the law?

    I’ve bought marijuana illegally many, many times. The annual late-August dry spell has never led me to feel more violent towards my dealers; I was grateful for getting what I could get. What rationale can you give for why previously nonviolent johns would suddenly beat up their sex dealers?

    90% of prostituted women interviewed by WHISPER had pimps while in prostitution (Evelina Giobbe, 1987, WHISPER Oral History Project, Minneapolis, Minnesota).

    Do you have any competing information regarding the percentage of prostitutes owned by pimps?

    The average age of entry into prostitution in the UK is 14-years-old. You seem to be saying that if society lets men have the whores they want then kerb crawlers will stop torturing, raping and murdering sex workers. Domestic violence and marital rape still happen at epidemic levels despite the legitimacy of husbands.

  • January 30, 2008 - 10:08 pm | Permalink

    The studies and figures that you are quoting are, I believe from their contents, based on studied of street workers, who are not representative of sex workers as a whole. The more considered books and studies that I have read all acknowledge the difficulty of getting a representative sample of workers to participate, and that simply studying those seeking help, or in prison, or found on the street, does not provide a true picture.

    To quote a couple of pieces of information that I’ve been collecting for a paper:

    * When Day followed workers in the London industry for 14 years, she found that while a few were still in poverty and struggling to make ends meet, most had made considerable economic advances. Twenty-four out of 50 owned their own homes, more than a third had degree level or vocational training.

    “Very few studies have then carried out the obvious step of comparing the sex workers they have studied against a matched group of non-sex workers. As a model, we might consider a study in Canada in 1987 that compared 45 sex workers and 45 controls for an overall scale of mental health. It found that severity of sexual abuse before the age of 16 was a more important predictor of poor health than was being involved in sex work.”

    Vanwesenbeeck (1994, 28): “The majority of prostitutes choose prostitution as the occupational alternative that affords them the highest attainable standard of living.” (Not as a result of destitution.)
    Vanwesenbeeck, W.M.A. Prostitutes’ Well-Being and Risk, University Press, Amsterdam, 1994.
    Day, S. On the Game: Women and Sex Work, Pluto, London, 2007

  • January 31, 2008 - 12:48 am | Permalink

    You’re wrong about WHISPER only interviewing street workers. Even when the methodology of prostitution research clearly reveals prostitutes were approached in “a beauty parlor which offered a supportive atmosphere…in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center…a nongovernmental organization which offers food, vocational training and community to approximately 600 prostituted women a week…brothels which are privately owned and controlled by local commissions composed of physicians, police and others who are ‘in charge of public morality’., pro-johns rights advocates lie and say only street workers are interviewed. The methodology is right there for anyone to read, but still they say only street workers have ever been included in prostitution research.

    In the paper you’re writing, please do not say that researchers haven’t interviewed prostitutes in brothels legal and illegal, strip clubs, or escorting. Dicker over the validity of the statistics if you want, but saying that all studies on prostitution, except the ones you’re referencing, have been done on street prostitutes is demonstrably false.

    You have offered no competing information about how many prostitutes are owned by pimps. You’ve given quotes about how profitable prostitution can be for a minority of prostitutes, but you’ve got absolutely nothing on how grotesquely, unfathomably profitable it is for pimps. Unless you can suggest an alternate percentage, I’ll keep going with 90% of prostitution is pimp controlled.

    “The majority of prostitutes choose prostitution as the occupational alternative that affords them the highest attainable standard of living”

    I believe this is true. When the average age of entry is 14, yeah, there’s nothing else a 14-year-old can do “occupationally” to make as much money as letting johns rape her repeatedly. Female genital mutilation raises the relative income of girls in Africa too, but that doesn’t make it pro-woman.

    Your answer to the other question I asked is also ‘no’, because you can’t come up with any plausible reason why nonviolent johns would suddenly turn violent in Sweden. Why doesn’t your inability to come up with an excuse for this unproven behavior change of Swedish johns not cause you to pause and think hard on just how incorrect you must be if all that fills your head upon pondering the question is “…”?

    How does a statistician calculate the lost incomes of murdered prostitutes when figuring out the “considerable economic advances” of prostitution? Gemma Adams was killed in Ipswich at age 25, but their missing income isn’t worked into the statistics as a zero. There is no column in your source:

    Income of Gemma Adams: $0
    Income of Tania Nicol: $0
    Income of Anneli Alderton: $0
    Income of Paula Clennell: $0
    Income of Annette Nicholls: $0

    because marking dead hookers’ income as “0” in the statistics would readily reveal prostitution’s severe-to-deadly harms. Dead prostitutes don’t own homes, and they don’t rent either. Dead prostitutes can’t be tracked for 14 years. Dead prostitutes don’t have “the highest attainable standard of living” because they are not doing any kind of living at any standard.

    I reject research that says murdered prostitutes are worth zilch monetarily so their lives just won’t be counted, money apparently being the sole measure of a prostituted person’s life. How depressing that you, a feminist, are okay quantifying prostitutes’ lives the same way pimps and johns do, by focusing on the amount of money each prostitute is worth.

  • January 31, 2008 - 10:24 am | Permalink

    If you read the FAQs on Sam’s magisterial website you will see that the feminist viewpoint and the Green Party’s misguided policy are in direct opposition.
    Which is the nearer to your own stance?

  • February 2, 2008 - 1:00 am | Permalink

    Tony, as I’m sure you realise there are many strands of feminism. I haven’t studied Sam’s website, but the position she’s espousing has close ties to the strand of radical feminism that holds that all sexual intercourse is rape. Not something with which I concur.

    Sam, I am not going to continue this debate with you not, although I suspect it is the case, because I don’t think you are listening to my argument – that I want to keep sex workers safe – but because you are refusing to acknowledge that I might be doing this from good motives.

    I utterly disagree with you, and I think your stance has the potential to do enormous harm to vulnerable women, but I do acknowledge that you have good intentions. Yet you are not only determined to twist my position, but to attribute to me some ill-defined desire to see women killed, which I find offensive. I will therefore not be continuing to debate with you.

  • February 2, 2008 - 2:52 am | Permalink

    I have said nothing of your motives, certainly not that you want to see women killed!

    What I believe you are responding to is your frustration coming up with sensible answers to the questions I have posed about john motivations, not yours. I have acknowledged you are a feminist and believe it.

    It is not saying you want to see women killed (!) to question why you think an acceptable answer to questions about johns’ behaviors is to reprint quotes about prostituted women’s financial assets. It is because I believe you think women are worth more than the sum of their assets that I am depressed, and mystified, seeing you use “48% of those that lived eventually owned homes” as a counterpoint to questions raised about brothel room panic buttons and Swedish johns violence.

    However, I am not at all mystified with how pointing my finger ‘o blame squarely at johns sexist behavior gets turned into me attacking women instead of the johns I’m gunning for. I’m quite used to that redirection of my criticisms.. For just one example of many, witness how me asking feminist Devan Barber questions about the motivations of hundreds of voyeur-johns made her knee-jerk a response defending William and Mary College’s Women’s Studies Department and feminist organizations, women who I didn’t mention and whose motives I never questioned because I was too busy setting my sights firmly on johns.

    I believe in the good motivations of W&M College’s Women’s Studies Department, feminist organizations, and you. I do not believe in the altruistic motivations you inexplicably ascribe to men who pay for women and children’s sexual submission. You have made it clear you’re not willing to discuss johns, and I’m not willing to speak of prostituted women’s lives solely in financial terms, so there’s little left for us to debate.

  • Linda Larsson
    July 2, 2008 - 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m Swedish, I have been an escort and what the speaker at this conference said is not true in any place whatsoever! I wonder who pays her to come all the way there? I mean she obviosly speaks for her own ideas, but where’s the truth? Everyone knows there has been a decerase in trafficking in Sweden!
    “Internet sites being taken down?””
    I’ve had my site up since 5 years and nobody’s taken it down. That’s just so much bull*it.
    “Forced to work for pimps?”
    Where do they get everything from? Like you’d just run into the hands of a pimp?
    “Less time to negotioate” on the street? I don’t think so! Why would the prostitute care if the john is being followed? Heh heh it is not illegal to talk to someone on the street you know! I think most prostitutes in Sweden feel that the law is better because then you get the power over the customer. if he does something bad then you can report him. But he cannot report you because HE is the criminal.
    I hate when these people go around spreading lies!!!
    She hasnt asked the eskorts what they think either so whoo is she to talk????

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