As the cliché goes, it seems that there are few things older than the ‘oldest profession’. One thing that definitely shares its age though, is the stigmatisation and prejudice directed towards its practitioners. Sex workers have for generations been one of the greatest ‘others’ within society. Today, things are much the same, with the exception that there are growing numbers of people that are stepping in, showing solidarity and attempting to shift societal perceptions in order to begin the process of winning hard fought rights.
The student movement has a long and proud history of using its collective power to stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed against the oppressor and the campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work should be no different. We need to stop pretending that it’s not our fight.
Because the current legal framework surrounding sex work is fundamentally unjust, dangerous and oppressive. According to Amnesty International, the current laws surrounding sex work leave sex workers ‘vulnerable to abuse’, with restrictions forcing sex workers into isolated areas where they are more likely to be attacked, making sex workers more likely to take risks to protect clients from the police, and often leading to criminal records that prevent sex workers from finding employment in other industries.
Unsurprisingly, given the inherent flaws within existing legislation on sex work, the vast majority of sex workers themselves are in favour of decriminalisation. The ‘Prostitution Inquiry’ being conducted by the Home Affairs Select Committee inspires little faith for those campaigning for decriminalisation, but the English Collective of Prostitutes has been vocally campaigning for the ‘abolition of prostitution laws which criminalise sex workers’ since 1975.
Despite this longstanding campaign, the argument for decriminalisation is only just moving into mainstream political debate, which is why it is vital that now is the moment that students and their Unions get behind the campaign, and show that we’re not afraid to shout about it. We must show solidarity, particularly with student sex workers, or we risk letting this issue move out of the public eye and having it brushed under the carpet. However, at a time when solidarity around the campaign is so important, it is frustrating to see that the decriminalisation of sex work is still an issue that divides the left.
to advocate decriminalisation is not to condone
exploitation and violence against sex workers
When Corbyn reaffirmed his view in favour of decriminalisation, many female Labour MPs including Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips openly spoke out against his position. When women speak out against decriminalisation, they often cite the exploitation of women as justification for their outrage, but to advocate decriminalisation is not to condone exploitation and violence against sex workers. Rather, it is to ensure that the environment that sex workers are forced in to, due to Tory cuts that disproportionately affect women, is an environment that is safe and regulated, and puts the power in the hands of sex workers. Of course the increase in people undertaking sex work is not solely a result of the Government’s austerity agenda, but it is true that the campaign for decriminalisation goes hand in hand with the fight against austerity. As students we not only fight against austerity, but also against its symptoms, namely the increasing number of women being forced into sex work.
We know that cuts hit women hardest. When the welfare that women need to survive is slashed, the number of sex workers increases, the legal pushback becomes more aggressive, more women are needlessly put in danger. Sex workers are not exclusively female, and it is important to note that all genders suffer from their criminalisation, but women absolutely bear the brunt of these cuts which is why the fight for decriminalisation is a fight for feminists and anti-austerity campaigners alike.
So, we’ve established that the decriminalisation of sex work is absolutely a campaign that feminists and anti-austerity campaigners should be backing wholeheartedly, and obviously there is a natural intersection here with students, but why should the rest of us care? In the results of the Student Sex Work Project last year, it transpired that 4.5% of students had been engaged with sex work at some point, and the vast majority pointed to financial hardship as the underlying reason why. Sex work may appear to many students as a distant problem that has no real impact on their lives, but we all live with the threat of austerity, and therefore all run the risk of encountering its consequences.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to this – in any other field of work, where there are clear risks of personal abuse, of major occupational hazards, of clear and obvious health and safety issues, would the response be to outlaw that industry in order for society to collectively close our eyes and hope that it will go away? Or would the more likely result be regulation, attempts to eradicate the biggest danger and unionisation of the workforce? If we start from the principle that legislative approaches should be based in the safety and wellbeing of the individuals involved, then the approach should be the same with sex work as it is with any other work, irrespective of what you think of whether the work is morally equivalent or not. From that, it is clear what the role of the left, and the role of student activists should be – full solidarity with sex workers, and a call for the decriminalisation of the industry.