Sex workers rights: a matter of law

Theresa has been trying to make a living as a prostitute for a long time and she finally could work safely in her own flat in Glasgow. But one of her colleagues couldn’t afford a whole rent, so she asked her if they could work together. Theresa accepted and they tried to work as covertly as they could, but they knew that at any moment they were going to get in trouble.


“The problem came when one of my friend’s clients started to behave violently. I told him that I was going to call someone if he didn’t leave the flat. Then he threatened us calling the police, because we were two girls working together. We knew that it was illegal and that he was going to win. Fortunately I could manage to kick him out and anyone had to call the police”, she relates.

When more than one woman are working together with the purpose of selling sex the law considers that as a brothel and, thus, a crime. Sex workers organisations, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes criticises that because it makes no distinction between small groups of women who work cooperatively and those who are being coerced to work in an establishment which is run by a boss.

That’s one of the main reasons why the Home Affairs Selected Committee (HASC) presented a few months ago a report to change the legislation about sex workers in England and Wales. Those matters are supposed to be legislated separately in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the present situation of sex workers and the basis of the legislation is the same for the whole state, where between 60.000 and 80.000 sex workers live.

Currently, in the United Kingdom selling and purchasing sexual services is legal between consenting adults, but there are lots of activities surrounding this practice that attempt on the security of sex workers.

The legislation could be changed in two different ways. On the one hand, the HASC considered the possibility of implementing the Swedish system, based on the sex buyers law, which considers that “prostitution is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal” and punishes the clients. Therefore, and after a few evaluations, the HASC concluded that this wouldn’t be the most effective legislation “in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers either in terms of the living conditions for those who continue to work in prostitution or the effectiveness of services to help them find new ways to earn a living”.

On the other hand, the Committee studied two other possibilities: legalising sex work, as it has been done in the Netherlands, and decriminalisation, following the New Zealand’s system. The last model was the preferred by the Government, as it was the one which resulted in more benefits. In the end, any approach appears to offer a complete solution and the inquiry is still awaiting government response since the 15th of July.

But why legalising sex work is not a good option? Anastacia Ryan, one of the founders of Umbrella Lane, a charity organisation created to give support to sex workers in Scotland, explains it. “Legalisation means the introduction of laws and policies specific to sex work to formally regulate it. This has had the effect in some contexts of creating additional tiers of criminalisation and penalisation of sex workers, subjecting them to compulsory health checks, forced testing, mandatory registration, disproportionate taxation and renting of homes, etc”.

She also agrees with the idea of decriminalisation as the best choice: “If sex work is decriminalised then sex workers can prioritise their safety and wellbeing rather than focus their energies on avoiding arrest and prosecution. The police can also begin prioritising protecting sex workers from violence and addressing the crimes committed against them rather than arresting and charging the sex workers themselves”.

Apart from being considered as the oldest profession in the world, prostitution is also one of the most dangerous. Just in the UK, 152 sex workers had been murdered since 1990. However, sometimes it gets a point in life where you don’t have the choice. People who do sex work often also belong to marginal groups, such as LGBTQ, migrant workers, lone parents or people with health issues that mean they struggle to take on more mainstream jobs.

The HASC report assumes that “many people sell sex simply because they are unable to access other means of earning an income, and that many sold sex intermittently, to accumulate savings or cope with one-off or occasional financial needs”.

Luca Stevenson, ex sex worker, member of the Sex Worker Open University in Glasgow and coordinator of International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, thinks that a good solution could be “providing a basic income for everyone”. In that way, “no one would be forced to work on any precarious and risky job to survive”, he says.

Luca also points that “Most sex workers work in fear of criminalisation and public ‘outing’ of their work. This fear deters them from accessing services for health, social care and importantly deters them from reporting violence and exploitation to police or other authorities, while in a decriminalised system sex workers will feel confident and secure in reporting violent incidents to the police without fearing repercussions for themselves”.

In addition to those difficulties, sex workers have to face the reality of working on the street. At that moment, “The Street Offences Act 1959 criminalises loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution”. This is why most of people who practices prostitution tend to work on the suburbs and marginal areas, to avoid being seen. This becomes a problem when any kind of violence is committed against them, as it’s harder to reach some help from those places.

“Once I was in an international conference about sex workers rights and we were trying to find a solution to that problem. One of the participants said that she didn’t want their kids to see people offering sex around their neighbourhood because it might be dangerous. She wanted to help those girls but she preferred to hide this problem, without taking into account that maybe if we all tried to share it, it would become smaller”, says Luca.

Here is the thing: sex workers are being seen and treated as passive victims with no real agency, while they are silenced in debates on sex work legislation and policies. Those who are working as sex workers must be meaningfully engaged in these debates, Like Luca. Otherwise, the law would change but stigma won’t disappear without the empowerment of the community.