Students4Decrim are a grassroots campaign group of student activists who are active in sex worker collectives, student unions, feminist and human rights organisations. Our concern is the rights and safety of everybody who sells sex. People undertake sex work for a range of reasons, but most commonly sex work is a way to get by, same as in other work – a way to put food on the table, pay bills and university fees.
A growing number of students are entering the sex industry. Rising tuition fees, pitiful maintenance loans and a housing crisis cause many students to depend on forms of sex work, and the vast majority feel unable to tell their friends or course mates due to the realities of stigma and discrimination. Even today, universities can use morality clauses to expel student sex workers who dare to speak up.
Student unions and universities who want to support those leaving the sex industry should focus on solutions that include increased financial support for students, the lowering of tuition fees, compiling accessible welfare resources, and lobbying against disciplinary action taken against student sex workers.
There is a contentious debate about the best way to address sex work. The options most frequently put forward are either decriminalisation — supported internationally by sex workers and many other organisations — or the Nordic Model, also referred to as the ‘sex buyer law’, or an ‘end demand’ approach. The Nordic Model purports to decriminalise sex workers and criminalise clients and in doing so reduce the demand for prostitution and shrink the sex industry.
In reality, the Nordic model:
Undermines safety and gives clients more power over sex workers. France criminalised clients in 2016 and a two-year evaluation report found that 42 percent of sex workers are more exposed to violence (insults in the street, physical violence, sexual violence, theft, and armed robbery in the workplace) and that 38 percent have found it increasingly hard to demand use of condoms. The Norwegian government acknowledged that the Nordic model made the the sex industry “a buyer’s market”. As the client bears criminal risk, he can demand the worker meets him in a less safe place, demand unprotected sex and a lower price. This brings risks of violence and STIs/HIV, in addition to impoverishing already precarious workers. A social services report on the Swedish city of Malmo found that as a result of the law, “prostitutes who are still working in street prostitution experience a tougher existence”.
Does not decriminalise sex workers. Claims that under Nordic-model prostitution law, sex workers are supported and not subject to policing or criminalisation are not supported by the facts. Sex workers can be prosecuted for sharing premises or for street work. In Oslo in 2011, a sex worker was prosecuted for ‘brothel-keeping’ for sharing a flat with other workers, despite the judge agreeing that her primary motivation for sharing her space was safety. Amnesty International found that street-based sex workers in Norway were still being fined several years after the Nordic model had supposedly ‘decriminalised’ them. In France, municipal laws against street sex work have been retained, meaning street sex workers are still being arrested and fined. In Northern Ireland, the much-trumpeted ‘first arrest’ of a client was accompanied by the arrest of three sex working women sharing a flat.
Contrary to some claims the sex industry has not shrunk as criminalisation can never address the reasons people go into sex work, which is to get the money that they need to live their lives.
Decriminalisation, which was implemented in New Zealand in 2003, means that sex workers are able to work without threat of criminal sanctions. Criminal and administrative penalties on prostitution are repealed. Sex workers’ workplaces are regulated through employment law, enabling workers to hold their bosses to account and form trade unions.
Decriminalisation has been broadly successful:
Sex workers have more rights and power at work. A comprehensive five-year New Zealand government review found: no increase in prostitution; no increase in trafficking; sex workers more able to report violence and leave prostitution if they choose. Since decriminalisation, over 90 percent of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. That includes street-based sex workers, of whom 90 per cent said they felt they had employment rights, and 96 percent said they felt they had legal rights.
Sex workers can assert their rights through labour law. A sex worker in New Zealand took her manager to court for sexual harassment – and won – with the judge commenting: ‘Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations’. Such a ruling would not be possible in a criminalised workplace.
Decriminalisation is sometimes presented as at odds with anti-trafficking measures – but it should be obvious that giving workers more rights is crucial to tackling exploitation. Research shows that less than 6 percent of migrant sex workers in the UK have been coerced and forced to work against their will; many migrants said they prefer working in the sex industry to the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs”.
Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ power in their interactions with clients, managers, police and landlords. It makes people safer. It reduces the transmission of HIV. It is for these reasons that decriminalisation is supported by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, Sisters Uncut, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.