Decriminalisation 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 Criminal and administrative penalties on prostitution are repealed.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 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 trafficked; many 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.
Decriminalising prostitution in England and Wales
The full decriminalisation of sex work acknowledges that sex work may be driven by poverty, difficult family life, substance use, benefit cuts, disability and the high cost of housing and education, but it also acknowledges that some prefer to do sex work to other jobs available to them.
Decriminalisation means the right to safely earn livelihoods through sex work.
The Nordic Model or Sex Buyer Law do not as claimed decriminalise sex workers. Currently selling sex itself is not illegal in the UK, but many laws criminalise associated activities that leave workers vulnerable and deprived of basic rights.
The principle of decriminalisation holds that sex workers are entitled to labour rights whether they enjoy, hate or tolerate their work.
• People have the right to work in the sex industry without threat of criminal sanctions or police harassment. All criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on prostitution and other forms of sex work are removed, including anti-social/criminal behaviour orders, civil injunctions and prostitutes’ cautions.
• Soliciting and advertising, including via online platforms, are permitted as permitted for other businesses. Workers can share information and screen potential clients easily.
• Workers can choose jobs in managed premises where they can negotiate for fair conditions through labour law and health and safety regulations.
• Penalties for keeping brothels or disorderly houses and controlling prostitution for gain are lifted, allowing workers to share spaces and costs, look out for each other’s safety and hire service personnel like drivers, receptionists, security guards and others. The activities of these non-sex workers are also decriminalised.
• Landlords can offer ordinary rents and tenant contracts (short- or long-term) to sex workers without facing criminal charges. Sex workers cannot be threatened with eviction on the grounds of their work.
• Sex workers are free to travel and rent accommodation without being subject to criminalisation as ‘pop-up brothels’.
• Sex workers can use the justice system to seek redress for discrimination and abuse committed by bosses, clients and police.
• Police stop raids on suspected brothels and confiscation of earnings and property.
• Sex workers may financially support and live with their partners and families without facing criminal sanctions.
• Prostitution offences are struck from police records, making it easier for workers to find jobs outside the sex industry.
• Buying sex is decriminalised, since workers have the right to sell their services.
• All sex workers feel free to visit public health services, contributing to lower rates of sexually transmitted and HIV infections in society at large.
• Decriminalisation means sex workers can report suspected cases of trafficking to police without self-incrimination. Anti-trafficking and anti-slavery law must not obliterate the right of adult individuals to gain livelihoods selling sex.
• Current laws on rape, sexual abuse, paedophilia, human trafficking and all violent crimes remain in place after decriminalisation. Claims that child grooming gangs are linked to adult consensual sex work have no basis in fact.
• Granting workers legal rights removes opportunities for those who currently see them as fair game for criminal exploitation.
• Privacy and freedom from undue state control over sexual expression are important to democratic tradition. Decriminalisation upholds the human, civil and labour rights of those who earn a living by selling sex.
• Selling sex is no longer defined as violence against women by the Crown Prosecution Service.