Sex work is a profession that is consistently under threat—workers are judged, shamed, harassed and criminalised. However, sex workers have had a particularly rough time of it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike others who were able to continue to work remotely or granted furlough when the former was not a possibility, sex workers received no governmental support. In lieu of this, groups such as CYBERTEASE—an online virtual strip event “created, organised, hosted and performed by workers of the UVW union”—were set up to allow sex workers to continue working throughout lockdowns while the sex worker advocacy and resistance movement (SWARM) set up a Hardship Fund to offer them financial aid during the outbreak.
Now that the UK government is easing restrictions and the outside world is officially open to its citizens, you could assume that sex workers’ financial strain is due to be eased. However, it just isn’t that easy, the amount of work available to sex workers greatly depends on where they live as many councils are now trying to ban strip clubs. Though Bristol Sex Worker’s Collective (BSWC) fought a proposed strip club ban last September and won, the two sexual entertainment venues (SEV) under threat have only been allowed to operate for another year. SEVs in Scotland are also being threatened, as Edinburgh City and East Lothian councils are considering bans of their own.
The argument proposed by the various councils as well as Bristol Women’s Commission, Bristol Women’s Voice and the Fawcett Society, who were also campaigning for the ban, is that the venues in question are linked to violence against women while the councillors of East Lothian claim their ban is to “protect our citizens.” However, as the USW union expressed, a ban will cause over 100 workers to lose their jobs, inevitably leaving “women fearful for their livelihoods, as they grapple with how they will replace the income that will be lost.”
As women—both cis and transgender—make up the majority of sex workers and cis men make up the majority of clients, the safety of sex workers is, without doubt, a feminist issue. This indicates that, although they like to call themselves feminists, the associations listed above which campaigned for the ban would rather endanger women than support them in their struggle against the criminalisation of their profession.
Criminalisation and bans on sex work will not make women safer, they only force sex work communities to go underground, making it harder to protect themselves. The UK is in desperate need of a change in its attitude towards sex workers, and that starts by decriminalising sex work entirely.
Although sex work in the country is not a criminal offence, soliciting transactional sex on the street and working in groups in venues is illegal. This doesn’t leave much room for legal work to take place and makes a dramatic difference to the safety of sex workers. Certain safety measures can be implemented for protection—such as working with a peer close by, in small groups on the street or being able to note down a client’s license plate, check their ID and ask for backup when a client refuses to wear a condom—however, these become extremely difficult to carry out when working solo. Preventing clients from being anonymous and checking in with colleagues can allow sex workers to create safer working environments for themselves. But as UK law prohibits them from working together in the first place, they are forced to work alone, threatening their safety.
Decriminalisation, as outlined by the English Collective of Prostitutes, would constitute “the removal of all criminal laws that are specific to sex workers.” It is a misconception that criminalising the profession prevents people from entering or staying in sex work. In fact, it is the prohibiting measures currently in place that make it harder for individuals to leave sex work entirely. The laws criminalising certain aspects of sex work—which enable workers to protect one another—mean that many of them end up with a criminal record and struggle to get other work.
Many countries have already decriminalised sex work, such as the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, parts of Australia and of the US. On 10 February 2022, Victoria, Australia, passed the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill which stands to recognise the profession as a legitimate job, with reforms being added by the end of 2023. This legitimisation of the role allows sex workers to work independently, implementing their own safety measures.
It is often argued by feminists opposing sex work that this line of occupation should be criminalised due to its misogynistic roots. However, as Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue (co-authors of Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights), it is precisely the dangerous nature of the industry that demands it be decriminalised. As mentioned previously, legitimisation of the field would allow sex workers to secure their safety, create unions and enforce better working conditions—things that all other types of labourers are encouraged to do as protection in our capitalist society. Talk about inequality!
In San Francisco, March 1917, sex workers went on strike, demanding an end to brothel closures. Fast forward to 2022’s soon-approaching International Women’s Day and sex workers are once again striking, with one core demand: “we want to live.” For those claiming to fight for the safety of women, the best way to protect women from the rising pandemic of gendered violence is to support the decriminalisation of sex work now. The ball is in your court.