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“Criminalising purchase would only serve to make sex workers more vulnerable to violence”

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, sex worker and activist with Sex Worker Open University and ScotPep, Molly Smith (pseudonym) explains why criminalising the purchase of sex would be a dangerous move for women in the industry - arguing that the answer, instead, lies in tackling the root of the problem. 


As a sex worker, I understand why people are uncomfortable with the sex industry. It reflects deep inequalities in our society, particularly around wealth, gender, race, and migrancy status.

Having experienced violence and exploitation at work, I’m not the “happy hooker” of popular imagination – in fact, I know hundreds of sex workers, and I’ve never encountered anyone who fits this caricature.

Criminalising the purchase of sex blocks our basic safety measures.

So I see why criminalisation of the purchase of sex can seem like an attractive solution. However, contrary to the intentions of those who suggest it, this policy actually increases harm for people who sell sex.

This is because criminalising the purchase of sex blocks our basic safety measures.

For instance, one of the ways that the police find clients on the street is by looking for street-based sex workers. Sex workers are more visible to the police if they’re in a group with other workers, or in a well-lit area, or both. But in order to retain a client’s custom, the sex worker has to meet him somewhere he will feel safe from police attention – somewhere that she’s less visible to the police: alone, at the dark, isolated edge of a city.

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Criminalising the purchase of sex blocks our basic safety measures.

Another safety strategy on the street is taking time talking to the client before getting into his car.

Sex workers want to discuss money and condom use, to check he doesn’t seem drunk or aggressive, to have a friend write down his car number plate – and to do all that outside of the car. But if the purchase of sex is criminalised, the client is worrying that he’ll be caught if he spends too long talking in a public place: he wants the worker to get into his car as quickly as possible, and in order to keep his custom, she has to comply.

When Scotland criminalised the purchase of sex on the street in 2008, violence against street-based sex workers went up by 50% in just six months.

How does this play out? Well, when Scotland criminalised the purchase of sex on the street in 2008, violence against street-based sex workers went up by 50% in just six months. And later, plans to completely criminalise customers were rejected in 2010 and 2011.

Working indoors, I reject calls from withheld numbers. Someone’s phone number can help identify them if they turn violent on me later.


Read more: "Why we should never legalise prostitution"


I can do that at the moment because only a very small proportion of potential clients try to contact me from hidden numbers. But if my clients were criminalised, they’d have good reason to want to keep their identifying information hidden. The majority of calls would switch to withheld numbers, and I’d have to start accepting those calls, because I’d still have bills to pay.

A man who wanted to harm a woman could arrange to see me knowing that he could remain totally anonymous; knowing I would have no information with which to maybe hold him to account.

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"Working indoors, I reject calls from withheld numbers"

Worse, the current definition of ‘brothel-keeping’ in the UK includes any indoor space that more than one sex worker works from. No proposals to introduce the criminalisation of clients have sought to change this law. This means that if I work with a friend for safety – here, or in countries where the criminalisation of clients has been implemented – both of us can be arrested.

The law forces sex workers to choose between working alone and being vulnerable to violence, or working with a friend and being vulnerable to prosecution.


Read more: “Unladylike” Gigi and why women always get blamed for acts of violence


Maybe these seem like inadequate safety measures. Sometimes people think the difference between a street-based sex worker having a five minute chat with a potential client – compared to a thirty-second chat – is so minor, so insignificant, that to pass legislation shaving those minutes down to seconds doesn’t matter. People say ‘how can you tell in five minutes what a rapist looks like?’

Within feminist discussions, at least, this isn’t a logic that seems to get applied to other women’s safety: if women office workers ask that lighting be installed in the underground car-park, it would be horrible to derail this request by pointing out that it’s not a structural solution to misogyny, or to snark ‘how does lighting help you tell what a rapist looks like?’

Sweden and Norway criminalised the purchase of sex and people found it made sex work harder and more dangerous 

It isn’t just me who thinks that the criminalisation of clients makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence.

Sweden and Norway have implemented this law, and a Norwegian government report states: “the law on the purchase of sex has made working as a prostitute harder and more dangerous”. The Swedish head of anti-trafficking policy commented, “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution: that’s some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law”.

A Norwegian official told Amnesty International, “it comes back to the question of ‘is it a problem that people in prostitution are in trouble?’ No one has said … that we want prostitutes to have a good time while we try to stamp out prostitution.” I’m not asking you to love the sex industry: just to see that policies which further harm people who sell sex is no ‘solution’. 

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In fact, it’s possible to loathe the sex industry – I do, in many ways – and to want to reduce its size, while treating the safety of people who sell sex as deeply important. As such, it’s crucial to understand that essentially no change to criminal law – whether the addition or the removal of criminalisation – has been shown to decrease or increase the amount of sex work that occurs.


Read more: "Why prostitution is NOT the same as any other career."


Instead, try tackling poverty, protecting trans women from discrimination, and enabling people to migrate in safety and to have unrestricted access to employment in their destination country.

These are the policies that will reduce the size of the sex industry. In the meantime, people who sell sex need basic safety and justice now. We need to be able to work with a friend without fearing arrest, to hold our managers to account through labour law, and see the repeal of laws criminalising soliciting and kerb-crawling, which harm street-based sex workers.

Further criminalising what we’re doing to survive doesn’t make us safer, or give us more options. 

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