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This is why sex work should be decriminalised, according to nurses

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Hollie Richardson
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Sex work should be decriminalised

Current UK law means sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.

The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) is lobbying for the government to change sex work laws in the UK.

Women’s lives and wellbeing are being put at risk because of current sex work laws, according to nurses. With an estimated 70,000 sex workers in the UK – nine out of ten which are women – the RCN is calling for this law to be changed in order to improve, and potentially save, their lives. At the moment, sex workers are deterred from seeking NHS help and put off reporting abuse and attacks.

Louise Cahill, the nurse specialist in sexual health who was behind the proposed policy, said: “Current UK law makes it a criminal offence for sex workers to work together for safety. Brothel keeping is defined as just two or more sex workers working together. Therefore, sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.”

Cahill’s proposal also included a recent review, led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which found that sex workers who had been subjected to recent arrests, prison or displacement from places of work had a three-times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence and were twice as likely to have HIV and/or other sexually transmitted infections. The review also noted that sex workers who had avoided repressive policing were 30% less likely to engage in sex with clients without a condom.

It’s worth noting that decriminalisation is a loosening of criminal penalties, and is not the same as legalisation. Also, RCN say that sexual exploitation and/or trafficking of people would remain illegal. According to the union, several international anti-trafficking organisations believe the decriminalisation of sex work would have a positive role to play in the fight against trafficking.

Explaining why sex work should be decriminalised for both the “seller” and “buyer” the RCN objected to the proposed Nordic Model, which criminalises the buyer but not the seller “in order to reduce demand for sex workers”. Nurses say this doesn’t work because the majority of sex workers enter the industry for socio-economic reasons. Also, research in Sweden and Canada shows that criminalising sex workers’ clients did not improve sex workers’ safety or access to services and in some cases showed a detrimental impact.

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A cut in funding to services used by nurses to help sex worker patients has prompted the RCN to ensure the government put this policy in place.

“Nurses often take a leading role in the care and treatment of sex workers, and advocate for their health and wellbeing and they want to know if there’s more that can be done to safeguard their patients,” RCN professional lead for public health Helen Donovan told Stylist. “Services that nurses provide for sex workers have seen their funding slashed. Local authorities have had to make difficult decisions about what preventative health services they continue to support. Unfortunately, the services hit hardest are often those that provide advice, prevention and promotion and those in which nursing staff make a vital contribution.”

She added: “The political appetite to fund sexual health services targeting sex workers isn’t there. As nurses, we have a duty to ensure we serve the needs of society’s most vulnerable. The future of these services depends on a proper, meaningful investment and we must also consider if the Government must change the law to improve the health of these people..”

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