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Ideological war against the decriminalisation of sex work risks sidelining much of the evidence​

I’ve spent more than a decade researching controversial, sensitive topics. But in many ways, my research on the sex industry has been the most difficult. This is in large part due to the contentious nature of debates on how to organise it.

These debates remain very current in Britain. Following the publication in May of an inquiry into “pop-up brothels”, Gavin Shuker, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, recommended that in order to end sex trafficking, the government should criminalise paying for sex. The report has been criticised as “shoddy” by organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, who suggest that decriminalising the sex industry is the best way to keep sex workers safe from exploitation.

The gulf between certain groups of feminists on this issue is also deep and seemingly unbridgeable. Some feminists see sex work as the ultimate expression of patriarchal violence against women and call for the total abolishment of prostitution. Others, including me, recognise prostitution as a form of work and draw on human rights perspectives and the voices of sex workers – which include women, men, and trans workers – to come to this understanding of the issue.

Finding a way to navigate these divisions is fraught – and a recent book from British writer Julie Bindel, in my view, does little to help redress this. Bindel suggests the aim of her book, The Pimping of Prostitution, is to call out the “myths about the sex trade”. She presents a particular narrative that criticises the work of academics and sex work advocates whose ideas diverge from hers, particularly in relation to the decriminalisation of sex work.

There are key differences between decriminalisation and legalisation. Decriminalisation, which I advocate, removes all laws and policies that criminalise sex work – including selling, buying, and organising. Legalisation hands control to the state to “manage” it, and can result in the further marginalisation of certain groups.

The Nordic model

Bindel argues that the “Nordic model”, under which the purchase of sex is criminalised, is far better than legalisation or decriminalisation. She notes: “As the evidence continues to mount on the disaster caused by legalisation and decriminalisation of the sex trade, so do the benefits and successes of the Nordic model.”

However, research from many activists and advocates has pointed to problems with this kind of regime.

Read more: The 'Nordic model' of prostitution law is a myth

Key research findings have demonstrated that under the Nordic model, sex workers experience substantial difficulties and dangers when selling sex, and face human rights violations as a direct result of this legislative mechanism. An Amnesty International report on Norway cited forced eviction, deportation, and the increasing abuse of sex workers from both police and clients as a direct impact of this policy. The organisation also provides some useful insights into how criminalising clients can harm sex workers.

It’s disappointing that research findings and evidence highlighting the well-documented and substantive problems with the Nordic model are not given the weight I believe they deserve by Bindel.

The evidence for decriminalisation

Decriminalising sex work, on the other hand, has a clear evidence base when it comes to keeping people working in the sex industry safe. Many leading international human rights organisations, including the UN, Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, and the World Bank support decriminalisation based on a wealth of empirical evidence.

In New Zealand, for example, the Prostitution Reform Act passed in 2003, after long consultations with sex workers, shows that decriminalisation has yielded positive benefits for many sex workers, including enabling sex workers to speak more openly about problems they face, giving them better access to and support from police, and helping to ensure their voices are heard and that they can advocate for themselves.

Bindel provides some analysis of what she says are the overwhelmingly negative impacts of decriminalisation on, what she calls, “prostituted women”. She puts the terms sex worker in inverted commas throughout the text and argues the term sex work is used by the “pro-decriminalisation lobby” as it is “a handy way to remove any notion that prostitution is based on the oppression of women”.

However, these arguments have been contested by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. Some independent reports, such as a 2007 evaluation by researchers at the University of Otago, have demonstrated the law’s success in reducing many of the harms associated with sex work.

Listening to sex workers’ voices

There are few “pro-prostitution” activists (as Bindel calls us) who suggest decriminalisation is a panacea for some of the issues that sex work presents – stigma is one of the biggest problems facing sex work and I argue that refusing to acknowledge sex work as work exacerbates this problem. Decriminalising sex work makes those working in the sex industry safer, and by listening to sex workers about what works, and what doesn’t, it becomes easier to make evidence-based policy that will yield the best outcomes for sex workers themselves.

The solutions to making the sex industry safer for the men, women, and trans folk who work in this industry are complex. However, we should look to approaches based on evidence that acknowledge the multiplicity of sex worker voices in different contexts to help guide decisions about what policy approaches are best placed to serve the needs of the people who are directly impacted by these laws.

Sex workers should lead the way in shaping legislation that fits the needs of their specific national or local contexts. Are there sex workers who experience violence and exploitation in the sex trade? Of course. There is research that suggests decriminalising sex work can help reduce exploitation and trafficking by ensuring those in the industry have access to appropriate services and can also help reduce stigma. Critically, many sex workers themselves have provided evidence that makes clear that criminalising those who purchase sex puts all sex workers at greater risk of violence and exploitation.

Sex work is a human rights issue. Supporting sex workers has little to do with “choice feminism” as Bindel suggests, but rather, a recognition that different sex workers are in different places and want, need, and desire different things. It’s far more difficult to say “it’s complicated”, to seek to explore this complexity and attempt to understand different perspectives that do not sit neatly with one’s own subjective ideas about what is right or good. But nuance is the hallmark of good research and it is the only way to come up with real, meaningful solutions for those working in this industry.

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