I want to talk about sex for money. I’m not like most of the people you’ll have heard speaking about prostitution before. I’m not a police officer or a social worker. I’m not an academic, a journalist or a politician. I’m not a nun, either. Most of those people would tell you that selling sex is degrading. That no-one would ever choose to do it. That it’s dangerous – women get abused and killed.
In fact, most of those people would say there should be a law against it. And maybe that sounds reasonable to you. It sounded reasonable to me. Until the closing months of 2009 when I was working two dead-end, minimum wage jobs. Every month my wages would just replenish my overdraft. I was exhausted and my life was going nowhere. Like many others before me, I decided sex for money was a better option. And don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have won the lottery instead. But it wasn’t going to happen any time soon, and my rent needed paying.
So I signed up for my first shift in a brothel. In the years that have passed, I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve reconsidered the ideas I once had about prostitution. I’ve given a lot of thought to consent and the nature of work under capitalism. I’ve thought about gender inequality and the sexual and reproductive labor of women. I’ve experienced exploitation and violence at work. I’ve thought about what’s needed to protect other sex workers from these things. Maybe you’ve thought about them, too.
In this talk, I’ll take you through the four main legal approaches applied to sex work throughout the world, and explain why they don’t work; why prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers are vulnerable to. Then I’m going tell you about what we, as sex workers, actually want.
The first approach is full criminalization. Half the world, including Russia, South Africa and most of the US, regulates sex work by criminalizing everyone involved. So that’s seller, buyer and third parties. Lawmakers in these countries apparently hope that the fear of getting arrested will deter people from selling sex. But if you’re forced to choose between obeying the law and feeding yourself or your family, you’re going to do the work anyway, and take the risk. Criminalization is a trap. It’s hard to get a conventional job when you have a criminal record. Potential employers won’t hire you. Assuming you still need money, you’ll stay in the more flexible, informal economy.
The law forces you to keep selling sex, which is the exact opposite of its intended effect. Being criminalized leaves you exposed to mistreatment by the state itself. In many places you may be coerced into paying a bribe or even into having sex with a police officer to avoid arrest. Police and prison guards in Cambodia, for example, have been documented subjecting sex workers to what can only be described as torture: threats at gunpoint, beatings, electric shocks, rape and denial of food.
Another worrying thing: if you’re selling sex in places like Kenya, South Africa or New York, a police officer can arrest you if you’re caught carrying condoms, because condoms can legally be used as evidence that you’re selling sex. Obviously, this increases HIV risk. Imagine knowing if you’re busted carrying condoms, it’ll be used against you. It’s a pretty strong incentive to leave them at home, right? Sex workers working in these places are forced to make a tough choice between risking arrest or having risky sex. What would you choose? Would you pack condoms to go to work?
How about if you’re worried the police officer would rape you when he got you in the van? The second approach to regulating sex work seen in these countries is partial criminalization, where the buying and selling of sex are legal, but surrounding activities, like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street, are banned. Laws like these — we have them in the UK and in France — essentially say to us sex workers, “Hey, we don’t mind you selling sex, just make sure it’s done behind closed doors and all alone.” And brothel-keeping, by the way, is defined as just two or more sex workers working together. Making that illegal means that many of us work alone, which obviously makes us vulnerable to violent offenders. But we’re also vulnerable if we choose to break the law by working together.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was nervous after she was attacked at work, so I said that she could see her clients from my place for a while. During that time, we had another guy turn nasty. I told the guy to leave or I’d call the police. And he looked at the two of us and said, “You girls can’t call the cops. You’re working together, this place is illegal.” He was right. He eventually left without getting physically violent, but the knowledge that we were breaking the law empowered that man to threaten us. He felt confident he’d get away with it. The prohibition of street prostitution also causes more harm than it prevents.
Firstly, to avoid getting arrested, street workers take risks to avoid detection, and that means working alone or in isolated locations like dark forests where they’re vulnerable to attack. If you’re caught selling sex outdoors, you pay a fine. How do you pay that fine without going back to the streets? It was the need for money that saw you in the streets in the first place. And so the fines stack up, and you’re caught in a vicious cycle of selling sex to pay the fines you got for selling sex.