No Bad Women, Only Bad Laws

Maia Miller-Lewis reviews the FemX talk given by The English Collective of Prostitutes earlier this week. 

Have you ever been arrested for loitering on a corner in the vicinity of a group of men? Have you ever had to refuse your other half treating you to dinner in fear they might be prosecuted? Have you ever had all your assets seized for just doing your job or earning money in a time of need? No? Well, lucky us! Because these are just some of the possible ramifications a woman can face if she is caught actively participating in prostitution or other forms of illegal sex work. Is this just? 

According to The English Collective of Prostitutes, it’s not.  A self-help organisation created by and for sex workers, the ECP has worked on both the streets and in premises since 1975, actively campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution and the insurance of sex workers’ rights and safety. As part of the FemX. series, hosted by Bristol FemSoc, on the 16th of April, I had the opportunity to listen to and learn from women involved actively or historically, in the sex industry, on the subject of debates surrounding sex work –  particularly, the criminal status of prostitution.

The event brought together a range of representatives from the sex industry, both domestic and international. Speakers included Liz Hilton, a member of Thailand’s Empower movement, which has been campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution and sex work for the past thirty-three years. What stuck with me most about Hilton was her assessment of our own, British, moral perspective on sex work. Why do we find it offensive to sell sex when we sell food and water? Access to each respectively caters to a fairly basic human desire, so why the taboo?

Arguments against this seemed broadly to stem from the perspective that all sex work is inherently violent and exploitative – as the panel noted, this is a fallacy. Look at the case of New Zealand: since the decriminalisation of prostitution in 2003, there has been no increase in prostitution. In fact, since decriminalisation, 90% of sex workers have reported they had found additional employment and felt they had ensured health, legal and safety rights.

Angelica, a representative of the Bristol Sex Workers Collective, spoke about this on a more personal level. Countering the objectification narrative synonymous with female stripping, she highlighted the common desire for simple, human contact as a reason for seeking out company. In a world controlled by hegemonic, masculine attitudes, which prevent many men from openly acknowledging and discussing their emotional state, attending a strip club can be one of the only ways to seek out someone to speak to, free from judgement.

It was clear throughout the event that the issue primarily occupying the members’ thoughts is the proposed incorporation of the Nordic Model (cheekily termed the ‘no-dick’ model by Hilton) into British law. This criminalises the clients of prostitutes, aiming to decrease prostitution and sex trafficking. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, not. According to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, 2012, there has been no decreases in rape, trafficking or other forms of violence since its enactment in Sweden in 1999. In truth, the law has, in fact, worsened the lives of sex workers, increasing stigma and leaving individuals more vulnerable to oppression. Even more, this policy makes it more dangerous for sex workers, limiting their access to health care, advice and resources, and most importantly,  police protection.

sex work

So, what can we do to help the cause? Firstly – read up! I hold my hands up: before I went to the event, I hardly knew anything about the campaign spearheaded by this marginalised community. I was equally ignorant to the struggle and the strength of the people involved, campaigning at the coal face for their rights, and to be granted the respect they deserve as working women.

As a member of the greater Bristol community, you can also have a direct impact by writing to one of our local MPs, Thangam Debbonaire. As vice-chair of the parliamentary committee on prostitution and sex work, Debbonaire is a vocal opponent of decriminalisation, and, according to the Bristol Collective, has refused to respond to any attempts they have made to make contact or meet with her. But she is also your representative!  You can email Debbonaire, and make it clear that you support decriminalisation: essentially, that you support a woman’s right to safety, respect, and autonomy in the workplace.

There are no bad women: there are just bad laws. I do not want you to blindly support this cause just because you think you should – I am in no way an expert on this matter. But I am a woman, and more than that, a human being. I was simultaneously angered, moved and incentivised to support the cause after meeting and being educated by these women – this is an issue that people so often hold strong views about, without ever having listened to anyone with direct experience. I can think of no way better way of advocating solidarity with the collective that by using the words of Joe, another representative: “Supports us, we’re well worth supporting”. They definitely are!

Illustration by Eve Burke-Edwards.

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