Carly Bell

June 25 2021

This post is the first in a collaborative series between our Feminist Futures Programme and SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement), which will introduce readers to some of the most pressing issues facing sex workers today. In this piece, Carly Bell introduces different legal responses to sex work across the globe, before outlining what the demand for ‘Full Decriminalisation’ means, and why it’s so important.

You’ve probably heard about sex work, perhaps under the term ‘prostitution’, or even ‘commercial sexual exploitation’, but how much do you actually know about it? Sex work features heavily in moral debates, but very rarely within the context of the wider struggle for workers’ rights. 


There’s a common phrase, ‘sex work is work’, that tries to realign the discussion towards workers’ rights rather than moral objection. ‘Sex work is work’ indicates that regardless of moral status, women working in the industry deserve the ability to work safely without criminalisation and stigma. Equally, ‘sex work is work’ is a handy reminder that we should locate the struggle to improve the lives of sex workers within a wider discussion of class issues and workers’ rights for women, minority groups, and poor people. This simple statement positions our struggle for rights in opposition to ideas that we will improve our lived realities through the very organisations and spaces that seek to eradicate the industry via criminalisation.

A global movement

The sex workers’ rights movement is a global network that campaigns for the removal of laws that criminalise the industry, provides mutual aid, and shares resources to sustain the lives of its workers. The term “Sex Work” originates from the late 1970s, shortly after more than one-hundred sex workers occupied the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon to protest against police harassment. These events symbolised a pivotal moment for sex worker rights activism, and inaugurated a period where the struggle became more organised, and more global. It is from this beginning that the women, men, and non-binary people who currently work for sex workers’ liberation can trace the formation of the structures and organisations that they now work within. 


Within SWARM (Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement) and the wider sex worker rights movement across the globe, a ‘Sex Worker’ is defined as a person who sells their own sexual labour or performance, often for money, resources, housing, or drugs. Sex workers come from all walks of life, but poor women, migrants (both documented and undocumented) as well as trans women, men, and the LGBT community in its entirety are over-represented within the industry due to discrimination and abuse they face in conventional, paid employment. Sex work, then, involves a workforce made up predominantly of minority groups who experience systematic oppression both within and outside ‘conventional’ workplaces. This workforce, however, is blocked from accessing justice due to their criminalisation, and is left to face over-policing and harm inflicted by the state, their clients and their managers.

Differing policy regimes

In different countries, sex work is legislated in different ways, and these legislative models have serious ramifications for what life is like for sex workers. Perhaps most famously, the Netherlands has adopted a legalisation model, where the state offers licences to sex workers, alongside legislation on where and how you are allowed to sell sex. Sweden and Norway created sex-buyer legislation, in which the purchase of sex is criminalised, but (supposedly) the sale of sex is not, with the goal of driving down demand for sex work in the hope that it will eventually no longer exist at all. Within most of the United States sex work is fully criminalised, meaning that all aspects of the job are illegal, and if you are found buying or selling sex under any circumstances you are liable to face arrest. In no uncertain terms, the global picture of legislation around sex work is often confusing, and with each legislative model comes different challenges for sex workers. 


Within the United Kingdom, the situation is arguably even more messy. There are different legislative situations in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland respectively. Within England and Wales, the law dictates that the sale and purchase of sex are legal, when undertaken indoors with the worker working alone. Brothel keeping, kerb crawling, and soliciting in a public place, however, are all criminalised. 


In Scotland the situation is similar, with tighter restrictions in place around solicitation in a public place and kerb crawling, following the introduction of the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007.  In Northern Ireland, the situation is more akin to that of Sweden and Norway, with the purchase of sex criminalised on top of the pre-existing legislation surrounding brothel keeping, solicitation, and kerb crawling. The fact that this criminalisation happens in addition to other existing legislation is important, because – contrary to the claims of those cheerleading the sex buyer law in Northern Ireland – it means that workers have yet to see the removal of legislation criminalising their work. This failure to decriminalise the worker is mirrored in every nation which has adopted the sex buyer law. 


New Zealand, though, has taken a radically different approach to sex work legislation. In 2003, its government took the decision to decriminalise both the sale and purchase of sex. This means that laws used to police sex workers were removed, and new legislation was put in place to encourage a more positive relationship between sex workers and the police. A key aspect to this legislation includes the differentiation between formal brothels, and informal ‘brothels’ whereby workers work together for safety without the presence of a third party. This is laid out by the former requiring a license to operate and strict enforcement of workers’ rights through employment laws, and the latter understood as not requiring a formal licensing process due to the lack of third parties. This is radically different to most other nations, where legislation often exclusively understands a brothel as being two or more sex workers working from the same premise, which it then proceeds to criminalise, preventing sex workers from being able to engage in harm reduction whilst at work. We shouldn’t see the New Zealand model as perfect, however, as it has still created a two-tiered system, in which New Zealand natives work under a decriminalised legislative model, but documented and undocumented migrants work under stricter criminalisation, with sex work for temporary migrants remaining illegal. 

Towards decriminalisation

The legislative system called for by sex workers globally is Full Decriminalisation. Unlike other legislative models, the goal of the system isn’t to eradicate or control ‘the problem of prostitution’, but instead to utilise legislation as a harm-reduction tool. A decriminalised system would aim to increase sex workers’ access to justice, increase trust between sex workers and the state, and improve sex workers’ ability to work together for safety. Whenever the practice of sex work is criminalised, and policed through punitive methods, harm is caused to the industry’s workers. This happens both explicitly through policing, and implicitly through reducing the ability of sex workers to negotiate with clients, which forces them to work away from populated areas, and reduces their ability to access justice. Only Full Decriminalisation gives sex workers the ability to manage their own safety by working together – a practice rendered dangerous through brothel-keeping legislation – and to access routes to justice without fear of facing criminal charges themselves.

Carly Bell is a freelance social media manager and marketing consultant with an extensive history in sex work and a masters degree in Journalism from Edinburgh Napier University. She is based in Edinburgh, and is a board member at Scot-Pep (a Scottish sex worker-led charity), and has a history of work within SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement). Carly also set up a mutually-led and worker-run sex worker drop in, supplying current sex workers with resources, supplies, support, and community.

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