Will sex work ever be fully legal?

The world’s oldest profession has always lived in limbo.

Sex work has been around for as long as humans have but for nearly 1,000 years, there has been a combination of condoning and condemnation of people making a living from one of our most primal needs.

Why are we still so bashful about it and, in some cases, adamant that it should be stopped? And what does the future hold for sex work in the digital age?

In the UK, the odd limbo of sex work has existed since 1161, when Henry II introduced legislation giving royal recognition for the Bishop Of Winchester to licence brothels and prostitutes in Southwark on the banks of the Thames in London.

This combination of taboo and begrudging acceptance while turning a blind eye has existed ever since.

Opponents of sex work say it’s exploitative of people of all genders and sexualities alongside politicians trying to collate it with people trafficking.

A vast majority of those involved in sex work are there consensually and, though a serious issue, sex trafficking and sex work are two different things and, according to charity Stop The Traffik, often wrongly confused.

In 2019, more people than ever are making money from sex work.

Over 10% of men in Britain have paid for sex and nearly 73,000 people work as sex workers in the UK.

Like any other profession, sex work has remote workers. These are people who offer subscriptions to sexual Snapchat accounts, OnlyFans websites or webcam streams of them performing sex acts.

Three of the biggest 11 websites in the world are dedicated to pornography and adult entertainment.

As a guide, Amazon is 14th on the list, Netflix is 20th.

Yet as a society, we turn our face away from the realities of sex work, which advocates say puts those involved in the industry at risk.

What’s going on?

Millions worldwide pay for sex every day, either online or in real-life and our advertising and television are full of sexualised images, yet we’re loath to validate sex workers’ existence by legitimising their profession.

We’re squeamish about sex and the laws reflect that:

‘We’ve got lots of laws that criminalise things on the street,’ says Teela Sanders, a researcher at the University of Leicester’s criminology department.

‘This is both from the seller and the purchaser’s side, brothel-keeping being the main obstructive law,’

It’s an uneasy solution dating back to the 1957 Wolfenden report, which was concerned about the impact of prostitution as a public nuisance.

Sir John Wolfenden, the author of the report, set the tone for politicians’ approach to sex work for the next six decades: as long as it was out of sight, it was out of mind.

It was deemed that it was ‘not the law’s business’ whether somebody wanted to pay for sex, also recommending that homosexual acts between two consenting adults should by be decriminalised.

One recommendation has moved a lot further than the other.

‘Ultimately the paying and the selling and buying between consenting adults is still perfectly legal,’ says Sanders.

But police forces differ vastly in their approach to sex work depending on the whims of frontline officers and their commanders.

Leeds has a sex workers’ zone where street work is allowed while in London, six massage parlours were raided by police with accusations of brothel-keeping.

A BBC Three documentary about Leeds was highly critical of the scheme, focusing on drug use, but was condemned by sex workers.

‘It’s a complete mish-mash and mismatch between the reality of what’s going on and the organisation of sex work with these 1950s laws,’ Sanders says.

Britain is far from the only society to have this odd approach to sex work.

‘You see that all around the world,’ Kate Lister, a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University and the author of A Curious History of Sex, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘There is no law that’s consistent. There are always loopholes people get around – this bit is criminalised, that bit isn’t.

‘I think it’s probably to do with the subject of sex, and that’s not something we’re very comfortable with, and it’s difficult to figure out how you legislate it.’

That’s seen on the frontline of sex work.

Nici Evans works with the NHS, local government and police in South Wales, which has its own local quirks but it reflects the national issue around sex work.

‘It’s not been recognised politically, there is no policy from the Welsh government, therefore there’s no political steer or direction,’ she says.

That is because, she says, it sits between violence against women, community safety, public health, substance misuse, in housing and homelessness so no one department takes responsibility.

Evans sees different approaches as she drives along the M4, which stretches across South Wales.

In Cardiff, a progressive chief superintendent is focused on the safety of sex workers, pushing the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ notion to its limits.

Just down the road in Swansea, there’s a much more aggressive approach to sex workers, hitting them with criminal justice notices. In Gwent, south east Wales, the police are focused on harm reduction.

In the absence of clear guidance, it’s left to individuals in power to decide on an approach to sex workers.

‘It starts from a place of moral judgment on individuals,’ says Evans.

‘Whoever you speak to about prostitution and sex work will have an opinion about it, either that it’s right or wrong.

‘Fundamentally, all discrimination will come from an individual bias, and we see that day in, day out with the health service in terms of discrimination showed by doctors and nurses to sex workers.’

Criminalising sex work is troublesome, says Angelika Strohmayer of Northumbria University, who has conducted research with sex workers in the UK and Canada.

‘It means they can’t come forward if someone commits violence against them,’ she says.

‘In a decriminalised system, where stigma is reduced and people can go to the police or other service providers without the fear of being criminalised themselves, it encourages the people who listen to believe victims and act on it.’

Laws around brothel keeping (which means anyone working with a colleague is breaking the law) are seen to make problems worse.

‘It means they have to make the decision between working legally – by themselves – or working safely, with others, illegally,’ says Strohmayer.

In London, the brothel raids mentioned above were encouraged by local councillors keen to take a hardline approach to sex work.

There has been plenty of tinkering around the edges of sex work, but there’s a stasis in actual action.

The webcamming sex work revolution is a great example of this – there are nearly no laws for the live broadcast of sex acts despite clients paying for them, even if it is remotely.

With some cam sites believed to be worth nearly $1bn (£820m), it has become big business and a way for many sex workers to make a stable income.

The web allows those offering services to be more empowered, with better vetting and information sharing about their clients, but it is a double-edged sword:

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Digital footsteps leave traces of real-life identities in ways that real-life encounters don’t.

With booking sex work still seen as shameful by society, the risk of being ‘exposed’ as someone who pays for sex could still have repercussions on their family life or job.

The rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has been seen as a technological way to ensure privacy and allow more freedom for webcam performers and clients.

And with sex work moving ever closer to augmented and virtual reality, with robots predicted to be a part of our sexual lives by the middle of the 21st century, antiquated laws are likely to be even further out of touch with reality.

But even in the present day, the law is still struggling to keep up.

‘It’s not dealing with the reality of sex work,’ says Sanders.

‘People are having to work under awful working conditions, no control over their work, working together – which is against the law – and these fundamentals are just not being addressed.

‘Because politicians just can’t seem to be grappling with the realities that we have a sex industry that’s not going away.’

And when politicians are minded to act, they’re doing so in ways those who liaise with sex workers say is wrong.

The ‘Nordic model’ of legislation says that paying for sex services – rather than the selling of them – is illegal.

It’s adapted from the law in Sweden, and has highly vocal lobby groups supporting it – who have tried to sway politicians to support its introduction in the UK.

It would criminalise those paying for sex and make the client the criminal rather than the sex worker.

But the hard-line it takes is far from the reality of many people.

‘I just think politicians can’t deal with the complexities,’ says Sanders.

‘Someone may not like to be escorting, but equally, they don’t want to be working in Tesco or in a factory or other parts of the gig economy.’

Instead, those who work day in, day out with sex workers suggest a better alternative: decriminalisation, which is the approach taken in New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia.

Such a move would remove all specific laws that criminalise sex work.

Opponents fear that would result in a free-for-all and the exploitation of people engaged in sex work but that’s not true, says Lister.

‘Sexual abuse and sexual assault are already illegal and would remain illegal,’ she says.

‘But what it would do is reduce the social stigma that exists around selling sex that is so damaging and so hurtful, because it forces it underground.

‘It makes people cast moral assumptions on those people who sell sex.’

A letter, written earlier this year by the Sex Work Research Hub, a collection of researchers, academics, sex workers and policymakers who work with and in the sex industry, advocated decriminalisation and lambasted the Nordic model.

‘People who are well-informed, who know sex workers who worked in the industry, would say the decriminalisation of sex work has got to be the starting point,’ says Evans.

‘With that, we would then be able to do far more effective outreach work,’ she says.

‘People would be far less hesitant to contact support services if they felt they weren’t going to be in trouble. It would have a major impact on developing co-operatives of sex workers, being able to feel safe to work together.’

Decriminalisation is preferred to regulation because people still have negative views of those engaged in sex work.

‘Regulation does little to reduce the stigma,’ says Strohmayer.

But Lister isn’t hopeful that those in power will listen.

‘It’ll be a brave politician that can say decriminalisation is the way forward,’ she says.

‘So many of the narratives and the propaganda around it are so caught up with the idea that if you don’t think sex work should be abolished and heavily criminalised, you’re somehow supporting rape, exploitation and pimping.

‘That’s very untrue and very unfair.’

The web and social media revolution, along with the different types of sex work it has created, has also removed some of the stigma and danger around it.

Technology and apps have allowed sex workers to more easily share advice and warnings around good and bad punters, while the anonymity of social media has allowed sex workers to speak out about the realities of their lives.

‘What it’s done is cut the need for third parties like pimps and madams,’ says Lister.

‘People can manage themselves using apps. It’s allowed screening to take place so that increases safety levels.’

And it’s had another effect, destigmatising the idea that sex workers are somehow subhuman.

‘We’re starting to realise as well that sex work is a really broad experience, from people who sell their underwear online or talk dirty on the phone to full-service providers,’ says Lister.

Sex work involves mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters; students and shop workers; homeless and homeowners. It’s been going on for centuries and will continue to go on.

‘People get exploited in the fishing industry and factory industry,’ says Lister.

‘It’s long past time to have a grown-up conversation about sex work, and to treat it as a job like any other.’

The difficulty here, again, is the grey area of the law.

Google has blocked certain functions of an app launched to help screen potentially dangerous clients. Other apps aimed at providing check-ins for sex workers after appointments have been curtailed.

The goal of those campaigning for recognition and respect for sex workers is that the government will start by decriminialising the world’s oldest profession as a starting point to enabling better advocacy for those involved.

Those trying to ban it outright want to shut it away and run it out of business.

One thing is for certain: whichever path we take, the world’s oldest profession will continue unabated.

The key question is how long we’re going to continue the world’s longest conversation about what to do next.

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