Decriminalise sex work

How should the left relate to sex workers? Following the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich, Peter Manson spoke to Ana Lopes of the International Union of Sex Workers (www.iusw.org)

The IUSW campaigns for the decriminalisation of all sex work. Can you explain what this would mean?

By decriminalisation we mean removing the laws surrounding sex work. At the moment prostitution itself is not illegal - you do have the right to sell sexual services - but virtually all activities relating to it, including soliciting for clients in a public space or advertising those services, are illegal. So in reality it is almost impossible to practise this without breaking the law in one way or another.

If sex work was treated like any other industry, all those laws would be removed and the problems associated with sex work - violence, trafficking, exploitation and all the rest of it - would be covered by general legislation. In that sense there is nothing unique about the sex industry: such problems also arise in other areas. For example, if you have sex with a minor, regardless whether they are a sex worker or not, you are breaking an existing law. Similarly, if you force someone to do something they don't want to do, and so on. That is what we mean by decriminalisation, as opposed to legalisation.

Where prostitution has been legalised, the laws prohibiting it have been removed, but they have been replaced by specific restrictive legislation for the sex industry. So, for instance, it may be necessary to get a licence from the police to be considered a legal sex worker. In other places mandatory health checks are required every two weeks or every month. These measures are discriminatory.

Take health checks. Many people think that public health is jeopardised by sex work and therefore sex workers should be forced to undergo regular tests. But the problem is, that sends the wrong message, while at the same time failing to protect anyone. It sends the wrong message in the sense that only the sex worker is seen as responsible for spreading infection or disease, whereas both the sex worker and the client ought to take responsibility for preventing it. Going by that logic, everybody ought to undergo checks every month or whatever.

On the other hand, such measures don't really protect anyone, because you can be tested today but tomorrow you can be infected. They give people a false sense of security. What is needed is the use of safe sex techniques - condoms and so on - and the ability to learn and be educated in such matters can be achieved in a society where sex work is not seen as a taboo and can be openly discussed just like any other line of work.

It is true that some of our allies use the term 'legalisation', but in our literature you will always see 'decriminalisation'. Many of those who use 'legalisation' really mean 'decriminalisation'. They don't mean a regulatory regime, under which sex workers are exploited not by the client or a third party, but by the state. But we know that people who call for legalisation are on our side, supporting our demands. What is necessary is the removal of all discriminatory laws and the treating of sex workers like any other workers.

In what way would decriminalisation have helped stop the Ipswich murders?

Decriminalisation would make it much easier for sex workers to organise and protect themselves. They would not feel the need to operate clandestinely and hide away in isolated areas. Whenever they were worried about someone acting strangely or if they had any kind of information about someone who had been violent in the past, they would be able to discuss it with the police. With the current semi-legality sex workers are treated, and sometimes see themselves, as criminals. The last thing they want is to go to the police to discuss their problems. If all this changed, situations like the one in Ipswich could be prevented.

People who oppose the decriminalisation of sex work and our fight for rights - some feminists and leftists, for example - share some responsibility for these murders.

But isn't it in the nature of the work that the prostitute and will usually be alone with the client?

Yes, but that also happens in many other areas of the sex industry, where you don't have such high levels of violence. For example, where I'm based nowadays, in Portugal, levels of violence are much lower than in Britain. That's because the police are not seen as a threat. On the contrary, they are viewed as being there to protect sex workers. In Britain the soliciting of clients on the street is illegal, so when sex workers see the police they feel they have to run away.

Many people work in isolation because of the criminality attached to the activity. If the social environment was different, people would tend to band together. Of course, you can see this to a certain extent already - in certain places there is a community of sex workers. They know each other and if one of them doesn't show up they will notice and look out for her. There are organised arrangements such as the 'Ugly Mug' scheme, where incidents of violence are recorded and the information is shared with others in the same community.

That is why we need a union to organise these things. And we need support, from the government, the police and the local authorities, in order to make the most out of these measures. But for that we need a different legal framework.

The IUSW has called for an amnesty for sex workers. What does this mean?

Originally it was the English Collective of Prostitutes that called for an amnesty to allow sex workers to come forward with information about the murders without risk of feeling harassed. We very much support this and think it would provide the opportunity to extend it, so it becomes the rule, not the exception. It is necessary in this case, but it's also necessary for the rest of the time. A lot of the violence can be prevented if sex workers know they will not be arrested or suffer as a result of providing the police with information.

When I worked in a drop-in centre in north London, there was a case of a sex worker who had been raped. She came to the drop-in about half an hour afterwards in a bad state. I tried to give her moral support and along with my colleagues persuaded her she should report the incident to the police - the man would rape again if she didn't. It was very difficult to convince her, because she didn't want to have anything to do with the police.

They came to the centre, but the way they treated her was absolutely appalling. We made a lot of effort to get a female officer, who we hoped would make her feel more comfortable. But basically the policewoman's attitude was: 'You're a prostitute. What do you expect?' She lost any trust she might have had in them. The feeling is that the police, far from being there to help, are one of the biggest problems that sex workers face.

What about the general attitude that prostitution is a problem in itself?

There is a vicious circle. Current legislation sends out the message that prostitution is a problem and this is reflected in people's attitude who therefore don't feel the law should be changed. But if we managed to change the law, then that message - that prostitution is wrong or criminal - would no longer be carried and social attitudes would slowly change.

I always draw a parallel with anti-gay laws. Since they were removed social attitudes to homosexual relationships have been transformed beyond recognition. We know that changing the law doesn't change attitudes overnight, but it helps.

What do you think of the position of the Scottish Socialist Party, which regards sex workers as victims who need rescuing and say that men who use their services should be prosecuted?

I cannot agree with that. I don't regard sex workers as victims. I regard them as workers. If you criminalise their clients, you are denying them work and they are obviously not going to be happy with that. That framework of prosecuting the client is what we call the Swedish model. In Sweden being a sex worker is not against the law, but buying sexual services is. And the reports we have are not positive at all - sex workers have been fighting to repeal this legislation. Because their market is disrupted, sex workers are left weaker. Fewer clients mean less bargaining power. Now sex workers are pressed to do things they wouldn't have done previously because they don't know when their next client is going to show up and they feel they have to accept whatever work is going.

Also the clients themselves tend to be more nervous, knowing that their actions are illegal. They want to do the business as quickly as possible and there is less time to negotiate. This negotiation time is crucial for sex workers, because that is when things like condom use and safe sex practice are discussed. It also allows the worker to assess whether she is dealing with what you could call a 'normal' client or someone who might attack or steal from her. The ability to assess clients is a skill sex workers develop, but it requires time.

In Sweden sex work has been pushed into dark, isolated areas. True, the sex worker no longer fears arrest, but the other party does and wants the transaction to take place hidden away, with the least possibility of being uncovered. On top of that, yes, the number of street sex workers has gone down, but it has risen in neighbouring countries. Criminalising the client doesn't get rid of the 'problem' - it just moves it from one place to another.

That is what repressive legislation tends to do. In Britain, when anti-social behaviour orders started being issued against sex workers in a certain district, it had the same effect. Local authorities try to get rid of sex work from their own area, but they don't care what happens in someone else's back yard.

What is your view of asbos as such? They tend to be directed against mainly young people in a totally negative way, not just sex workers.

Yes, I am also against asbos in general. But in the case of sex workers, they've allowed the police to act against them in a sly way. For instance, soliciting for clients in the street is illegal, but since the early 80s is not an imprisonable offence. Paying the occasional fine is one of the costs of the job. But if a specific sex worker breaches an asbo issued against her, she can be sent to prison for up to five years. In this way an offence that is not imprisonable becomes imprisonable.

What is your view on special areas where sex work is permitted?

It could be a good measure, especially at this time, when sex work is not totally decriminalised. Ideally there would be no need for specific areas - red light districts arise naturally. That is the nature of the work - you band together with people in the same line and a certain district becomes known for the type of business that goes on there. When that happens naturally it can come about in a healthy way and other businesses spring up as well - sex workers and clients are going to want to go to restaurants, buy flowers and so on.

When it happens artificially, sometimes it works very well - it provides a means where sex workers, residents and local authorities can manage an area and reach an agreement as to how things are going to be run. The only danger is that red light districts created in this way can become a kind of ghetto - in Holland, that has happened in some places. There is no one form that will work everywhere - each city is different, and it all has to be negotiated in each place. If sex work was not seen as somehow different from every other business, then you could just let things run.

Are there real problems for residents as a result of prostitution, do you think, or is it all just false morality?

I think part of it is false morality, but another part is real. As things stand, with sex work being semi-legal, it attracts other illegal activities - sex work is often connected to drug dealing and so on. But that is not inherent in sex work: it only happens because society pushes the industry underground, into clandestine activity. There is no intrinsic link between drug-dealing and the sex industry.

All five of the murdered sex workers were heroin users. How typical is that of prostitutes?

It's more common among street-based sex workers. Because the visible side of the sex industry - one tiny part of it - is the street scene, many people think all sex workers are drug users and addicts, but that's false. It's true that a large proportion of street sex workers have a drug habit, but we should not generalise that to the whole industry.

Such people are very vulnerable not because they are sex workers, but because they have a drug habit. Drug users are often easier targets - they are less likely to be part of a strong network, for example.

Much of the press coverage of the murders has taken it for granted that these women were driven into sex work because they had no other way of funding their drug habit, and without drugs there would be less prostitution. Do you think that is accurate?

Well, that says something about the way sex workers are stereotyped. In my years and years in the British sex industry, I met all kinds of sex workers - middle class, educated and so on - in all the different sectors. Most of us are no more victims than any other worker.

On the question of drugs, we say that their very illegality is a cause of crime. What is your view on this?

It is the same argument with sex work. Just as it is the illegality of it that makes it dangerous, so it is the illegality of drugs that makes them such a social problem. I am on public record as also advocating the decriminalisation of drugs.

Do you detect a change in the attitude of the press to sex workers? At the time of the Yorkshire Ripper it was very much: 'They were prostitutes so they had it coming'; whereas the coverage of the Ipswich murders seems to have been more sympathetic.

I wasn't in England at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, so I can't compare the two. But I was surprised by the debate that the Ipswich killings triggered, over the terms that ought to be used, etc. Some of the relatives said they didn't like 'prostitute' and in some articles 'sex worker' was used instead. That is certainly positive.

Perhaps it says something about the way things will change - that is why I am still an activist. The whole subject is becoming less and less taboo and more and more people can see our point of view. It's going to take a long time, but that's social progress.