Sex Work: No client criminalisation

Leave a comment

07/03/2016 by socialistfight


Protesters outside Sheila Farmer’s court case, January 2012

By Niki Adams, English Collective of Prostitutes

From Socialist Fight No 19 – February March 2015

For years sex workers, burdened by stigma and discrimination, found it hard to speak and organise in our own name. This has started to change and a recent example shows how effective campaigns spearheaded by sex workers can be.

In November last year, Fiona Mactaggart MP tried to introduce legislation to criminalise men who buy sex. Her amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill to make “procuring sex for payment” illegal initially had cross-party support. Seven days later after a lively and intense campaign which elicited support from a wide range of organisations and individuals, the tide had turned against Mactaggart to such an extent that she was forced to withdraw the amendment.

Hundreds of individuals and organisations responded to a plea from the English Collective of Prostitutes and lobbied MPs to oppose the amendment. Hampshire Women’s Institute, Women Against Rape and the Royal College of Nursing were three notable groups that lent their name to the campaign.

People drew heavily on information provided by the ECP but many added detailed and concrete examples from their own experience. Safety was a primary concern. Sex workers in particular described how criminalising clients would make it more dangerous and stigmatising to work. Some gave examples of how existing kerb-crawling legislation, that criminalises men who solicit for sex on the street, robbed them of the time to check out clients, negotiate what services they would provide, forced them to work in more isolated areas and caused them to work harder and take more risks to make the same money:

“To avoid the police, clients drive by and signal to follow them into a side street. As soon as I get to the car I have to jump in. You get no chance to see who it is that is driving, I can’t really see his face, or check if he is drunk. I have to just hurry up and get in before the police come.”

Various studies, including 2014 research in Canada, found that criminalizing clients meant:

“Sex workers had to rush screening clients and were displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex.”



Protest against the closure of flats in Soho where sex workers work in relative safety

When clients on the street in Scotland were criminalised in October 2007, the number of assaults on sex workers soared. [1] Some women describe being cornered and threatened with arrest by police unless they “go get us a client”. Marianna Popa was murdered in Ilford on 28 October 2013[2] in the wake of a police crackdown which resulted in over 200 “prostitute cautions” being issued to women in the area over the last year, and many arrests for loitering and soliciting. Afterwards, senior police officers voiced concerns that “operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk. [3]

There is no disagreement that sex workers suffer high levels of rape and other violence. Sheila Farmer, who bravely went public to campaign described her experience:

“I worked alone. Within months, I was attacked, raped repeatedly, tied up, held hostage, and nearly strangled. I gave evidence against my attacker but he got off. I suffered years of nightmares and panic attacks.”

But what caused outrage among sex workers in particular was the claim by those promoting a “sex purchase law” that prostitution is violence. Conflating the two implies that sex workers don’t know the difference between consenting sex and rape. Women Against Rape objected that criminalizing clients would “divert police time and resources away from reported rapes and sexual assaults.”[4] Considering that two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner; the question was asked whether marriage be banned?

Some sex workers described graphically how the existing laws undermine safety by forcing them to work in isolation and made it harder for women to report rape and other violence. [5] After she was attacked Ms Farmer vowed never to work alone but consequently she fell foul of the brothel-keeping law. She was charged with brothel-keeping. With the ECP she successfully campaigned to stop the prosecution. The ECP has also fought a number of cases [6] where women reported serious attacks to the police and were themselves prosecuted or threatened with prosecution while their attackers went free. District judge Nigel Richardson, who in his capacity as a solicitor defended Ms Farmer and many other sex workers, based his objections to a sex purchase law on his knowledge of the enormous lengths that sex workers go to to keep themselves safe. He also helpfully listed the existing laws that can be used against exploitation and violence. [7]


Briefing for MPs against a proposed law to criminalise sex workers’ clients, December 2014

The amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill claimed to be modelled on a law introduced in 1999 in Sweden which alongside criminalizing clients, decriminalized sex workers on the street. Inevitably then, the success or failure of the Swedish legislation was a central question. Mactaggart claimed that the Swedish law “has been shown to reduce sex trafficking” yet produced no evidence to support this. In contrast, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women’s 2011 research that found “criminalising sex workers’ clients does not reduce sex work or trafficking. Instead, it infringes on sex workers’ rights and obstructs anti-trafficking efforts.”[8]

False claims about trafficking have been used before to justify a crackdown on prostitution including by Mactaggart, who for years pedalled the now discredited figure that “80% of women in prostitution are controlled by traffickers”. [9]

In reality anti-trafficking legislation is primarily being used to target immigrant sex workers for raids and deportations. During well publicised raids on Soho flats last year, done in the name of freeing victims of trafficking, 250 police broke down doors and dragged handcuffed immigrant women in their underwear onto the streets.

Considering that “internationally only 22% of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation”, [10] creating fair working conditions and ending abuses in low-wage labour industries will ultimately do far more to end trafficking in persons and protect the human rights of workers in vulnerable situations.

Evidence that the Swedish law has increased stigma and discrimination came firstly from sex workers in Sweden who were never consulted when the law was introduced:

“We are still criminalised if we work together in premises, we risk eviction by landlords, condemnation by social workers and even losing custody of our kids because we are seen as ‘bad girls’ unwilling to change. This law should be abolished not exported to other countries.”[11]

Thirty academics wrote to MPs listing research which documented the detrimental impact of the law. [12]

Health professionals, many of whom do outreach work with sex workers on the street and in premises, objected to the amendment based on their concrete experience of seeing how criminalisation blocks access to health services. This was confirmed by the Lancet which recently came out for the decriminalisation of sex work saying: “. . . sex workers face substantial barriers in accessing prevention, treatment, and care services, largely because of stigma, discrimination, and criminalisation.”[13]

LGBT groups objected on the grounds that consenting sex should not be a crime. [14] They pointed to the decriminalisation of gay sex in England in the 1960s and asked why consenting sex where money is exchanged should continue to be criminalised.

Many objected to a “sex purchase” law being presented as a “gender equality” measure when feminist politicians have allied themselves with homophobic fundamentalist Christians, who have spearheaded attacks on gay rights and oppose gay marriage, sex outside marriage and abortion. To its shame, an All-Party Parliamentary Group founded by Mactaggart chose as its secretariat the homophobic charity CARE. [15] Lord Morrow who introduced legislation in Northern Ireland to criminalise clients has a long history of opposing LGBT rights. [16]

Some also pointed to the discriminatory way that laws criminalising clients have been implemented in other countries for example, the US where Hispanic men and those living in low-income neighbourhoods are disproportionately targeted.

Some asked why when unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, lowering wages, increased homelessness, and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution, the best that feminist MPs can come up with is to increase criminalisation. Are women less degraded when we have to skip meals, beg or stay with a violent partner to keep a roof over our heads?


Candlelit march protesting violence and police raids against sex workers, December 2014

Some mothers demanded support for their caring work to enable them to “exit” prostitution:

“I am the mother of a child with learning difficulties. To pay for the basics that most people take for granted, keeping warm, having decent food, replacing essential furniture, I have worked on street corners as a prostitute. Most of the other girls that I meet on the street are there to keep their families together; their children out of care. What I want is a little recognition. I’m not asking for the £1000 they would pay a stranger to do my job as a mother. Just a little of that money would have made my life and my daughter’s life much easier and I could have got off that street corner.”

Mactaggart also claimed that “prostitution is an extreme form of exploitation.” Sex workers countered this with their experience of other jobs, many of which were also exploitative and even dangerous.

“I was fed up of being a cleaner, bar maid and shop assistant, often all on the same day. Prostitution is certainly not the worst job I have ever had. I have worked on the fish market and as a cleaner where I was working for people who didn’t care if we were cold or tired or how we were spoken to.”

No-one would sensibly suggest that working in a fish market be banned. Campaigns by trade unions to address exploitation in other jobs have focussed on empowering workers to insist on their rights. Some trade unionists support the right of sex workers to join a trade union, “to fight for pay terms and conditions like every other worker and even to lodge grievances at tribunals, if they have been badly treated by their employers.” Yet many trade unions, with the notable exception of the GMB and CWU, have remained silent or have supported increased criminalization.

John McDonnell MP, our staunch supporter, co-ordinated opposition to Mactaggart’s amendment within parliament. His masterful speech during the debate referenced the contribution of campaigners and he concluded:

“I am fundamentally opposed to [the] new clause, because it is worrying, counter-productive and dangerous… the answer is not to criminalise any of their activities, but to tackle the underlying cause by not cutting welfare benefits and ensuring people have an affordable roof over their heads and giving them access to decent, paid employment…We must listen to sex workers.”

The Labour front bench did not back Mactaggart’s amendment – one sure sign of the success of our lobbying.

New Zealand’s successful decriminalization is increasingly being seen as a model for the UK. The 2003 Prostitution Reform Act removed prostitution from the criminal law, allowed people to work together collectively, and distinguished between violence and consenting sex. It reinforced offences against compelling anyone into prostitution, stating a specific right for sex workers to refuse any client. A comprehensive five year review found: no increase in prostitution, and that sex workers were more able to report violence and leave prostitution if they choose. [17]

The English Collective of Prostitutes is following up on the success of this campaign by issuing a pledge for decriminalization for organizations and prominent individuals to sign. As the election approaches, we want decriminalisation on the agenda of every political party. We need your support for this as well as for our fight for occupational health and safety and against the cuts which impoverish us and propel us into prostitution.

Sign the Pledge

The English Collective of Prostitutes is an organisation of sex workers and former sex workers working in all areas of the sex industry – on the street and indoors. We campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution so that we can work together for safety. We also campaign against poverty and for financial alternatives to prostitution. The ECP is often referred to as the ‘Girls Union’ and we do similar work trade unionists do – fighting cases with people against police harassment, arrests and raids.



[1] The Scotsman, 18 April, 2008




[5] Silence on Violence, Andrew Boff, March 2012




[9] For example, for Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP, Women’s Hour, 15 January 2008. The figure derives from a report (Sex in the City, 2004) by the Poppy Project which found that 80% of women working in “brothels, saunas and massage parlours” in London were “non British nationals” and concluded (without evidence) that “a large proportion of them are likely to have been trafficked into the country”. This research was condemned as having “serious methodological limitations by Prof. Julia O’Connell Davidson (A Question of Consent? Sexual Slavery and Sex Work in the UK, 2009).

[10] ILO, 2012

[11] Carina Edlund, Rose Alliance, Sweden 2014.





[16] He is one of three Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Lords. The DUP In 1977, Ian Paisley, Lord Morrow’s close friend, launched the “Save Ulster From Sodomy” campaign to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In 2007, Lord Morrow tabled an amendment to scrap laws banning businesses from discriminating against gay people


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

%d bloggers like this: