What I said at the Liberal Democrat Conference, Pt. 1: On Sex Work

I had two opportunities to speak at the Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference; the first was moving the policy motion Towards Safer Sex Work on Saturday evening. I had never moved a policy before, so it was radically different to in Spring when I made a supporting speech to a third-party policy motion. Although I was given seven minutes, I was called for time after four, hopefully by error of the chair of the debate, leading me to cut out some of the speech.

We also had to see off an attempt to wreck the motion from Oxford East, which would’ve deleted all lines regarding the Nordic model and weaken the policy regarding bodily autonomy. Thankfully, in the attempt, we succeeded, incredibly annoying arch-transphobe Julie Bindel in the process.

Due to devolutionary aspects, the policy only applies to England and Wales, although several Scottish speakers spoke in favour of it, including a hilarious rant by Kirkcaldy-based Callum Leslie, which makes me rather happy that the Scottish mood is the same and I expect that the Scottish party will pass its own policy at their own Conference in Dunfermline next month.

The text of the full speech is below the cut:

Good afternoon, Conference.

In late July, a week after this motion was submitted, the Lancet published a special edition on HIV which argued that we could eradicate HIV/AIDS within twenty years, but one of the most important steps towards realising that would be the decriminalisation of sex work. That story was picked up across the board, including by the former Health Secretary Norman Fowler — the architect of the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign — who expressed dismay that no party would want to touch it with an election around a corner.

You might think he’s right, of course. One can imagine the innuendo-laden headlines that would appear if Labour proposed this policy. But as Liberals, of course, we must not shy away from making decisions just because it would make us unpopular in the Westminster bubble or on Fleet Street.

This motion gets to the heart of the issue: we need to make sex work safe. For too long our political class has been sitting in its bubble, talking about how the sex work is an evil of the human race, a key driver of the oppression of women. Criminalisation, we are told, is the only way we can protect women from unscrupulous pimps and rapists.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I wonder if these people have ever even spoken to a sex worker. If they had, they would have learnt so much about how they keep themselves safe, their clients safe, and ultimately our communities safe. The image of sex workers as being seventeen-year-old women in miniskirts who can barely speak English has to stop. They’re as varied as any cross-section of society. They’re mothers and daughters. Students and workers. Rich and poor. And they’re all human.

We need to exit the the safety of the bubble and listen to these people. And furthermore, let them speak. When I speak to my friends who are in the industry, there are several constants in what I hear. For one, they don’t fear their clients are going to assault them; they’re scared of the police. And it’s not hard to see why: The police will raid your homes and force you into the winter cold in your underwear if they think you’re a sex worker, in the full view of the press; they’ll arrest you if you’re dressed a certain way and have condoms in your purse; some of the worst will coerce workers into sexual favours to look the other way.

Another constant is that sex workers enter the industry to ensure some sort of financial stability. We’re often told how exploitative sex work is, but those same people will gladly walk into the voting lobbies to force you to work for £1.50/hr if you can’t find paid work. In a political environment of outright hostility to people who claim benefits, where one step wrong can lose you the money you need to live for weeks on end, it’s not unimaginable why people would enter sex work.

There’s nothing feminist or compassionate about forcing people onto the streets and taking away a safety net they’ve sown themselves because the current one is becoming too threadbare to support them. There’s nothing righteous about “rescuing” sex workers to a life struggling to make ends meet. The primary element of coercion when it comes to sex work isn’t sexual, it’s economic. If you wanted to reduce the amount of women coerced into sex work, you rebuild that safety net.

Our neighbours across the North Sea have been examining the possibility of criminalising the purchaser. We’re told this strikes a balance between the “need” to criminalise sex work and the need to protect women. Except it doesn’t. People who assault sex workers — physically or sexually — do it because they think they can get away with it. Crime statistics have shown that violence against women in Sweden has taken other forms. Women are forced off of lit streets and into dark alleys. They’re even more scared of the police; it’s hard enough to get rape fully investigated without working in a quasi-legal industry. The “Nordic” model, as it’s called, does not protect women. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of the British Medical Journal from June. In the words of one sex worker in Vancouver: “harassing the clients is exactly the same as harassing the women”.

We make sex workers safe by making sex work safe. We make sex work safe by making sex safe. We must include proper SRE in our schools. We must teach young adults the meaning and the absolute importance of consent. We must make it easier to access sexual health services. We must defend the inviolable autonomy of every person’s body. We must pour all of our efforts into tackling sexual assault, domestic abuse, and violence against women. If we do that, the battle’s half-over.

But to win the battle, we must decriminalise sex work. New Zealand recognised that ten years ago, when they did exactly that. Now, sex workers have safe and legal places to conduct their business. They can join unions and bring complaints to tribunals. They can more easily screen their clients to reduce the risk of sexual health problems and violence. They can even feel confident to report abusers to the police.

The difference with the Nordic model can’t be any more stark. And that’s why the BMJ, the Lancet, Amnesty UK, and even the World Health Organisation have all come out in favour of decriminalisation, and against the Nordic model. We should follow their lead. We should oppose the Nordic model as flawed and dangerous.

The hallmark of a good society is one that protects its most disprivileged citizens. We need to remove the stigma of sex work. We need to promote gender equality and better sexual ethics. In the twenty years that have passed since the original Policy Paper, things have only got worse for sex workers. This motion attempts to reverse the current of stigma, so I implore you as both a liberal and a feminist to vote for it, unamended and in whole.

Thank you.

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