Why Liberal Democrats must oppose any criminalisation of sex workers

This post was originally published on Lib Dem Voice.

On Tuesday, Parliament will debate the Report Stage of the Modern Slavery Bill, and in particular, an amendments that would criminalise the purchase of sex in England and Wales, similar to the one that was passed in Northern Ireland just a couple of weeks ago. It’s important that, as Liberal Democrats, we oppose those amendments.

When Belinda Brooks-Gordon and I, with the help of too many sex workers to list, put forward a policy motion towards safer sex work at Conference in Glasgow, we did so out of concern that at any moment, that a sex buyer law – also known as the Nordic Model – would be proposed at any time. While supporting a wholesale review of our sex work policy to ensure it is effective for the twenty-first century, we had to ensure that, out of urgency, we explicitly opposed this sort of law. This sort of law is incredibly dangerous, not just for sex workers but for society at large.

Opponents of sex work, as it was mentioned at Conference, are very clever. After the debate, I was helping the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats stand and we realised that one of the amendments was a stealth attempt to support the criminalisation of pornography. It would also go against the major aim of the motion: to ensure that sex workers can work safely. To that aim, opponents of sex work have also tabled an amendment to repeal laws relating to solicitation to claim they’re decriminalising women – regardless of the other amendments, we must still support that one.

This isn’t to say that we support the exploitation or trafficking of women; far from it. But just focusing on sex work is missing the forest for the trees. As liberals, our aim is to fight the causes of exploitation, so that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. To focus on criminalising sex work–whether openly or by stealth–is to force sex workers into poverty, and to ignore the domestic exploitation of many others. That’s why our policy not only supports decriminalising sex workers, we also support stronger protections and safer worker conditions for them.

On Tuesday, we’re going to hear representations that the Nordic model is going to protect women, whereas that could be further from the truth. Many people will point to an translation of a Swedish government report into their fifteen-year-old law. But that report doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; an anti-trafficking researcher showed that despite being pressured to reach a favourable conclusion to the law, the report couldn’t even say if the law reduced sex work, let alone violence against women.

When researchers actually speak to sex workers, a grim picture is created. A BMJ study of street sex workers in Vancouver found that criminalising the client doesn’t protect sex workers at all. They’re still harassed and criminalised by the police. They’re forced to make snap decisions, unable to properly vet their clients, which makes them cut corners on safer sexual practices and put them at risk of violent attacks. It doesn’t deter clients at all. As one of those sex workers said, “Harassing the clients is exactly the same as harassing the women.”

We are going to face pressure from all sorts of partisans to support this law: from religious orders who the Irish government are chasing up to compensate Magdalene laundry survivors, to women’s caucuses of major trade unions. This sort of alliance is unhealthy, and can and will only hurt women.

We are a party proud of backing evidence-based policy; let us listen to the Lancet and the WHO when they say that decriminalisation is the only way to effectively fight the HIV/AIDS crisis. Let us listen to sex workers when they say this will make their situations worse. Let us ensure these women aren’t consigned to a deeper level of poverty and a higher level of danger.

I urge you all to read the English Collective of Prostitutes briefing, contact your MP–whether Lib Dem, Labour, or Tory–to get the voice of reason heard, and ensure our parliamentarians follow party policy we proudly agreed just four weeks ago, to oppose New Clauses 6, 7, 22, and 23 while supporting Amendment 1.

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