Keeping Sex Workers Safe: An Alternative to the Swedish Model

[Originally posted March 2, 2016]

Currently, a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom is conducting hearings on a proposal to implement the “Swedish model” of prostitution law – one where it is legal to sell sexual services, but illegal to buy them. The English Collective of Prostitutes, along with other sex worker rights activists and supporters, have decried this approach actually making things worse for sex workers, especially the most vulnerable who work on the street.

It certainly doesn’t help that other punitive and badly worded laws would be left in place. The law against “pimping” would make anyone paid by a sex worker – web designers, accountants, drivers – a criminal for deriving financial gain from the prostitution of another. And two or more sex workers become criminals for sharing a flat, even for mutual protection, because of how the UK’s law against brothel-keeping is written. Is it any wonder that the ECP and their allies favor the New Zealand model of full decriminalization, which has already produced measurable results in terms of the relationship between sex workers and police?

I don’t expect David Cameron’s government to embrace decriminalization any time soon, especially when it seems the leaders of the “all-party committee” appear to have already made up their minds. Many believe that outlawing clients will somehow protect prostitutes from violence and abuse, just as outlawing brothels and third-party agents was intended to do. Intention is one thing, but hard fact and common sense shows that driving sex work underground only makes it more dangerous by depriving sex workers of the tools they need to protect themselves. The fatal flaw in this proposal is the assumption that every client is abusive, and that every transaction in sex work is exploitative. It’s no surprise that the most fervent supporters of the Swedish model have refused to listen to sex workers themselves, unlike the government of New Zealand, who included sex worker organizations in their consultations.

There is, however, an alternative to outlawing the clients of sex workers, one that could be implemented under the current system of laws, and which would empower sex workers instead of denying their agency. Many escorts and escort agencies screen potential clients, even developing and sharing resources to do so. Imagine if all sex workers had access to a database – created and maintained jointly by police, sex worker organizations, and other relevant agencies – allowing for quicker and more complete background checks of potential clients. Those with a history of abusive or violent behavior could be weeded out, and sex workers would still retain the right to determine whether they wanted to provide their services to the individual in question. Even street prostitutes would be able to access such a database through an app on their cell phones, and different groups and agencies could provide it free of charge.

This is by no means a perfect solution, but I feel it would be a far more effective one than outlawing all clients, regardless of whether they’re respectful regulars or abusive asses. It’s in line with proposals made by many European sex workers in the 80’s and 90’s (yes, I’ve been studying sex work issues for that long) and there are similar precedents in other commercial activities. Most important, it gives power back to the service providers themselves – and that would seem to me a much more feminist approach than paternalistic overreach.

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