Are things getting better? Is the glass half full ?

01/06/2010 at 14:40 Leave a comment

I am in the UK at the moment where the murders of three women have bought sex work and law reform back into the spotlight.  Although there is no upside to these murders it is impossible to ignore that the media coverage has been far more sympathetic than previously.  Politicians, police, church groups and local residents have all spoken about the women in the British media  with compassion and respect .  The term ‘sex worker’ has been used more often than ‘prostitute’. Excellent spokespeople from sex workers organizations and sex work projects have put their points without interviewers sneering and undermining them as used to happen. I hope at least this means that the children and other family members of the murdered women are less distressed and shamed than sex workers who were murdered  in more brutal bygone days.

The media coverage has seamlessly segued into a discussion of whether sex work should be decriminalized and, to a lesser degree, if more treatment available to heroin addicted women. I was pleased to hear the former Attorney General Vera Baird proudly announcing government support for the Ugly Mugs anti violence program 30 years after its invention in the Prostitutes Collective in Australia.[1] The ‘usual suspects’ – fundamentalist feminists are baying for the full force of the law to bought down on men who pay for sex who don’t murder anyone. I sense they are the only ones calling for more criminal laws more vigorously enforced. Although they do appear to be disproportionately influential, dominating as they do the Guardian and BBC radio’s editorial positions on the issue.

A comment by Baird in the same report raised my ears. Sex work she said is ‘virtually decriminalised’ in the UK. By that she means that UK police don’t have the resources or will to arrest sex workers for soliciting, which I don’t doubt.  But how does this line up with what the spokespeople are saying – that women who work in the street will not come forward to report crimes because sex work is illegal. Isn’t this a mismatch ? Surely if what Ms Baird says is true, sex workers would know that if they arrive at a police station to provide information about a serious crime the desk sergeant wouldn’t announce  ‘you’re nicked luv’ and pull out the handcuffs. Or would he?  Are the politician and the enlightened police having us on ?

Part of the answer might lie in the fact that criminalisation is muti-faceted phenonomena, it’s a toolbox rather than a single instrument. Arrests of sex workers for soliciting are just one of many tools in the  toolbox. I am told that in Britain oppression of street sex workers these days is achieved by Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) compulsory counseling orders and social services interventions. Criminality is located in non compliance with any of these orders as well as by police interest in sex workers’ associations with drug dealers and  ‘pimps’. This supports a view I have already formed that ignoring or repealing laws against selling sex is not enough. More needs to be done to disassemble the criminality around sex work.

The potent image of the horrid, dark streets of wasteland and warehouses on the industrial edge of the town in the same report adds to this view.  Women in Bradford may not be arrested under ‘virtual decriminalisation’, but whether risking arrest or not, the murdered women should not have been working there. No-one should have to work in such a place other than patrolling security guards. The women were there because the sex industry is prevented from occupying safer places by laws prohibiting brothel keeping, living off immoral earnings etc.  In this way criminal law causes damage, not only in its direct enforcement through arrests, but indirectly by preventing the application to sexworkers and sex businesses the labor, health, and planning regulations that govern other businesses and workers. [2]

For sex workers to be protected the criminal law must be removed AND not be replaced by quasi-laws purporting to help sex workers AND  tools for governing civil and commercial life must be adapted and applied to achieve for sex workers what they achieve for others – relative safety.  On this analysis  removing criminal laws against selling sex is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the goal – a safe sex industry.

Then I saw some very welcome news from South Africa that led me to reflect further further on the possibility of many routes on the roadmap to equality and justice for sex workers :

‘A Cape Town sex worker claiming unfair dismissal has won a ruling from the Labour Appeal Court that she is entitled to protection under South African labour law. Court president Dennis Davis said the fact that prostitution was illegal did not mean a sex worker was not entitled to constitutional protection’

It is very exciting to see a modern constitution and a sound legal mechanism cut through both counterproductive criminal law and the facile debates about whether ‘decriminalisation’ or arresting clients are the solution. The Labour Appeal Court of South Africa has provided an important signpost to one of the many possibilities for far reaching and effective reform. And kicked a goal for the rule of law.

I am similarly pleased to see another important development. During the Bush administration agencies receiving US grants were forbidden by law from supporting prostitution law reform.[3] Now  the US funded International HIV/AIDS Alliance is advocating for decriminalisation of prostitution in South Africa.[4] I worked for the Alliance and with other US funded organisations during the Bush years so I saw first hand the impact of the Pepfar ‘anti-prostitution pledge’ and appreciate the importance of this change in policy and the hard work of many dedicated people who worked to have it changed.

Like everyone interested in law and social justice I was delighted to see the pardoning of the Malawian couple sentenced to 14 years for their homosexuality. Glass half full. Clearly it’s a hollow victory unless it is a step toward  the longer term goal  of removing all anti-homosexuality laws. Glass half empty.

I ended the week still wondering if the glass is half full or half empty, but certainly more optimistic  than I have some other weeks. What is certain however is that the world is emptier for the absence of Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth who should all still be here  enjoying and struggling, failing and succeeding like the rest of us.


[2] This applies here even though the women were apparently addicted to drugs. The Australian and New Zealand  experience shows that it is a myth that drug users refuse work safely when they have the opportunity.

[3] The Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief



Entry filed under: human rights and law, research. Tags: .

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