SCOT-PEP response to UN Women's sex work consultation

SCOT-PEP response to UN Women's sex work/sex trade consultation

Dear UN Women,


Consultation seeking views on UN Women approach to sex work, the sex trade and prostitution


SCOT-PEP is a registered charity and sex worker-led organisation that campaigns for the rights of sex workers in Scotland. Our organisation is comprised of current and former sex workers, and allies. Those of us with sex working experience have done many different kinds of sex work, and from many perspectives: many of us are migrants, some are British; many of us work (or have worked) in criminalised conditions - for example on the street, or in working flats - and we’ve all worked for different reasons, at different times in our lives: to support our families; to support our drug use; to fund our education, or simply because there has been no other work available, and we need to pay our bills.


What unites everyone within SCOT-PEP, with all our divergent experiences, is the knowledge that sex work is work; that sex workers are best served by a legal system that recognises them as workers and as such endows them with labour rights (as in New Zealand); that sex workers are vulnerable to violence and exploitation because they currently work in conditions that criminalise and stigmatise them, and those associated with them, and that sex workers are the experts on how to make the industry safer and fairer - most fundamentally, that sex workers can speak for themselves.


Before we answer the substantive questions posed in the consultation we first wish to convey our dismay at the fact that UN Women has failed thus far to attempt any kind of meaningful consultation with sex workers and sex worker led organisations around the world.  The consultation process, as currently framed, is extremely inaccessible to many sex workers and the organisations that represent them.  Conducting an online and written based consultation excludes a huge number of sex workers who may have limited access to the internet and lack the time and experience to respond to a consultation that is framed in such an inaccessible and technical way.  We would urge UN Women to conduct a direct participatory consultation with sex workers, especially in the global South, as it is essential that their perspectives and experiences are prioritised in developing this policy.


1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?


Sex workers are a highly criminalised, stigmatised and marginalised group in most countries around the world.  We believe that adopting policies on sex work that prioritise the needs and demands of sex workers themselves demonstrates a strong commitment to “leaving nobody behind” and to the promotion of human rights.  Sex workers are well used to being ignored or talked over when prostitution laws and policies are being adopted and UN Women must not leave them behind in formulating this policy.


If UN Women does prioritise sex workers in the formation of its policy it will see that there is a clear and consistent demand from the sex worker rights movement globally to decriminalise sex work.  Our vision for decriminalisation is the removal of all laws that criminalise sex workers, clients and third parties (where force or coercion is not being applied), and the introduction of laws/policies that give sex workers the ability to claim their human rights and to seek protection from violence, both from state and non-state aggressors.  There is a wealth of evidence, from academics, NGOs, and crucially sex workers themselves demonstrating that criminalisation (in any form) makes selling sex more dangerous for sex workers, impacts negatively on their human rights and leads to poorer health outcomes, including increased vulnerability to HIV (for a meta-analysis of research on human rights violations faced by sex workers and links to HIV vulnerability see The Lancet vol 385, no 9963: p186 – 199).

2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as

a)      reproductive rights

b)      women’s ownership of land and assets

c)       building peaceful and inclusive societies

d)      ending the trafficking of women

e)      eliminating violence against women.

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?


As a sex worker led organization gender equality is at the very heart of our work and forms the basis of our campaign to reform the sex work laws.  We believe that the criminalization of prostitution (of the seller or purchaser) reinforces and entrenches gender inequalities as women who sell sex to men remain disempowered and disadvantaged.  They have no legal rights, are forced to prioritise avoiding the police rather than their safety, and cannot approach the authorities for protection.  


Decriminalising sex work redresses this inequality between women who sell sex and men who buy by giving sex workers the ability to assert their rights against purchasers.  We believe that a society that cherishes and values sex workers and provides them with access to legal rights is a better society for all women to live in.  By decriminalizing sex work we begin to address the horrendous human rights abuses and harms faced by women who sell sex and are one step closer to eliminating violence against all women.


Ending the trafficking of women can only be achieved in full cooperation with sex workers and those working in the sex industry.  It is often argued that criminalizing the purchase of sex, will reduce overall demand, which will in turn reduce the trafficking of women.  This theory has been proven over and over again to be completely misguided.  There is no reliable evidence to show that criminalizing clients actually deters people from purchasing sex. For example, in Sweden, where this legal model originated, the government themselves have conceded that it “cannot give any unambiguous answer to th[e] question” of whether prostitution has increased or decreased concluding that “[n]o causal connections can be proven between legislation and changes in prostitution” (Swedish National Board 2007: 46).  There is also no reliable evidence to show that a “sex buyer law” has any impact on the levels of trafficking of women (Huschke 2014: 174; Swedish Government 2010: 35)


We also dispute the assertion that is frequently made that criminalizing the purchase of sex demonstrates a society’s commitment to women’s human rights.  The decision to criminalise the purchase of sex is no indication of a country’s commitment to overall gender equality.  Northern Ireland, for example, recently criminalised the purchase of sex but continues to criminalise abortion, a massive violation of women’s human rights.  France, while criminalizing the clients of sex workers, at the same time has mounted a vicious attack on the human rights of Muslim women, banning them from wearing items of religious dress in public. The US has some of harshest penalties for clients in the global north, yet continues to directly criminalise sex workers themselves and is one of very few countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave.


Most women sell sex primarily because of financial disadvantage.  UN Women’s focus should, therefore, be on improving women’s financial situation and addressing global wealth inequalities.  Attempting to eradicate prostitution, while leaving in place existing global economic structures, will only serve to entrench women’s financial inequality.  We should all be uniting behind the shared goal of improving all women’s economic opportunities rather than trying to eradicate sex workers’ ability to care for themselves and their families.


Finally, there is absolutely no evidence from anywhere in the world to suggest that women who live in countries that have decriminalised sex work (e.g. New Zealand) suffer greater gender discrimination than countries where sex work is criminalised.  We accept that sexism exists in the sex industry but it is our view that this is a reflection of our cultural attitudes rather than its creation:


“Identifying the sex industry as the origin of gender and sexual inequality relieves the general population of any accountability for being part of the problem, for maintaining gender and sexual categories that limit our experiences of ourselves.  In truth, gender and sexual norms are glaringly apparent in the sex industry, but they are not created by the sale of sex.  The sex industry does not hold that much power.”


(Brents, Jackson and Hausbeck (2010), The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland: 228)


3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

We believe that the only way to protect women in the sex trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination is to decriminalize sex work.  As a global community we have to accept, for a variety of reasons including wealth inequalities, that women sell sex to men.  As long as women are selling sex we need to ensure that they can do this as safely as possible and develop laws and policies that tackle the harm, violence and stigma that they face.  Decriminalisation does this because it allows sex workers to work without fear of arrest and provides them with access to rights and protection from violence.  Evidence from New Zealand shows that under decriminalization the health and safety of sex workers improves (Abel 2014; Christchurch School of Medicine 2007).  


Criminalising clients will NOT protect women in the sex trade from violence, harm and stigma.  This policy measure has been shown over and over again to inflict direct harm on sex workers and all sex worker led organisations are opposed to it.  Amnesty International recently conducted an extensive investigation into the impact of client criminalisation in Norway and identified a range of human rights abuses faced by sex workers there.  Numerous studies also show that sex workers in Sweden (where this policy was first introduced) have reported an increase in fear of violence as well as an increase in actual experience of violence since the introduction of the ‘sex buyer law’. (Dodillet and Östergren 2011: 23; Norwegian Ministry 2004: 12 -14; Östergren 2004: 2, 5; Jordan 2012).  A report on the Swedish model commissioned by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) based at Malmö University concludes that the claims of the policy’s success have been greatly exaggerated and that “the law has instead led to increased vulnerability for sex workers.”

We urge UN Women to adopt a policy that recommends the full decriminalization of sex work in line with the growing global consensus.