It is important to understand that the sex industry is not an area of work that should be taken lightly. It is violent, sexist, exploitative, and ultimately incredibly dangerous. Lydia Caradonna is both a sex worker and an advocate for Decrimnow; a campaign that aims to decriminalise sex work and promote the safety of the industry’s workers. In a talk she led at the University of Kent, she made clear she was under no illusion that being a sex worker was an ideal job. In fact, she explicitly stated that “It’s a horrible industry.”
It is because of this danger that sex work is criminalised. The theory is that, by making many aspects of the industry illegal, it will deter people away and produce a stigma that will stop people from entering the industry. Unfortunately, however, this only makes it more dangerous. The criminalisation of sex work means that it is almost impossible for a sex worker to work either legally or safely.
Decriminalising sex work would help with the violence and abuse that is experienced by a large number of workers. If decriminalised, there would be a greater access for workers to screen their clients, and therefore have more information available to help with the avoidance of known abusive clients. This information can only be readily available if sex work is decriminalised; currently authorities shut down websites that offer screening, such as Redbook. Decriminalising the sex industry would also give workers a fairer access to the justice system. In an industry so full of legal regulations, many sex workers are often afraid to report crimes. In her talk, Caradonna told the story of a worker who reported a violent client; instead of investigating him, they investigated the worker, because she had a friend that had been on the property to help her, which is illegal. The fear of the justice system makes workers unlikely to come forward to report abuse, and in an industry where abuse is so common this is incredibly dangerous.
This is particularly relevant to the illegality of any third party in sex work. This could range from a working brothel, to selling sex on a rented property, to even having a friend in the same building for safety. This removes protection from a sex worker, making it a lot more dangerous, and a lot easier for abuse to occur. Not allowing workers to sell sex in a safe environment creates a far more dangerous situation. Furthermore, removing the law against third parties would allow the industry to unionise. This would further increase the rights of sex workers, and allow them to stick up for unfair working conditions and access support in the workplace. The law that prohibits third party involvement is designed to stop the exploitation of workers; to stop them from being unfairly ‘pimped out’ as Caradonna described. However, grouping all third parties together does more harm than good.
One common association with the sex industry is trafficking, and this is because trafficking is a well-known human rights violation that occurs in this type of work. There are numerous examples of people being forced into the sex industry, and exploited as a result. However, criminalising the industry does nothing to help these people. Decriminalising, on the contrary, would allow for more effective ways to help victims of trafficking. Doing something as heinous and illegal as trafficking, in a legal industry, is much more likely to be noticed than doing it in a criminalised industry.
Many people who enter the sex industry are some of the most vulnerable people in society. Caradonna stated that 55% of workers are disabled and feel the only work they can do is sex work. In addition, many people turn to the sex industry as a way of coping with a mental illness. A large number of transgender people who have been discriminated against in the work place turn to the industry to make money. The flexible nature of the job makes it a common path for those who have to earn a living to survive but cannot hold down a normal 9-5.
Decriminalising the sex industry would make it a safer and more comfortable place of work. Instead of shaming and stigmatising workers, we should be doing our best to help them achieve the safest working environment possible. Half-measures have not worked. A common ‘fix’ for this major issue is to make the selling of sex legal but the buying of sex illegal; Ireland have implemented this method and have seen no decrease in demand but, instead, an increase in violence. This is because making something illegal means that the people still participating in it are people who are willing to break the law. Around 5% of students are sex workers. In 2014, The University of Kent had around 19,000 students, meaning that there were roughly 950 students working in the sex industry. Something needs to be done to ensure higher levels of safety and more employment rights to such a wide and varied work force. Violence, sexual abuse, trafficking and other violations would still of course be illegal. Decriminalising would simply create a safer and more supportive environment for the struggling workers of the industry.