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  • I want to talk about sex for money.

  • I'm not like most of the people you'll have heard speaking

  • about prostitution before.

  • I'm not a police officer or a social worker.

  • I'm not an academic, a journalist or a politician.

  • And as you'll probably have picked up from Maryam's blurb,

  • I'm not a nun, either.

  • (Laughter)

  • Most of those people would tell you that selling sex is degrading;

  • that no one would ever choose to do it;

  • that it's dangerous; women get abused and killed.

  • In fact, most of those people would say,

  • "There should be a law against it!"

  • Maybe that sounds reasonable to you.

  • It sounded reasonable to me until the closing months of 2009,

  • when I was working two dead-end, minimum-wage jobs.

  • Every month my wages would just replenish my overdraft.

  • I was exhausted and my life was going nowhere.

  • Like many others before me,

  • I decided sex for money was a better option.

  • Now don't get me wrong --

  • I would have loved to have won the lottery instead.

  • But it wasn't going to happen anytime soon,

  • and my rent needed paying.

  • So I signed up for my first shift in a brothel.

  • In the years that have passed,

  • I've had a lot of time to think.

  • I've reconsidered the ideas I once had about prostitution.

  • I've given a lot of thought to consent

  • and the nature of work under capitalism.

  • I've thought about gender inequality

  • and the sexual and reproductive labor of women.

  • I've experienced exploitation and violence at work.

  • I've thought about what's needed

  • to protect other sex workers from these things.

  • Maybe you've thought about them, too.

  • In this talk,

  • I'll take you through the four main legal approaches

  • applied to sex work throughout the world,

  • and explain why they don't work;

  • why prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm

  • that sex workers are vulnerable to.

  • Then I'm going tell you about what we, as sex workers, actually want.

  • The first approach is full criminalization.

  • Half the world,

  • including Russia, South Africa and most of the US,

  • regulates sex work by criminalizing everyone involved.

  • So that's seller, buyer and third parties.

  • Lawmakers in these countries apparently hope

  • that the fear of getting arrested will deter people from selling sex.

  • But if you're forced to choose between obeying the law

  • and feeding yourself or your family,

  • you're going to do the work anyway,

  • and take the risk.

  • Criminalization is a trap.

  • It's hard to get a conventional job when you have a criminal record.

  • Potential employers won't hire you.

  • Assuming you still need money,

  • you'll stay in the more flexible, informal economy.

  • The law forces you to keep selling sex,

  • which is the exact opposite of its intended effect.

  • Being criminalized leaves you exposed to mistreatment by the state itself.

  • In many places you may be coerced into paying a bribe

  • or even into having sex with a police officer

  • to avoid arrest.

  • Police and prison guards in Cambodia, for example,

  • have been documented subjecting sex workers

  • to what can only be described as torture:

  • threats at gunpoint,

  • beatings, electric shocks, rape

  • and denial of food.

  • Another worrying thing:

  • if you're selling sex in places like Kenya, South Africa or New York,

  • a police officer can arrest you if you're caught carrying condoms,

  • because condoms can legally be used as evidence that you're selling sex.

  • Obviously, this increases HIV risk.

  • Imagine knowing if you're busted carrying condoms,

  • it'll be used against you.

  • It's a pretty strong incentive to leave them at home, right?

  • Sex workers working in these places are forced to make a tough choice

  • between risking arrest or having risky sex.

  • What would you choose?

  • Would you pack condoms to go to work?

  • How about if you're worried

  • the police officer would rape you when he got you in the van?

  • The second approach to regulating sex work seen in these countries

  • is partial criminalization,

  • where the buying and selling of sex are legal,

  • but surrounding activities,

  • like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street, are banned.

  • Laws like these --

  • we have them in the UK and in France --

  • essentially say to us sex workers,

  • "Hey, we don't mind you selling sex,

  • just make sure it's done behind closed doors

  • and all alone."

  • And brothel-keeping, by the way,

  • is defined as just two or more sex workers working together.

  • Making that illegal means that many of us work alone,

  • which obviously makes us vulnerable to violent offenders.

  • But we're also vulnerable

  • if we choose to break the law by working together.

  • A couple of years ago,

  • a friend of mine was nervous after she was attacked at work,

  • so I said that she could see her clients from my place for a while.

  • During that time,

  • we had another guy turn nasty.

  • I told the guy to leave or I'd call the police.

  • And he looked at the two of us and said,

  • "You girls can't call the cops.

  • You're working together, this place is illegal."

  • He was right.

  • He eventually left without getting physically violent,

  • but the knowledge that we were breaking the law

  • empowered that man to threaten us.

  • He felt confident he'd get away with it.

  • The prohibition of street prostitution also causes more harm

  • than it prevents.

  • Firstly, to avoid getting arrested,

  • street workers take risks to avoid detection,

  • and that means working alone

  • or in isolated locations like dark forests

  • where they're vulnerable to attack.

  • If you're caught selling sex outdoors,

  • you pay a fine.

  • How do you pay that fine without going back to the streets?

  • It was the need for money that saw you in the streets

  • in the first place.

  • And so the fines stack up,

  • and you're caught in a vicious cycle

  • of selling sex to pay the fines you got for selling sex.

  • Let me tell you about Mariana Popa who worked in Redbridge, East London.

  • The street workers on her patch would normally wait for clients in groups

  • for safety in numbers

  • and to warn each other about how to avoid dangerous guys.

  • But during a police crackdown on sex workers and their clients,

  • she was forced to work alone to avoid being arrested.

  • She was stabbed to death in the early hours of October 29, 2013.

  • She had been working later than usual

  • to try to pay off a fine she had received for soliciting.

  • So if criminalizing sex workers hurts them,

  • why not just criminalize the people who buy sex?

  • This is the aim of the third approach

  • I want to talk about --

  • the Swedish or Nordic model of sex-work law.

  • The idea behind this law

  • is that selling sex is intrinsically harmful

  • and so you're, in fact, helping sex workers by removing the option.

  • Despite growing support

  • for what's often described as the "end demand" approach,

  • there's no evidence that it works.

  • There's just as much prostitution in Sweden as there was before.

  • Why might that be?

  • It's because people selling sex

  • often don't have other options for income.

  • If you need that money,

  • the only effect that a drop in business is going have

  • is to force you to lower your prices

  • or offer more risky sexual services.

  • If you need to find more clients,

  • you might seek the help of a manager.

  • So you see, rather than putting a stop

  • to what's often descried as pimping,

  • a law like this actually gives oxygen

  • to potentially abusive third parties.

  • To keep safe in my work,

  • I try not to take bookings from someone

  • who calls me from a withheld number.

  • If it's a home or a hotel visit,

  • I try to get a full name and details.

  • If I worked under the Swedish model,

  • a client would be too scared to give me that information.

  • I might have no other choice

  • but to accept a booking from a man who is untraceable

  • if he later turns out to be violent.

  • If you need their money,

  • you need to protect your clients from the police.

  • If you work outdoors,

  • that means working alone or in isolated locations,

  • just as if you were criminalized yourself.

  • It might mean getting into cars quicker,

  • less negotiating time means snap decisions.

  • Is this guy dangerous or just nervous?

  • Can you afford to take the risk?

  • Can you afford not to?

  • Something I'm often hearing is,

  • "Prostitution would be fine

  • if we made it legal and regulated it."

  • We call that approach legalization,

  • and it's used by countries like the Netherlands, Germany

  • and Nevada in the US.

  • But it's not a great model for human rights.

  • And in state-controlled prostitution,

  • commercial sex can only happen

  • in certain legally-designated areas or venues,

  • and sex workers are made to comply with special restrictions,

  • like registration and forced health checks.

  • Regulation sounds great on paper,

  • but politicians deliberately make regulation around the sex industry

  • expensive and difficult to comply with.

  • It creates a two-tiered system: legal and illegal work.

  • We sometimes call it "backdoor criminalization."

  • Rich, well-connected brothel owners can comply with the regulations,

  • but more marginalized people find those hoops

  • impossible to jump through.

  • And even if it's possible in principle,

  • getting a license or proper venue takes time and costs money.

  • It's not going to be an option

  • for someone who's desperate and needs money tonight.

  • They might be a refugee or fleeing domestic abuse.

  • In this two-tiered system,

  • the most vulnerable people are forced to work illegally,

  • so they're still exposed to all the dangers of criminalization

  • I mentioned earlier.

  • So.

  • It's looking like all attempts to control

  • or prevent sex work from happening

  • makes things more dangerous for people selling sex.

  • Fear of law enforcement makes them work alone in isolated locations,

  • and allows clients and even cops

  • to get abusive in the knowledge they'll get away with it.

  • Fines and criminal records force people to keep selling sex,

  • rather than enabling them to stop.

  • Crackdowns on buyers drive sellers to take dangerous risks

  • and into the arms of potentially abusive managers.

  • These laws also reinforce stigma and hatred against sex workers.

  • When France temporarily brought in the Swedish model two years ago,

  • ordinary citizens took it as a cue

  • to start carrying out vigilante attacks

  • against people working on the street.

  • In Sweden, opinion surveys show

  • that significantly more people want sex workers to be arrested now

  • than before the law was brought in.

  • If prohibition is this harmful,

  • you might ask, why it so popular?

  • Firstly, sex work is and always has been a survival strategy

  • for all kinds of unpopular minority groups:

  • people of color,

  • migrants,

  • people with disabilities,

  • LGBTQ people,

  • particularly trans women.

  • These are the groups most heavily profiled

  • and punished through prohibitionist law.

  • I don't think this is an accident.

  • These laws have political support