Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Late for Friday the 13th... Why sex workers' rights matter

 I feel terrible. I had every good intention to write a blog piece for Friday the 13th in support of sex workers. But I missed the deadline. And I missed the deadline because I was doing something pretty darn conventional. I was attending a wedding. Between a man and a woman. With my husband. A bunch of us, all of us heterosexual married couples, all met at a pub and got on a minibus to go to lovely stately home for a lovely wedding.

And all of us are privileged. Among the group of friends on that minibus, the women represented a range of occupations - teacher, nurse, journalist, brand manager, stay-at-home mum. Not one of us, as far as I am aware, is a sex worker.

So why should any of us care about the rights of sex workers?

Because, under current laws in Britain, sex workers do not enjoy the same rights as the rest of us working in supposedly non-controversial occupations.

UK laws are muddy when it comes to prostitution. The exchange of sexual services for money is perfectly legal but soliciting in a public place and owning or managing a brothel are illegal. Pandering is illegal, but this can mean anything from trafficking a person into Britain for the purposes of sex to transporting a prostitute to the location of her work. In theory, if a taxi driver knowingly drove a prostitute to a client's house or to a hotel where she (or he) intended to work, they are breaking the law.

Meanwhile in the Australian state of New South Wales, sex workers can work in legal brothels, which are subject to the same sort of planning and zoning laws as other businesses. This means these brothels are subject to the same taxes as other businesses as well as workplace laws. Most importantly, this means that sex workers do not have to tolerate sexual harassment, they are entitled to fair pay and they can report any sort of physical attacks, including rape, to the police without any fear of ending up in trouble themselves.

Whether a prostitute is raped at work or not, she should not have to fear ending up getting arrested herself.

Just as my friends and I would not be accused of asking for it if we were raped because of the jobs we happen to do, the same should be true for a sex worker. Any sex worker. Regardless of who they are or the type of work they do. When there is no consent, there is rape.

But under current British law, it is not necessarily that simple for the sex worker who wants to report a rape or any other kind of assault.The possibility for too many terrible situations is ever-present for sex workers in Britain.

If, for example, a prostitute was attacked in any way while travelling in the back of a taxi with a client, her reporting of the crime could land the taxi driver in trouble under absurdly broad pandering laws. Even if the driver tried to help the sex worker. There is also the additional risk of exposure to charges for laws about soliciting in public as well as indecency laws. In such a hostile legal environment, it would not be surprising if such attacks have happened but have never been reported at all.

It's not good enough. Laws need to change. Nobody is saying life is all sunshine and rainbows for every sex worker. If someone has been forced into any form of sex work against their will, that needs to be dealt with under the law. But when a sex worker is working of his or her own free will, not only should they have the respectability of earning a fair wage and paying tax without stigma, but they should also have the same rights to safety as anyone else, regardless of their occupation.

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