Sex as a Commodity: Exploring Local Responses to the Sex Industry
“If we… Sex… What?” The press officer for Islington council chokes on his words on the other side of the phone when asked if he knows anyone who’d be able to comment on Islington’s response to sex work.
“No, I can’t really think about anyone who could talk to you about that,” he mumbles and laughs nervously. “I honestly don’t know.”
The topic of prostitution seems to be quite a bit more contentious than first thought: a similar conversation repeats itself with four different people in Islington Council. This despite Islington being one of fourteen boroughs in London that classed prostitution as violence against women and girls in their Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy, a government initiative to tackle the issue in the UK.
There has been a revival of the debate surrounding sex work in the last few months, as the Home Affairs Committee has launched an inquiry into prostitution. They are looking at the way prostitution is treated in legislation and assessing whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it – a model which has been implemented in several Scandinavian countries.
It’s a debate which even affects linguistics: should we call it prostitution or sex work? Is it intrinsically degrading to commodify someone’s body or should we rather focus on giving sex workers the rights they need to perform their work safely?
Abandoning a stereotype
“We don’t glamourise prostitution, we don’t think it’s a fantastic job at all. We just think that it’s better than other jobs that many of us would be doing instead,” says Laura Watson, 27, one of the spokeswomen for the English Collective of Prostitutes. The organisation has been campaigning for sex workers’ rights since 1975.
She is sitting next to Paulina Nicole, 23, in a wooden room in Kentish Town, both with a cup of tea in their hand. There is no Pretty Woman-stereotype here; they want people to take a step away from the idea of sex workers as drugged up, street-ridden women whose only option is to sell their bodies.
“Sex workers have families, they have kids, they love, they have feelings, they have a heart, they cry, they laugh, they get angry, they dance, they sing,” says Nicole, her voice filled with enthusiasm.
For Watson and Nicole, it’s not just the social stigma which makes it difficult for women to sell sex; laws mean sex workers have to live their lives as criminals.
For instance, if you are caught “loitering” or “soliciting” by the police they can give you a caution without you pleading guilty, and you can’t appeal it.
“Some women have a prostitute caution on their record until they’re 100 years old, which obviously stops you from leaving and getting other jobs,” says Watson.
The women want to decriminalise prostitution altogether, pointing to New Zealand as the ideal system, where they legalised most aspects of sex work in 2003.
Commodifying the female body
Maddy Coy, a reader in Sexual Exploitation and Gender Inequality at London Metropolitan University, helped write the guidelines on how boroughs in London should implement the VAWG strategy which Islington used. She disagrees with Watson and Nicole and believes that the Nordic Model where it is still illegal to buy sex is better than decriminalising prostitution for both the seller and buyer.
“We know from research that women in the sex industry experience high social stigma. But we also see that in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, this stigma does not go away. This must be because of something more fundamental about social beliefs and what it means to designate women’s bodies as a commodity to men.”
People who are pro-legalisation or for complete decriminalisation often argue that criminalising those who buy sex will force the industry even more underground. For Coy, however, the focus should be on getting women out of the industry in the first place.
“What is crucial about the Nordic model is this: it does not seek to criminalise sex work. Decriminalisation of those involved in sex work is at its heart. It is about criminalising those who buy sex, while giving sex workers the tools to quit the industry,” she says.
Threats to funding
But specialised services, one of the most important aspect of getting women out of prostitution, are facing cuts in Islington.
One of the only services available to women in Islington is Central London Action on Sexual Health (CLASH), working with female and transgender sex workers. They are now under threat of funding cuts, explains Jeremy Dunning, press officer for the charity.
He refers to a press release where the organisation states their worries:
“It is becoming more and more difficult for sexual health services such as CLASH to engage with female and transgender sex workers and to find new venues to visit for health promotion and sexual health screening. We believe this is due to the stigma attached to sex work, something criminalisation contributes to.”
For Coy, this is very problematic if we are to encourage sex workers out of the industry.
“Services like CLASH are essential to minimise harm. I have done research on how few specialised services there are for women and girls involved in the sex industry, and there are far too few. So cutting the funding to the very few services in Islington is not good,” she says.
The ongoing debate about prostitution seems to boil down to fundamentals: whether we should treat prostitution as something inevitable or something highlighting core beliefs in society which must be fought against. Coy believes that gender inequality is at the heart of the sex industry’s existence.
“People who want to regulate the industry believe that selling sex is inevitable and the best we can do is minimise harm. I think we can do better than that. Prostitution does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in a context: we live in a world where there are certain powerful narratives about women’s bodies existing for men.”
For Watson, however, the victimisation of sex workers is far from the right response to the issue.
“We actually say that we have an anti-prostitution strategy which is to abolish benefit cuts and sanctions. That should be the gender equality issue, not how women choose to escape that poverty. Why would we want to take that choice away from women? I just cannot understand it, I think it’s outrageous.”