Should Paying For Sex Be Illegal In The UK?

May 14, 2015

Currently, all eyes are on the sex industry as the days count down until the law making it illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland isn’t the first place to criminalise the client, as both Sweden and Norway have taken this action.

The belief is that criminalising the client is the best way to stop the industry. If you get rid of the demand, then the supply will just magically vanish, poor victims will stop being trafficked in to countries they don’t want to be in, and the world will be a better place, right?

As a result of this law coming into effect in Northern Ireland, many are now calling for it to come into effect in the UK too… but what would this really mean for the industry, and will it actually work as people say it will?

Addressing the stigma

Despite all of the documentaries that have been made recently looking at the sex industry, many people are still in the dark about what it is really like. They see the stories in the papers, about poor women trafficked in and forced to sell their souls for money, and assume that this is the case for everyone.

What many don’t see is that, actually, a huge proportion of those in the sex industry want to be a part of it and enjoy their jobs. Yes, shock horror, many of them like the companionship they bring to others using sex. Unbelievable, right?

They don’t see this because they have been blinded by the media. They have seen too many sob stories on the front pages of newspapers to think there might be another side to it… and let’s face it, would the story “sex worker loves job!” sell as much as the alternatives?

People love reading about doom and gloom when it comes to the sex industry, because they believe those in it need to be saved. They think they need rescuing from their work, saved from the evil clients who mistreat them and use them.

The reality

The reality about the sex industry is an entirely different matter. A study conducted between November 2014 and January 2015 for the National Ugly Mugs Scheme found that 66% thought the work they did was ‘fun’.

Half of those surveyed went on to use words such as ‘rewarding’, ‘sociable’ and ‘skilful’ when describing their job, suggesting that many really do enjoy their work. Perhaps one of the most surprising words used was ’empowering’, which over half said when asked what sex work was life.

While there were some who felt that they could not stop working for some reason (24% of those surveyed), 52% said that they could walk away from the life if they wanted to, telling us it is a free choice and that their enjoyment for the job keeps them going.

The survey, which you can read more about here, also looked at the level of job satisfaction for sex workers, including their favourite and least favourite aspects of the job. The flexible hours, financial aspect, and the level of choice they had were some of the favourites.
Fashionable photo of young blonde woman wearing white lingerie

Fighting the stigma

Unsurprisingly, the negative parts of sex work included time-wasting clients and the amount of violence and danger they faced. However, the second most commonly mentioned negative to the sex industry in this survey was actually the amount of stigma and negative attitudes to sex work.

They then went to look at the stigma sex workers face on a regular basis, and found that a huge 71% of them had experience of stigma.

The stigma about sex work, where many assume that those in this life do not want to be there but have no other choice, can have a negative impact “on relationships with family and potential romantic relationships”, according to the survey.

They also found that stigma leads to a lot of fear for the sex workers, as they don’t want to be recognised for this work and will often lie about their job to protect themselves.

What the Swedish model aims to do

The Swedish model, sometimes referred to as the Nordic model, is what many call the law in which the client of a sex worker is criminalised. They say that the sex worker is “decriminalised” and it is instead the client who faces the weight of the law.

They hope that, by fining and prosecuting the clients, the demand for sex workers will end. As a result, the industry will be no more, all human trafficking will stop, and we can go back to happily skipping through fields without worrying that there are people out there getting money for sex.

This law was first introduced to Sweden in 1999, and since then “the authorities in Sweden say the number of women on the streets in the prostitution area in Stockholm has fallen from 700-800 to 200 women”, according to BBC News.

However, the fact they said that this is what the authorities “say” has happened makes you suspect that this isn’t the case, and many studies have proved that it isn’t true at all. For a start, there is very little information to be found about sex work in Sweden before the law came in, and so there is nothing to compare the “after” figure to.

Also, the Slutredovisning, prostitution och människohandel study published by the Swedish police back in February 2011 showed that, between 2008 and 2010, cases of “pimping and aggravated procuring”, “purchase of sexual services”, and “human trafficking” had all gone up, not down.
Morning beauty

What will actually happen

The Swedish model has clearly not done its job in Sweden, as trafficking, pimping, and all of the things they wanted to stop have actually increased. Why is that?

Many sex workers believe that it is because, instead of supporting sex workers in their jobs, it is forcing the industry further underground. The good clients who treat the escorts well and are a joy to spend time with no longer want to run the risk of being caught by an escort, and so will simply stop visiting them.

The bad clients and pimps won’t care about the law, as they are usually already breaking it anyway. They will continue to see escorts, and this puts the sex workers at an even greater risk than they were before.

As one client said when interviewed by the BBC “the law would probably only scare away the kind of customers who have something to lose”, and goes on to explain that “to me it’s not worth the risk to be arrested for a crime that would have such a stigma attached to it.”

Should it be illegal in the UK?

With the law coming into force next month in Northern Ireland, and countries like Norway and Sweden already enforcing it, many are calling for it to be brought in here… so should paying for sex be illegal in the UK?

A study by the Office for National Statistics found that one in ten British men have paid for sex at some point in their lives, showing the scale of this industry. If we criminalise those clients and try to stop them from visiting sex workers, will it really make a difference?

As one client says, “what they don’t take into account is that the fewer clients there are, the less choice there is for people who work in the sex industry. It would not stop people from entering the trade, it would give them les choice in the type of customer they had, which would probably mean they would take greater risks.”

So should we make it illegal for people to pay for sex in the UK? If we were perfectly happy putting sex workers at risk simply because we don’t morally like the idea of them having sex, then the answer would be yes… but for many it is their job and their choice. It would be taking away their clients when they are happy with what they do for a living.

Instead of saying yes to the Swedish model in the UK, we should instead be joining the sex workers taking over social media with #rightsnotrescue. They don’t want their clients criminalised for spending time with them, and they don’t need saving. What they need is for people to recognise that, actually, sex work is real work, and is a job like any other. If we can get sex workers the rights they deserve to work, we can start to make the industry a lot safer for all involved, instead of forcing them into dangerous situations just so they can continue doing what they love.

How do you think you’d feel about the Swedish model coming into the UK? Would you support it, or would you be fighting it every step of the way? You can let us know what you think by visiting the Escort Scotland forum, or by leaving a comment in the box below.

Lara Mills
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