Should we decriminalise the sex industry? My heart says no but my head says otherwise

// 6 August 2015

Tags: , , , ,

Editor’s note: this post was amended on 6 August to correct factual mistakes regarding the legal status of sex work in the UK. We apologise for having originally published inaccurate information.

Kay Page discusses the decriminalisation of the sex industry, and why she chooses protection and safety for sex workers over moral concerns.

This week Amnesty International will meet in Dublin to discuss its policies for the year ahead and to vote on a number of important issues. It’s an event that very rarely raises any media attention, but this week one controversial subject is causing quite the media storm – the sex trade and the proposal that it should be decriminalised.

Celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Lena Durham have entered the debate, urging the organisation to vote against it, suggesting that decriminalising prostitution will have a negative impact on human trafficking and in effect create a form of “gender apartheid”. Yet while their intervention is with good intentions, a number of sex workers have spoken against the opposition to the motion and asked the named figures to stop “grandstanding” on the subject.

Mon Amour by James BlannAs a feminist and egalitarian I find myself in conflict over the subject, concerned that there is no easy or right answer. The very nature of the sex industry is undeniably sexist and surveys regularly prove that many women enter it simply out of desperation. We may never know the impact the welfare cuts will have on this subject, as women are disproportionately affected by the changes but it’s hard to imagine that it will have no impact at all.
Yet at the same time it’s crucial to acknowledge that some women enter the sex industry of their own free will, not because of desperation or trafficking. The current laws in the UK mean that these women therefore work in an incredibly dangerous industry.

However, when I think of Amnesty International, an organisation that was slow to recognise human trafficking as a human rights abuse, I struggle to see how this motion really aligns with their principles. I can’t help but feel that perhaps they are choosing to discuss and debate the wrong area. Instead of proposing the decriminalisation of the entire industry, perhaps we should instead be looking to a Swedish style approach.

The Swedish approach attempts to quash prostitution by criminalising the buying of sex and not the sex worker. They have invested in support for prostitutes and by and large it’s an approach that appears to be working. [ANIA: the author chose not to support this claim with any data. Amnesty International report, as mentioned by Laura below, states on page 12 why the Nordic model is not working]

Currently British prostitutes operate in a grey area because while selling or buying sex isn’t illegal, soliciting is and as a result it’s very rare that we see any convictions. Add to this complicated law the fact that it is incredibly hard to police and you have rather murky waters in front of you. At the same time women who do sell sex – for whatever reason, whether it be consensual, under duress or out of desperation – aren’t directly protected by the law and therefore often face a huge risk of violence. For me, that in itself is a far more pressing issue.

Instead of calling on the Government to work towards the decriminalisation of the sex industry, perhaps Amnesty should be fighting for other laws; ones that can be enacted as quickly as possible. We could start by ensuring that sex workers are sufficiently protected by current law and promote the notion that abuse is abuse whatever the events leading up to it. Alongside this, the Government need to ensure that the UK has a robust and substantial strategy for tackling human trafficking, including tough sentences for anyone caught committing the crime.

In the long term, perhaps decriminalisation is the answer to the complicated question that is the sex industry, but in the short term, ending the violence has to be the priority.

Kay Page is 25 and from Wales, and blogs at

Image attribution: James Blann, used under Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

tom hulley // Posted 6 August 2015 at 12:29 pm

I may be missing something but doesn’t it make sense to criminalise prostitution without criminalising prostituted people?

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 6 August 2015 at 1:12 pm

We just got this comment from Laura via email:

I appreciate Kay has taken the time to address this issue and write this post, and I agree that tackling violence has to be the priority, but I’m afraid the post is rather misleading and short on facts.

For a start, legalisation and decriminalisation are very different things, so the title is misleading. The Amnesty proposal relates to full decriminalisation, and this is the approach favoured by pretty much every sex worker-led organisation worldwide, not legalisation: see this petition for a list of hundreds of such organisations in favour of AI’s proposal.

Secondly, the Swedish approach/Nordic model is not by and large working, which is why AI’s proposal rejects it. A summary of their research is provided on page 12 onwards of the proposal, which can be read here. This article provides a good overview of why the approach harms sex workers. In short, criminalising clients means sex workers have less time to negotiate transactions and condom use and are more likely to end up seeing more dangerous clients, which puts them at greater risk of abuse, HIV and death. On top of this, Sweden has not repealed other laws criminalising sex work, resulting in women being made homeless and migrant women being deported.

In terms of the “murky waters” in the UK: laws here against pimping and brothel keeping put sex workers in danger. Women are forced to work alone, as two or more women working together can be prosecuted for brothel keeping, while an individual who supported a sex worker by, for example, picking her up from an appointment, could be prosecuted for pimping. On top of this, sex workers are frequently victimised by the police as they attempt to enforce these laws: during the Soho raids a couple of years ago, migrant workers were chucked out of their workplaces in their underwear by police, in front of the waiting press, and police refused to accept that they had not been trafficked.

So, yes, decriminalisation is the answer. The laws around sex work have a major impact on so many women worldwide, and I would really encourage readers to listen to what sex workers have to say on the issue (as Amnesty have), as they are generally much better informed than non-sex workers.

Holly Combe // Posted 6 August 2015 at 1:58 pm

Re: legalisation/decriminalisation. It’s not from a European context, but I think the summary here offers a good breakdown of the definitions:

Scarlet Alliance and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations

Decriminalisation refers to the removal of all criminal laws relating to the operation of the sex industry. The decriminalisation model aims to support occupational health and safety and workplace issues through existing legal and workplace mechanisms.

Refers to the use of criminal laws to regulate or control the sex industry by determining the legal conditions under which the sex industry can operate. Legalisation can be highly regulatory or merely define the operation of the various sectors of the sex industry. It can vary between rigid controls under legalised state controlled systems to privatising the sex industry within a legally defined framework. It is often accompanied by strict criminal penalties for sex industry businesses that operate outside the legal framework.


The Swedish approach attempts to quash prostitution by criminalising the buying of sex and not the sex worker. They have invested in support for prostitutes and by and large it’s an approach that appears to be working.

Except it isn’t working, as many sex workers themselves have explained (also see links in Laura’s comment):

…Most of the terrible things that the Nordic model does to sex workers are achieved by increasing our desperation and thus our vulnerability to those who pose as clients.

Police officers in Sweden often clandestinely film women engaging in sexual acts to obtain evidence against clients. The women are then subjected to invasive searches.

In summary:

Everybody wants to see an end to forced prostitution and trafficking. Sex workers themselves are very well placed to assist in this campaign, and their contribution should be welcomed and encouraged. The Swedish law does the opposite: it encourages them to avoid police and social services rather than engage with them. Coercion and abuse can never be addressed by making an industry more hidden and denying labour rights to the people working in it.

I find it troubling that no views of sex workers have been referred to in this piece.

maria // Posted 6 August 2015 at 2:47 pm

Re: On Amnesty and that open letter (Feminist Ire)

Wendy Lyon’s claim that: 1. “Any anti-sex work argument that cites Germany and/or the Netherlands without even mentioning New Zealand is either ill-informed or simply dishonest”, is absurd.

New Zealand is 1. a small country 2. located in an extremely isolated geographical area of the world, both of which hinder sex trafficking on a large scale.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 6 August 2015 at 5:51 pm

We got this comment from zohra (rejected as spam as includes too many links):

I’d like to agree strongly with the comments from Laura and Holly, including because they are evidence-based.

And I would prefer that more of this piece referred to:

a) the existing body of evidence on the topic including from (eg the Lancet and the UN)

b) the positions that sex workers organizing for their own rights take on the issue (eg. these petitions and letters)

c) Amnesty’s two years of research on the topic that informs this proposal for a new policy position

Here are some other good pieces to read with a lot more evidence, including re the Swedish Model and why it is not the way to go if we believe in ‘all women, all rights’:

1. 10 Reasons to Decriminalize Sex Work:

2. Sex Work, (Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid To Ask:

3. Open Statement of Support for Amnesty International’s Draft Policy on Decriminalization of Sex Work:

Wendy Lyon // Posted 29 August 2015 at 9:14 pm

Hey Maria,

“New Zealand is 1. a small country 2. located in an extremely isolated geographical area of the world, both of which hinder sex trafficking on a large scale.”

That may well be a valid point, but very few prohibitionists are making it. They’re mostly just ignoring NZ completely.

Anyway, I don’t know what evidence there is that 1. and 2. are more important factors than 3. the NZ legal framework is completely different to the Dutch and German legal frameworks. But even if you’re correct, it’s still not an argument against the NZ model. At most, it suggests that the amount of trafficking is determined by a country’s size and location, not by what kind of laws it has around the sex industry.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds