Skip to main content

Opinion: Sex workers across the world are demanding decriminalisation

IN 1975 sex workers in France and Switzerland surprised everyone by going on strike against repression — just like “real workers.”

The strikes started with the occupation of a church in Lyon and a banner saying: “Our children don’t want their mothers in prison.” 

They complained bitterly about police arresting and fining them on the spot, and the hypocrisy of a society which targeted mothers working to feed their children. 

Women, the overwhelming majority of sex workers everywhere, had come out of the shadows created by repressive legislation to demand an end to criminalisation, and launched a movement that became global. 

Inspired by their actions, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and later other sex worker organisations formed in many countries.

The banner outside the Holy Cross church in London, which the ECP occupied for 12 days in 1982, read: “Mothers need money: End police illegality and racism in King’s Cross.”   

In 2017 Parliament’s home affairs committee recommended that the government “change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises.” 

This massive step forward, which took 42 years of campaigning, was endangered at Hackney Constituency Labour Party last week by a motion targeting clients, known as the Nordic Model.

Those in favour evoked the “trafficking in human flesh” (not dissimilar to the images of foetuses used by anti-abortion lobbyists).

Those against — sex worker organisations and a diverse group of supporters — made a thoughtful and compelling case against the motion, spelling out the everyday reality of poverty and criminalisation.

Advocates of the Nordic Model are an “unlikely union of evangelical Christians and feminist campaigners”. They conflate consenting sex in exchange for payment with forced trafficking.

Thus evidence is manipulated and workers are dehumanised as “prostituted women” who need others to save them. 

The most reliable research found less than 6 per cent of UK migrant workers are trafficked, not 80 per cent as claimed.

In 2013 sex workers’ flats in central London were raided to “save victims of trafficking”: 250 officers in riot gear with dogs (accompanied by the media who published identifiable photos), broke down doors and handcuffed women. 

No trafficking victims were found but 20 flats were closed.

Property developers were delighted until a campaign spearheaded by local women with the ECP got the flats reopened.

Rising poverty has pushed women, particularly mothers, into prostitution. Eighty-six per cent of austerity cuts target women, four million children are living in poverty, 1.25 million people are officially destitute, and asylum-seekers are barely surviving on £36 a week.

Benefit sanctions alone have driven thousands to prostitution, as Ken Loach’s acclaimed film I, Daniel Blake illustrates. 

Nordic Model advocates target prostitution, not poverty, as uniquely degrading. Are we not degraded when we have to skip meals, beg or submit to a violent partner to keep a roof over our heads? 

Everywhere women are “choosing” between destitution, domestic work, sweatshops and prostitution.

Empower, the sex workers’ organisation in Thailand, comments: “Wages in other industries that commonly employ women, such as agriculture, fisheries and factories, are so low that even the lowest paid sex workers are earning twice the minimum wage.”

Police crackdowns, even those supposedly targeting clients, undermine safety by forcing workers further underground.

After Ireland’s sex purchase law was introduced, reported violence against sex workers rose by almost 50 per cent.

In France, a two-year evaluation of the law found 42 per cent of sex workers were more exposed to violence and 38 per cent found it harder to insist on condom use.

In Norway, forced evictions, prosecutions and stigma against sex workers are prevalent, especially against immigrants.

Amnesty International’s research in five countries condemned criminalisation for promoting “an environment where law enforcement officers and other officials can perpetrate violence, harassment and extortion against sex workers with impunity.” 

Internationally, sex workers are demanding decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 with verifiable success.

Over 90 per cent of sex workers said they had legal, health and safety rights, including 64.8 per cent who said they found it easier to refuse clients — a key marker of exploitation. Seventy per cent said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police. 

Solidarity with workers in struggle prevailed in Hackney: the motion was defeated by 48 votes to 34. A sign of the times. 

The ECP is a self-help organisation of sex workers, working both on the street and in premises, with a national network throughout Britain.

Since 1975, we have campaigned for the decriminalisation of prostitution, for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to. 


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 3,273
We need:£ 14,727
24 Days remaining
Donate today