Prevalent discourse would have you believe that sex workers are problems to deal with, or victims to ‘save’. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, when you ask sex workers about their job satisfaction and working conditions – as a study led by Leeds University just has – the majority of them are happy. When asked to describe their work, respondents typically selected positive or neutral words. 91 per cent of sex workers described their work as ‘flexible’, 66 per cent described it as ‘fun’ and over half find their job ‘rewarding’.
The headlines today have focused on the findings that the majority of the 240 sex workers who responded to the survey had worked in other jobs, particularly in social and healthcare professions, and were well-educated. But this came as no real surprise to other sex workers or experts in the field, who are well aware that the common view of sex workers is wrong.
But the findings of this study will no doubt prove to be unfathomable to the coalition of radical feminists and conservative Christians who have overlooked their deeply held differences to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland, and who advocate for the introduction of similar laws for the rest of the UK. Their proposals are based on the so-called Swedish Model which criminalises the purchase of sex, based on a construction of sex work as gender-based violence against women.
Despite being opposed by the Lancet, UN Aids, the World Health Organisation and Human Rights Watch, the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland has energised those advocating a similar approach for the rest of the UK, who are supported by senior figures within the Labour Party. They believe that sex work as a career cannot be freely chosen, but this is clearly at odds with the findings of this survey.
It is startling that the Swedish Model is advocated as something which should be exported internationally despite there being no evidence at all that it has reduced sex work, and considerable evidence that is has subjected sex workers to increased harm and stigma.
An it’s an increase that sex workers can do without. Despite the high levels of job satisfaction, the Leeds University study also found that 71 per cent of sex workers experience stigma and nearly half have been the victim of a crime during the course of their work. National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a multi-award winning project which supports sex workers when they are targeted by offenders, exists to challenge stigma and work in partnership with the police to improve practices and bring perpetrators of crimes against sex workers to justice.
Selling sex is not inherently harmful or dangerous. It is clear from the 50 to 60 incidents reported to NUM every month that offenders target sex workers because they believe that they won’t be reported to the police, and they will get away with it. Tragically, this belief is based in reality: only 26 per cent of the 1350 sex workers who have reported serious crimes to NUM were willing to report to the police.
This study has demonstrated that sex workers are a diverse group, most of whom have chosen their work as a preference to the other options available to them. It also delivers a strong message that any policy which seeks to deny their agency is not founded in evidence.
On International Sex Workers’ Rights Day we must remind ourselves that sex workers are one of the most stigmatised groups in our society and are often deliberately denied a voice by policy makers who claim to be advocating for them. Only through decriminalisation will sex workers be less stigmatised and feel comfortable in reporting crimes to the police and advocating their rights as workers.
Director of Service of the National Ugly Mugs Scheme