It’s time to decriminalise sex work

“It makes them safer by making their bosses more accountable and allowing them to work together in groups”.

Torrin Wilkins

Sex work is a topic that isn’t exactly at the top of the political agenda at the moment by any means. If anything I hardly ever see it mentioned. In part thats probably because there is a taboo around it within politics and that means its not been discussed as much as it should be. It’s also due to the current pandemic taking over the entire political discussion over the past year.

Yet the discussion about sex work should be a part of our discussions around the pandemic. One example is people being excluded from the furlough scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. Sex workers for instance couldn’t claim either with others made redundant and feeling they had no other choice but to entre sex work.

With this in mind I want to discuss how we can improve the laws around sex work within the UK. Its important because these laws have a huge influence over whether people doing sex work have workers rights and are safe at work or whether they have neither.

Below is a short video explaining both the model we use for sex work within the UK and what other models are used around the world.

The current law within the UK:

depending on what government you are under. Within England individuals aren’t banned from being prostitutes but the law stops groups from working together. It does this by viewing more than one person as a brothel. This puts sex workers in a very tricky position where they either work alone making them more unsafe or they break the law.

Full legalisation or criminalisation:

As the video above says, both legalisation and full legalisation fail to work. Where sex work is legal it is expensive to start a brothel which means poorer workers are still unprotected. On the other hand criminalising all of those involved includes both the buyers or prostitutes themselves. This gives people a criminal record making it harder to get into any other type of work.

The Nordic Model approach to sex work:

The Nordic Model for sex work involves criminalising the buyer but legalising those who are selling sex. Behind this is an attempt to criminalise those purchasing prostitution and to cut off the supply of customers.

This policy quite simply has the opposite effect to what’s intended to happen. Rather than the buyer being punished, its the sex worker that ends up taking more risks. To avoid the police this can mean meeting in a more dangerous location which makes the situation worse. In short it makes it much worse for sex workers.


My preferred solution then requires looking at both New Zealand and Denmark which have decriminalised sex work. Rather than a focus on ending sex work it focuses on ensuring everyone in sex work is safer. It makes them safer by making their bosses more accountable and allowing them to work together in groups. It also allows sex workers to go to the police to report crimes against them without fear of arrest.

This approach also is supported by groups such as Decrim now and in Sweden there are also those people in sex work who want to move towards either decriminalisation or legalisation.

A route out:

Whilst decriminalisation is a good model there is another aspect, ensuring those people in sex work have a route out if they want to leave. This is more complex than simply changing the law and part of the reason I think people push the Nordic model as a way to get people out of sex work. The real truth is that it will cost money to help people who want to leave sex work and it will require two ambitious government programs.

The first is called housing first which aims to reduce hopelessness by giving people a roof over their head as a first priority. Add in training for work skills and it could be a real route out for people.

The second is a Guaranteed Minimum Income which will help to ensure more people have access to support if they need it. It will be simpler to apply for and will hopefully offer support to those in sex work who want to leave it.

Written by Torrin Wilkins, the Director and Founder of Centre. He also has a degree in Political Studies from Aberystwyth University and has been interviewed on both the BBC and LBC.

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