How we end violence against sex workers

Criminalisation, poverty and the hostile environment are roots of violence against sex workers. It’s time to end them all, say Niki Adams and Laura Connelly

December 17, 2021 · 7 min read
Illustration by India Joseph, Moon and Moth Studio

Since 2003, those of us involved in the movement for sex workers’ rights have commemorated 17 December as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. It is a day of mourning, when we remember the precious lives lost, and a day of resistance, when we draw strength from each other to continue our struggles for justice.

This 17 December arrives in the context of grief and fury over the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, and Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. As people have clamoured for change, the appalling police response to rape and other violence, and their institutionalised cover-ups, have been laid bare: Between 2016 and 2020, there were over 500 cases of proven sexual misconduct by police.

Sex workers have been speaking about police and establishment complicity in violence for decades – next year will be 40 years since the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied the Holy Cross church in King’s Cross to protest police illegality and racism – but their words have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Amid recent public outcry and encouraging mobilisations, however, lie possibilities for a reckoning that is long overdue. But, in order for sex workers to be acknowledged as victims when they experience violence – and for the particular barriers to them accessing justice to be addressed – we must examine how criminalisation of sex work undermines safety.

The UK laws endangering lives

It is far safer for sex workers to work indoors with others, but this is illegal, whereas working alone can be permissible under UK law. Women are therefore forced to choose between keeping themselves safe but facing possible arrest, or avoiding a criminal record by putting themselves in danger. Sex workers are also deterred from reporting rape and other violence for fear of arrest. Trans, migrant and women of colour sex workers are particularly targeted by the laws and are less likely to report violence to the police due to discrimination.

As our research published earlier this year shows, migrant sex workers in the UK have faced an increase in violence, racism, and xenophobia since the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Violent clients use migrant sex workers’ precarious immigration status to act with impunity. Yet, far from being able to rely on the police for support, migrant sex workers have been raided, arrested, and threatened with deportation. They have been told that sex work is not ‘legitimate’ work – despite the fact that EU migrant sex workers were eligible to claim self-employed status under the Settlement Scheme.

If enacted, the Nationality and Borders Bill will make the situation worse for migrant sex workers. It contains a host of cruel measures that will compel people who need to migrate to take up even more dangerous routes of entry into the UK. It will push people into the hands of smugglers and oblige people to take up work in informal markets where they are more vulnerable to exploitation. It is therefore also imperative to recognise the institutional and structural forms of violence levelled at sex workers.

Ending poverty and the need for decriminalisation

Prostitution is increasing because poverty is increasing. In 2004, a UK government report found that most sex workers are mothers working to support families, with 74 per cent of indoor sex workers surveyed citing the need to pay household expenses and support their children. Yet austerity cuts targeted women. More recently, benefit sanctions and the introduction of universal credit have pushed more women, particularly single mothers, into prostitution.

The pandemic and the lack of state support exacerbated this crisis. The Government’s callous commitment to austerity is a form of state violence. So too is the policy of labelling poverty as neglect and removing children from loving mothers – a policy that appears to be increasingly used against sex-working mums.

This year, we have also seen renewed calls from politicians, including those that call themselves feminist, to implement the deeply problematic ‘Swedish Model’ which would criminalise the purchase of sex. The evidence is clear: the Swedish Model increases stigma and violence. Since its implementation in Northern Ireland, for example, violence against sex workers has increased by 92 per cent.

Without addressing the reasons why people (need to) sell sex, the Swedish Model simply creates further harms for sex workers – harms felt greatest by those already made most vulnerable by the state. It is also premised on the view that prostitution is inherently violent and exploitative, which insultingly implies sex workers cannot distinguish between the sex they consent to and rape. It also ignores that many women go into sex work in order to escape violence – in the home, from the community, and from the State.

In contrast, the decriminalisation of sex work – which in New Zealand has improved sex workers safety and well-being – is supported by prestigious organisations such as Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and internationally by Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, and Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, among others.

If we are serious about ending violence against women then calls for a greater police presence must be resisted. We must listen to sex worker collectives like the English Collective of Prostitutes and SWARM (Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement) and focus on ending criminalisation, poverty, and the hostile environment.

Niki Adams is a member of the English Collective of Prostitutes, a network of sex workers working both on the streets and indoors campaigning for decriminalisation and safety. Laura Connelly is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Sheffield, Co-Chair of the Sex Work Research Hub and member of the Northern Police Monitoring Project.

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