POW Nottingham is a specialist organisation that has been supporting sex workers in Nottinghamshire since 1990. We are writing this statement in response to the ‘Sexual Exploitation’ Bill, which was proposed by Labour MP Diana Johnson and passed its first reading in Parliament in December 2020. With over thirty years’ experience of supporting sex workers, we feel able to give an informed opinion about how the changes outlined in the ‘Sexual Exploitation’ Bill would impact sex workers in Nottingham, and across the UK.
The ‘Sexual Exploitation’ Bill claims to tackle sex trafficking by criminalising the buying of sex and banning the advertisement of sexual services. This approach is known as the ‘Nordic Model’ and has been implemented in a number of European countries. We believe this Bill and the ‘Nordic Model’ lack nuance and conflate two separate issues: sex trafficking and sex work. Rather than protecting vulnerable individuals engaged in sex work, we believe this Bill would cause considerable danger to our service users by pushing their work ‘underground’ and criminalising some of the safeguarding measures that currently exist.
The Bill would remove existing safeguards
The Bill seeks to criminalise online platforms where sex workers can safely advertise and screen clients. Many of our service users advertise through the websites Viva Street and AdultWork, both of which have inbuilt safeguards and administrators who can take action on safeguarding issues. For example, administrators check for unsafe ‘key words’ in advertisements and work with the Police if there are reports of suspected coercion/trafficking.
Under the proposed law these websites would close, which would force sex workers to advertise through underground networks and the ‘dark web’. This would be less safe and give them considerably less autonomy and control over their work. Under current legislation, sex workers can be self-employed and have their own site/advertising profile, which gives them total control of their work and boundaries.
Criminalising the buyer would make it harder for sex workers to screen “punters” – their clients – because of security issues on the clients’ side. It’s likely that punters would switch between sim cards and refuse to disclose their real numbers for fear of prosecution. This could make it harder for sex workers to identify potential clients, which could lead to unsafe individuals accessing sex workers and a rise in violence against sex workers.
Banning safeguarding initiatives
There are a number of initiatives that effectively share information about potentially unsafe clients, such as Ugly Mugs. These initiatives would presumably be closed under the new Bill, which would cause alarm for our organisation and the sex working community. Initiatives such as Ugly Mugs provide much-needed protection for sex workers and literally save lives.
The Bill would compromise relationships with the Police
As well as removing existing safeguards, the Bill would drive sex work ‘underground’ and increase stigmatisation. This would severely impact those with complex needs who need intensive support from statutory services and support organisations such as ours.
We have spent many years carefully building trusting relationships between our service users and the Police. The ‘Sexual Exploitation’ Bill could undo much of this work overnight by creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. A change in law could also change POW’s relationship with the Police and compromise the good working relationship that’s currently in place.
Evidence from countries that use the ‘Nordic Model’ (e.g. France, Sweden and Canada) has shown that client criminalisation increases stigma against sex workers when they access service provision. Stigma is one of main barriers for sex workers to accessing support and the Bill would increase the stigma.
The Bill could led to cheaper services and more home visits
Criminalising the buying of sex would make punters more nervous about accessing sexual services. This could reduce the number of punters, which would push down prices for sexual services and cause further poverty and hardship for sex workers who rely on the income.
Criminalisation of clients could also lead to an increased number of ‘home visits’, where sex workers would visit the punters at their home address or hotel. This would be particularly concerning within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic as it could compromise the health and safety of sex workers.
Life would be harder for migrant sex workers
The ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies deny many migrants access to social security payments, such as Universal Credit or housing benefit, which makes their lives particularly precarious. The regulation of sex work often is a migration issue as many migrant sex workers are reported to the Home Office.
The price of sexual services have already dropped for many migrant sex workers because of fears around Brexit, less punters wanting to obtain services from migrants, and punters threatening to report undocumented sex workers to the Home Office. The further criminalisation of sex work would make migrant sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and make it harder for sex workers to rent the houses for work. Changing the law would also compromise migrant sex workers trust in statutory services, the Police and organisations like POW for fear of criminalisation and deportation.
The Bill presumes Sex Workers are ‘vulnerable women’
We believe the Bill is overly focused on sex workers being ‘vulnerable women and girls’, when we know that individuals with a range of identities are sex workers. Many sex workers are male, Transgender, queer, disabled and/or people of colour who would not fit into a stereotypical sex worker image. We believe the Bill ignores the complexities of the sex work community and erases individuals who chose sex work as a form of income.
The Bill denies voluntary sex work
Our final, and potentially most important, point is that
voluntary and consensual sex work exists. The ‘Sexual Exploitation’ Bill denies
individuals agency over their bodies and livelihoods, and presumes that all sex
workers are the same. The Bill is moralising and proposes inappropriate
measures that would endanger our service users and compromise their livelihoods.
 According to the latest estimates, there are around 72,800 sex workers in Britain. Nottingham is the home to around 100 ‘on street’ sex workers and approximately 1000 ‘online’ sex workers.