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Stigmatising sex workers

New government strategy continues to treat prostitution as a social problem rather than a labour and human rights issue says Dr Ana Lopes.
The distinction between the sex industry and the mainstream entertainment industry is blurred, as erotic imagery is becoming integrated in the mainstream industry, in the form of fashion, films and music videos. This blurred line has shifted over time, especially during the twentieth century – that is, activities that used to be viewed as part of the underworld are now an integral part of the mainstream industry and actually enjoy high status and respectability (e.g. theatre, musicals, modelling for artists). Thus, it is possible that sectors that are now seen as belonging within the sex industry may acquire higher respectability in the future and therefore come to be incorporated within the mainstream entertainment industry.

The sex industry is a widespread industry and its size and visibility differ from country to country. Its largely underground and clandestine nature makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to gain accurate figures and a reliable picture of its size. Most figures available are mere estimates. It has been argued that in structure and size, Australia’s sex industry is very similar to the religious industry – both employ approximately 20, 000 people and both sell intangibles like ‘fantasy’, ‘desire’ and ‘hope’ along with an extensive ‘spin-off’ range of products.

The term ‘sex industry’ is often conflated with ‘prostitution’. In reality, the sex industry includes a wide range of practices involving the exchange of sex (and/or sexually related goods or services) for money. Prostitution is only a small part of the global sex industry. And street prostitution is only a tiny part of the prostitution market, which includes different types of indoor premises and settings. However, street prostitution is the most ‘visible’ part of the industry, the one that is more connected with criminal elements and the one that causes the most uproar in society.

The Home Office started a review of legislation around prostitution in the year 2004. The resulting ‘prostitution strategy’ was published last month and it mainly aims to reduce street prostitution. Sex worker activists and sex workers’ rights advocates are unanimous in their disapproval of this new strategy. Once again, sex work is treated as a social behaviour problem, rather than as a labour issue. The way to tackle vulnerability and exploitation is to focus on health and human rights, and this is what the strategy fails to do.

The recent changes, the so-called zero tolerance approach towards street prostitution, will bring nefarious consequences to sex workers and sex workers’ safety. Repressive measures against sex workers or their clients result in further vulnerability. The market is forced further underground, workers are forced to work in more isolated areas where they are more vulnerable to violence.

This strategy also reduces sex workers’ negotiating powers. If the clients are at risk of persecution, they will be nervous and will try to cut down on the negotiation time. That will result in less time for sex workers to access whether a client is genuine or violent, and less time to negotiate safe sex practices and condom use.

Repressive measures discourage consenting adult sex workers and clients from reporting abuses to the police, fearing they will be persecuted for their own involvement in sex work.

As research carried out in other countries, such as Sweden, show, repressive measures and the criminalisation of clients do not result in the reduction (let alone elimination) of street prostitution. They merely shift the market from one area to another.

Sex workers have less autonomy and control in their work than many other workers. The main argument put forward against the regulation of the sex industry in a way that ensures that sex workers have occupational conditions enjoyed by workers in other industries is that sex work is inherently exploitative. The fact that laws are responsible for the creation of exploitative conditions within the sex industry is usually ignored.

Sex work is legitimate work and problems within the industry are not inherent in the work itself. It is vulnerability, not sex work, which creates victims. Sex workers should enjoy the same labour rights as other workers and the same human rights as other people. Sex workers can only gain the same rights as other workers when the debate is moved from a moral framework and placed in the framework of labour rights.

Dr Ana Lopes works for the International Union of Sex Workers.