In defence of safe and legal sex work

Harrison Griffiths

November 29, 2021

Three weeks ago, Durham University drew criticism for offering guidance on safety for students and staff engaged in sex work. The responses, mostly from the right, were full of all too predictable outrage and scorn. Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan accused the University of “legitimising a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women”.

Durham, unbowed by the criticism, defended its actions, drawing a very clear line between endorsing the practice and trying to ensure that people stay safe if they chose to engage in it. Although understandable from a PR standpoint, this response did not sit well with me. I believe that an opportunity was missed to counter old stigmas and narratives surrounding sex work and to make the case for its full legalisation.

The first and, in my view, most important issue at hand is the lost art of accepting that consenting adults should be able to engage in peaceful activities which do not bring ill effects on a third party. Voicing disagreement, boycotting individuals and businesses which part take in the industry, and declining to partake in sex work personally are all legitimate ways to signal opposition; attempting to silence others is not.

Many will claim that sex work is not, in fact, a peaceful endeavour. Diane Abbott tweeted that sex work is “degrading, dangerous and exploitative”. Use of the term “exploitative” should give cause for concern for those on the right condemning sex work. To embrace traditional left-wing narratives about consensual transactions in the workplace as being in some way coercive undermines the fundamental underpinnings of a market economy and a free society.

Sex, unlike most other day to day activities, holds a certain power over society’s collective conscience and thus has a rather unique ability to make people squeamish and prone to moral panic. There are some good reasons this; sex is a deeply primal and personal activity, often shrouded in privacy, taboo, and sensitivity; certainly not the main topic of calm and civilised conversation.

While the uniquely intimate nature of sex is what makes it such a sensitive issue for many, I believe that it is precisely that fact which renders it off limits for anyone to influence beyond those consenting adults who take part in it. Sex can be experimental, an expression of commitment, an emotional outlet, and yes, sometimes a means to an end. Whether the end is financial or otherwise is moot, so long as adults freely consent to sex, then others, including MPs and GB News contributors have no right to interfere.

We should instead laser-focus our efforts as a society on enforcing laws against genuine sexual exploitation such as sexual assault, coercive control and people trafficking, something which other countries in which sex work is legal, such as Switzerland, have failed to do properly. Like all prohibitive measures, enforcing laws against peaceful sexual transactions leaves fewer resources for tackling genuine acts of violence and exploitation.

In addition to using the term “exploitative”, Diane Abbot described sex work as dangerous. The environments in which sex work often takes place, coupled with the types of people who often engage in its organisation and consumption, certainly place sex work on a higher risk footing than other professions.

This, I concede, is backed by evidence that sex work can have harmful effects which can take years, decades or even a lifetime to overcome. We must, however, take the world as we find it not as we would like it to be. Sex work is often called “the oldest profession”, and remains highly prevalent across the world.

Economic growth, strong families, labour mobility and more opportunity can go some way to eradicating sex work stemming from desperation, but these things are incremental. In the meantime we should focus on harm reduction for those currently engaged in sex work and those who would chose to do so regardless of broader circumstances. The question then becomes; do societal stigmas and government coercion actually reduce harm? It’s difficult to see how it does anything to reduce the danger of which Diane Abbott speaks.

Across the UK (with the notable exception of Northern Ireland), the simple act of exchanging money for sex is not criminalised. In spite of this, most of the acts surrounding sex work such as public solicitation, operating a brothel and “pimping” remain illegal. In effect, this forces sex workers to work alone, to work in the shadows and forces many day-to-day functions of the industry underground.  

All of these things enhance the danger of sex work by creating a black market in which the industry thrives. As with any black market, the higher risks and thus higher rewards continue to provide an incentive for people who work in the business and, to a large extent, puts the industry outside of the oversight of regulation, market forces and public vigilance. The same effect seems to exist in the “Nordic model”, whereby sex work is legal, but consumption is prosecuted, suggesting that the laissez-faire approach may be the best avenue to defeat the black market.

Existing laws also help to perpetuate the environment of taboo and judgement for those undertaking sex work. Sex work is already highly stigmatised. People are entitled to their own views on the matter, but the stigma is based on certain faulty assumptions and has tangible negative effects on sex workers. Crucially, it stops us openly discussing issues such as safe sex to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs), ways in which sex workers can identify dangers while they are at work, as well as avenues through which they can seek recourse and protection if they are put in danger.

Rather than using misplaced moral concerns to perpetuate stigma and use the heavy arm of the law to “sanitise’ society, we should to the opposite, and bring sex work out in the open in order to keep sex workers, who are overwhelmingly female and disproportionately of poor and migrant backgrounds, safer on the streets.

The first steps towards doing this would be decriminalising all activities associated with sex work, expanding access to contraception and having civil society institutions such as universities be more open about discussing sex work and how to stay safe.

Full decriminalisation would put law enforcement decidedly on the side of sex workers, rather than an adversarial force, as has become the case in New Zealand, where sex workers report feeling safer and where sex workers have successfully sued employers for their rights at work. A society more open on the issue of sex work would also give workers both the tangible and intangible resources to remain as safe as possible while at work.

The third and final issue raised is the idea that sex work is “degrading”. I have no doubt that in circumstances, sex work can indeed be tragic and degrading. What I find deeply objectionable is the hubris of commentators who seem to believe that they posses the information necessary to make that adjudication on behalf of all sex workers.

Furthermore, I find the notion that government and society writ large weaponising their own impressions of sex work to perpetuate the existence of laws and perceptions which harm sex workers to be both sanctimonious and infantilising. Indeed, it is this that degrades sex workers by continuing to beat them with the twin stick of the law and of society’s judgement only then to wrap it up in the veneer of a sincere concern for their wellbeing.

Liberals of all stripes should be true to our fundamental values and stand up for institutions like Durham University who attempt to take tangible steps to create that little bit more safety for sex workers while drawing attention to the issue. Whether we approve of sex work or not, it is, for the most part, a consensual transaction and a deeply personal one at that, and as such, we must stand against those authoritarians who assume the right to control other peoples’ actions and decisions.

We must make the case for fully decriminalising and destigmatisation of sex work and to find creative solutions within the market and civil society to ensure the safety of those who part take.

Finally, we should also be in favour of individuals having the highest possible number of opportunities to choose their own path in life, so that sex work isn’t considered the only source from which financial stability flows. As we already know, an economy conducive to high growth, labour mobility, low unemployment and dynamic entrepreneurship does just that, and liberals must be at the heart of making it a reality.


Written by Harrison Griffiths

Harrison is a postgraduate student, doing his MA in American History and Politics at University College London

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