The Labour Party Faces New Divisions Over Sex Work

Framed as an attempt to cut down on online sex trafficking, the pair of bills commonly known as the FOSTA-SESTA package became law in the United States in April this year. In essence, this new law was made to crack down on the advertisement of sex work online which in itself has been met with controversy on all sides of the political spectrum.

In the last week, the dispute has moved to the United Kingdom after a group of MPs, headed by Labour’s Sarah Champion brought the debate to Parliament. Ms Champion is openly in favour of the Nordic Model (the criminalisation of the purchase of sex), and wants to pressure the UK government to bring this model to Britain. Even Jeremy Corbyn himself has spoken out in favour of the this model. Divisions within the Labour Party over the issue are growing and many are calling on their leadership to speak out against the proposals and back full decriminalisation of sex work. Whether this actually happens or not, remains to be seen.

A key argument against Ms Champion’s proposals is that the criminalisation of sex work will just drive the industry underground, thus putting sex workers themselves at risk. It is naïve to think that any amount of regulation could completely eradicate what is a well-established industry. The internet plays a vital role in the safeguarding of sex workers. In a study undertaken by Beyond the Gaze, it was found that three quarters of sex workers identified the internet as an important factor in their safety. Through taking their work online, there is access to vital support systems and the ability to vet clients prior to meeting them. The idea then that getting rid of online advertising platforms would protect sex workers from exploitation is misguided to say the least.

In countries such as Greece where sex work is heavily regulated, many sex workers now practice illegally leaving them at the mercy of pimps and trafficking gangs who seek to exploit them. This is a real world example of how criminalisation is not always the best option. The aftermath of the law passing in the US has been the exact opposite of its supposed intentions leading to sex workers being pushed back onto the streets and back into the hands of those who exploited them. For those on the left who hold workers’ rights close to their hearts, this should be a real wake up call.

Sex work in itself is a complex industry and no two workers join the industry for the same reason. There is no denying that exploitation exists and no one calling for decriminalisation is arguing that. The idea, however, that a change in law would somehow ‘save’ those forced into the industry is very wrong. Even survivors of sex trafficking are arguing against the proposed changes and find it bewildering that very few of those in power are choosing to consult them. No industry is without exploitation, such is the nature of capitalism but to make potentially dangerous changes to the regulation of an industry without consulting its workers is dangerous.

Terminology is also important when discussing this issue. A transcript from the parliamentary debate appears to show Labour MPs Jess Philips and Sarah Champion forcing the use of the term prostitute as opposed to sex worker. The sex industry is broad and though there are some who refer to themselves as prostitutes, there are many who do not. In a model motion that is being put to CLPs across the country it is noted just how many different roles are included in the term sex worker. It is not the job of those outside of the industry to decide which is correct. This again is an example of how little dialogue there has been between those within the industry and those in positions of power.

For self-proclaimed feminist MPs to constantly use the argument that they are in some way ‘saving women’ by working to legislate against sex work is again damaging. Regardless of an individual’s thoughts on the morality of sex work, the industry exists and to introduce a law that would be harmful to sex workers of all genders is in no way going to ‘save women’. This rhetoric is far from helpful and takes attention away from the real problem at hand.

The Labour Party in the United Kingdom has historically prided itself on being the Party of the workers; indeed the clue is in the name, so to speak. For many, this fact is fundamental to the debate. As put in a recent article for LabourList, ‘it is self-evident that workers should be the ones to determine how best to improve their working conditions’. The sex industry exists and where an industry exists so do workers who must be protected. The Labour Party must recognise this and treat the industry just like any other. It must listen to the workers, and work to strengthen their rights.