Decriminalise prostitution? Why we agree with Jeremy Corbyn

I know, at first it sounds bad, right — decriminalise the sex industry. Make legal the exploitation of women who need the money, make it ‘okay’ for access to their bodies be something that’s bought and sold? Sounds an awful lot like condoning both the existence of the sex industry, and what it’s about.

So why then is Jeremy Corbyn’s recent public support to decriminalise prostitution something supported by human rights campaigners — Amnesty International included?

Corbyn recently told students at Goldsmiths University during his campaign trail that it’s because he wants a society “where we don’t automatically criminalise people”. It’s believed these are his personal views rather than that of the party, and we’re not given much elaboration, other than: “Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way.”

Going beyond British politeness, Amnesty International approved a policy last year that endorsed the decriminalisation of the sex trade, arguing that it was the best way to defend the rights of sex workers. Against other legal approaches that seek to tackle the ‘problem’ of the sex industry, they’ve actually got a point. Many women are working as they feel they have no other way to make ends meet, so how fair is it to hold them culpable? How reasonable is it to pass legislation to ‘fix’ the problem from our outside perspective, or to assume we fully understand what that problem really is?

Banning stuff won’t make it go away

If something is criminalised, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen anymore: it just means it will happen underground. Here’s where things can get especially nasty. Sex workers may be less likely to turn to the police for support if they are being abused, plus plenty of underhanded dealings based on fear and intimidation will probably go unpunished. From fear of getting a criminal record, women may be compromised in a number of ways: forced to take bribes, do horrible things, etc. A TED talk by sex worker Toni Mac reminds us that being afraid of getting arrested is not going to be enough to stop women working as prostitutes: they still have mouths to feed, ends to meet. A glance back to failed prohibition initiatives is enough to tell us that full criminalisation, clearly, is not the answer.

Sweden has come up with another answer that’s known as the ‘Swedish’ or ‘Nordic’ model. This makes the buying part of the sex trade illegal, beneath the rationale that by reducing demand, prostitution will eventually be wiped out altogether. Ms Mac however tells us that there’s no evidence this works, as it ignores the needs of the sex workers themselves: they’re on the streets in the first place because they need money, and against reduced demand, they’ll lower their prices, and opt to seek help finding work through a ‘manger’ (I believe in popular culture we’d call this a ‘pimp’). Under this law, she says, sex workers have new initiative to protect the identity of their clients, so forcing them to practice behind closed doors as if they were criminals themselves. She argues that this also makes them more susceptible to violence.

Regulation doesn’t mean fair

And of legalisation? Having the government regulate the sex industry in a way that’s fair is a nice thought. But things never go quite so smoothly. It’s important to remember that legalisation is not the same as decriminalisation: the former means that sex work is regulated by the government, and made legal under particular conditions that it specifies. Decriminalisation removes any penalty for practicing sex work, allotting sex workers rights akin to those with ‘regular’ jobs.

If made legal, sex workers must comply to regulations set out by the government to avoid persecution. Here we can look to Freakonomics for a pearl of wisdom: regulation of a legal market is likely to fail when a healthy black market exists for the same product.

In countries where prostitution is legal (oh hey Germany and the Netherlands), the creation of a two-tier system has been reported between those able to work in legal conditions, and those that aren’t. Everything that was happening before will still happen, but with some pushed behind closed doors, operating against a different (economic) system of power. Here’s an example.

Consider the modern economy of privilege, and opportunities awarded to those in the 1% vs. those born into an estate block in the grimy East End. Pupils from fee-paying schools in the UK are twice as likely to go to a Russell Group University and five times as likely to be accepted into Oxbridge, the Department of Education found in January. To complete an unpaid internship (a given requirement for most in-demand jobs, especially if you work in a creative field) you first need a support base — usually family and/or money — to help you get that leg up. The types of people completing internships, applying to Oxford, and getting better jobs are doing so via regulated processes that are perfectly legal, but create very real social divisions. It’s legal and ‘regulated’, but still deeply unequal and oppressive.

What should we do, then?

Personally? I wish the sex industry didn’t exist. A woman’s body is bought and sold, with her ownership of sexuality — something that sits at the core of her being — compromised as a cheap thrill. There needs to be a broader approach tackling the social circumstances that create the need for a sex industry: poverty, marginalisation, and especially deeply entrenched gender inequality.

People sell sex in the first place, Ms Mac tells us, for money. Just as others might turn to selling drugs, stealing, or organised crime. The fact it’s sex instead of these other vices simply points again to that ugly, overarching patriarchal beast that subordinates women, and creates expectation their bodies can be traded on a market like a Rolex.

But for now, it seems decriminalisation is the most attractive solution. New Zealand did this in 2003, and since, workers’ rights have been protected through legislation. As a result, over 90% said they felt they had legal rights, and more than 60% felt they could refuse to provide sexual services since the law came into play.

Jeremy Corbyn is pushing for something important. Decriminalisation doesn’t solve the issue of the sex industry’s existence, and on principle a part of me feels squeamish saying that it — with all wrongs in tow — should be decriminalised. But the existence of the sex industry in a deeply unequal world are two facts we can’t ignore, and can’t ‘deal’ with by simply trying to wipe out sex work in a fell swoop. Here, then, the issue lies in our perception that the word ‘decriminalisation’ means something condoning the trade and what it stands for. This is where conversations need to change, and consider voices that have named unworthy of the public spotlight. You don’t see too many people doling out sympathy for prostitutes.

Decriminalisation realistically seems the only way to give power back to those most marginalised by the sex trade, which is a step towards balancing the division of power that put them there in the first place.

Featured image Brothel Museum, Amargosa Valley, NV, some rights reserved


Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.