Note: This article specifically discusses women in sex work who choose that profession as a last resort, rather than a desirable option.
On the 21st of November I attended a talk hosted by the charity MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health), focused on the subject of supporting women in sex work. It was not a topic I knew much about, and definitely not one I expected a whole talk to be dedicated to- sex work is, needless to say, a huge taboo in our culture; we know it happens, but we don’t like to talk about it. But this event turned that on its head; we were all here to talk about it.
The support that MASH provides to women is varied and targets all areas of their lives. For instance, they recognise that there are both physical and mental risks associated with their line of profession, so provide medical check-ups, with particular focus on physical, mental and sexual well-being. Sometimes the problems are practical; financial support and advice is given to women struggling with debt and homelessness. A recent survey conducted by MASH found that 80% of the women have had no fixed home at some point in their lives and 30% are currently homeless.
The speaker, after listing these services, paused for a moment. Then she said something that really stuck out to me, and that got me thinking about sex work outside of MASH and its services. She said that the objective of MASH was not to save women from sex work, but to save them from the problems that lead to sex work.
This puts forward the idea that sex work is not the problem, and that as a society, our disgust at prostitution is misplaced. We shouldn’t be critical of prostitution, but rather of the problems in a woman’s life that may lead to prostitution. This isn’t to say that sex work as a profession is not problematic in many ways, exploitation and abuse are common within the line of work. MASH suggest that the problem begins long before a woman decides to sell sex.
MASH is fighting against a legal system that does not support women in sex work. Whilst it is legal for a woman to exchange sex for money, it becomes illegal when two women work together. That is to say, women who work alongside one another or in groups for safety and community can be prosecuted on the basis of ‘brothel-keeping’. This is just one example of how laws against sex workers, designed to eradicate prostitution from society, only serve to criminalise vulnerable women and push the work off the radar, where it becomes harder to monitor, but no less popular.
So what’s the solution? Known as the ‘Nordic Model’ because it originated in Sweden, one strategy involves decriminalising the act of selling sex, but maintains the offence of purchasing it. At the moment, women in sex work are reluctant to report abuse and exploitation, and it’s pretty fair enough- they could get themselves into a lot of legal trouble. Using the ‘Nordic Model’, women are not persecuted for resorting to desperate measures, whilst exploitative or abusive customers can be punished.
It sounds reasonable, and the model has gathered a lot of support from around the globe- but it’s also gathered criticism. Firstly, many sex workers have voiced their concern that whilst in theory this protects them, the reality is that customers, fearing punishment, can threaten them into silence. Plus, there are some loopholes. Pimps who manage the sex workers can be considered as selling sex, and so can’t be persecuted for exploitation under the Nordic Model, which only criminalises the customer.
Abolitionists argue that there is no way to make prostitution safe. They see the term ‘sex worker’ as a mask for what is fundamentally and unchangeably abuse. Their approach to the solution is to help women leave the industry for good. Which, of course, sounds great for the women who want to leave, and I whole-heartedly support the long-term exit-plan, yet I can’t help but think that the world will continue to produce disadvantaged, vulnerable women. There’s nothing happening at the moment to suggest that there won’t always be a supply for the sex work industry, and likewise, there will always be demand. Welfare and education can help to stop the problem before it starts, but there are already generations of women who need prostitution because they believe they don’t have the skills or the option of turning elsewhere.
Ultimately, sex work is, generally speaking, a desperate measure called for by women in desperate times. Eliminate the desperate times through better education, healthcare, job prospects etc and you may find the desperate measure will also be eliminated. But until this is put in place successfully, it’s crucial that we have organisations like MASH who aren’t just concerned with eradicating the sex trade, but also with the wellbeing of women who already rely on sex work. In the big debate over prostitution and the law, these women must not be forgotten.
Find out more about the work that MASH is doing to help these women here.