According to some of the most prominent opponents of sex work decriminalisation, there are basically two types of women involved in selling sex: a small but vocal minority of self-described "sex workers" who entered the industry out of choice, and a much larger number of "prostituted women" who were coerced or forced by financial necessity.
Anyone who offers a public opinion on the sex industry based on their own personal experience is assumed to belong to the former category. Even having an awareness of the policy debate is seen as evidence a sex worker is middle-class, educated and therefore unrepresentative of most women in the industry. As such, their opinions can be ignored. It's argued that the silent, suffering majority don't have the resources, capacity or inclination to argue about legislation, so other people must speak on their behalf.
This is a rather convenient solution to the dilemma faced by decriminalisation opponents: the majority of sex workers who do speak out strongly disagree with them. Overwhelmingly, women who discuss their personal experience of prostitution – on social media, in blog posts and as part of campaigning organisations – favour decriminalisation over the most popular alternative: the Nordic model, which criminalises the purchase of sex with the goal of "ending demand".
It's argued that the silent, suffering majority don't have the resources, capacity or inclination to argue about legislation, so other people must speak on their behalf.
Advocates of this legislative approach argue that prostitution is abusive and a form of violence against women. As such, it's unthinkable that the state should condone it. Attempting to eradicate the industry is the only conscionable option and the Nordic model – which has already been implemented in Norway, Sweden and Iceland – is clearly in the best interest of most women involved in prostitution. Sex workers who disagree must be part of a self-interested, privileged elite who don't care about the danger, violence and psychological harm suffered by the less fortunate majority.
It's true that more privileged individuals generally find it easier to be heard in all contexts, but this supposed dichotomy between unrepresentative, autonomous sex workers and silent prostitution victims is a rhetorical sleight of hand. In reality, freedom of choice is rarely an all or nothing sort of thing. At one end of the spectrum is slavery, which everyone agrees should remain illegal. At the other is the mythical privileged sex worker who freely chose prostitution over various lucrative, middle-class career options.
The vast majority of people who sell sex fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. In some sense they've made a decision, but the range of possible options are often quite narrow. A single mother who chooses prostitution over sending her children to school in clothes that don't fit, for example. Or a woman who struggles to find other work because of her disabilities.
These women are not easily dismissed as selfish, privileged anomalies whose experiences are out of line with the wider reality of prostitution. Nor, however, are they voiceless. Campaigning organisations like the English Collective of Prostitutes – smeared by Nordic model advocates as representing a "pimp lobby" – are made up of women who are single mothers. Women who are struggling to get by. Women who sell sex because it's the least bad course of action available to them.
Few vocal supporters of decriminalisation deny that there is significant harm and danger associated with the sex industry. Generally, their argument is that criminalisation simply makes the situation worse.
Caricaturing outspoken sex workers as part of an unrepresentative elite, or accusing them of nefarious hidden motivations, allows opponents to avoid actually engaging with the points they raise. Few vocal supporters of decriminalisation deny that there is significant harm and danger associated with the sex industry. Generally, their argument is that criminalisation simply makes the situation worse.
"End demand" is a neat slogan, but it's unlikely that it is an achievable goal. Certainly, the sex industry has not disappeared in countries where the Nordic model has been introduced. It's more accurate to understand criminalisation as an effort to reduce demand.
Sex work activists point to research showing danger has increased for women who continue to sell sex in these countries. For example, outdoor sex workers are forced to move to more poorly policed areas because customers are worried about being arrested. Buyers are also unwilling to loiter for as long, making it harder to verify their identity. In the UK, the National Ugly Mugs project – a directory with photos of men who've previously been violent towards sex workers – is a vital tool helping women protect themselves.
In the UK, the National Ugly Mugs project – a directory with photos of men who've previously been violent towards sex workers – is a vital tool helping women protect themselves.
What's more, though the Nordic model doesn't directly criminalise the sale of sex, it does ban "brothel-keeping". What this means, in practice, is that two or three women cannot legally work together in the same property. Forcing sex workers to operate alone massively increases their vulnerability to violence. If they choose to flout the law, they're unable to ever seek help from the police without risking arrest. Ironically, the most privileged sex workers are the least affected as they're able to legally employ a maid or receptionist.
Even if eradicating demand was possible, it wouldn't solve the financial issues that compel many women to enter prostitution. Claiming you'll help them find other work is an empty promise if that means poverty level wages, insecure zero-hour contracts and working hours that don't fit around caring responsibilities. The inadequacy of these alternative options is the problem. Sex workers often argue that increased state benefits are necessary to ensure nobody is forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.
Pretending that only a privileged minority of sex workers have concerns about the Nordic model is a cheap trick, and there's no excuse for attempting to exclude those directly affected from participating in the debate. Those who support criminalisation need to acknowledge opposing arguments and respond to them directly – until they do so it's difficult to believe they have sex workers' best interests at heart.