Unusually, I have found myself in complete agreement with Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader’s support for decriminalising prostitution is laudable, and it is refreshing to hear endorsement of a civilised alternative to knee-jerk authoritarianism. It is disappointing (if not surprising) that his stance has provoked indignant outrage from Labour MPs and retrograde feminists. Decriminalisation, which is supported by Amnesty International as well as most sex workers, is the only way to protect the vulnerable, respect the autonomy of those who do it by choice, combat people trafficking, and make commercial sex safer, less stigmatized, and less exploitative.
There is evidence that decriminalisation increases the safety of sex workers. It is absurd to imagine that criminalising sex workers (or, indeed, prohibiting brothels) is helpful. Threatening someone with arrest does nothing to help them if they are forced into, rely upon, or actually enjoy their work.
If decriminalised, sex workers are more likely to be taken seriously when reporting abusive pimps and violent customers who are breaking the law. Working in a brothel is safer than working on the street, and it is even safer to work in an institution that is not breaking the law by existing. It is easier to prevent trafficking when sex work is not underground for the same reason that it is easier to monitor the employment practises of McDonald’s than those of a drug cartel.
Interestingly, the main opposition to this common-sense policy now comes from the authoritarian left rather than social conservatives. This is exemplified by the fashionable ‘Nordic Model’, which decriminalises selling sex and criminalises buying it in an attempt to undermine the sex market without harming workers. Although touted as progressive and nuanced, it is actually myopic, unethical, and dangerous.
The Nordic Model is largely motivated by the belief that buying sex is always exploitation because all sex work involves trafficking, coercion, or, at least, economic pressures. This is a gross simplification. Whilst trafficking is a huge problem and pressures exist for many sex workers, others genuinely enjoy their work and many simply prefer it to available alternatives.
Even if it were true that all sex work resulted from desperation, for many it would remain the only or least bad option available. Even if buying sex were always and everywhere inherently exploitative, it would still marginally benefit people who have to rely on it to survive.
It is irrelevant that the Nordic Model does not directly target sex workers: if the model successfully disincentives buying then it is harming the seller by depriving them of income. Either they lose clients or are forced to lower their prices. Alternatively, if workers have plenty of alternatives to selling sex, prohibition is merely a pointless assault on autonomy. And, if criminalisation is not a sufficient disincentive to customers (it tends not to be), then the policy is both pointless and actively causing harm by keeping trade underground.