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Decriminalisation – What Does It Mean?

One of the biggest discussions surrounding prostitution in the Developed world is criminalisation vs decriminalisation.

Full Criminalisation

The first main approach we’ll explain is known as full criminalisation. This is an approach used in countries like Russia, South Africa and parts of the US. Simply put, this is a way of regulating sex work by criminalising all parties involved: the seller, the buyer, and any third parties. This approach works by creating fear of the law and being arrested to deter people from selling sex. However, when an individuals are forced to make a choice between feeding themselves or their families and obeying the law, being prosecuted can be seen as a risk worth taking. Another issue with any method criminalising the seller is: once an individual is criminalised it becomes extremely difficult to obtain a conventional job. A criminal record of solicitation can mean potential employers won’t give the individual a chance. This approach can trap people in a cycle of re-offending and entrenched behaviours, being forced to sell sex to provide for themselves- the opposite of the intended effect. In countries where corruption is widespread in the criminal justice system, those who sell sex can be coerced into paying bribes or having sex with a law enforcement officer to avoid arrest or tortured. In some countries where full criminalisation is enforced, carrying condoms can be used as evidence that someone is selling sex. Some individuals comment that the threat of carrying condoms being used against the individual is an disincentive to using them. This becomes an issue for public health, as it increases the risk of HIV and other STDs. Those working in these places often have to make the choice between risking arrest or having unprotected sex.

Partial Criminalisation

The second approach we’ll discuss for regulating sex work, which is the current position used here in the UK, is partial criminalisation. This means that the buying and selling of sex are legal. However, the activities surrounding it are illegal: brothel-keeping, soliciting, kerb crawling, etc. This simply means that individuals who are selling sex must do so in secret and alone, or they risk arrest. This can create a dangerous environment for prostituted individuals as they are increasingly vulnerable to violent offenders, as well as putting themselves in a position of breaking the law if they try to introduce protective measures, such as working with someone else. In order to avoid arrest, some street workers take risks to avoid detection, such as working in areas where they’re vulnerable to attack. If an individual is caught selling sex outdoors they are given a penalty with a fine to pay, which can become a cycle of re-offending.

Partial Decriminalisation (Sex Buyer Law)

Another main approach is to remove the negative effects of criminalising sex workers, and instead putting sanctions in for those who buy sex. Known as the Nordic model, the “end demand” model, or the Sex Buyer Law, the approach has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland and Israel. This approach is made up of 4 main elements; decriminalisation of those who are prostituted, buying sex becomes a criminal offence, provision of support and exit services, and a holistic approach. Decriminalisation of the seller comes from the understanding that prostitution is inherently violent, and the belief that women should not being criminalised for the exploitation and abuse they endure. Criminalising those who buy sex is believed to reduce the demand which drives sex trafficking and in turn protects those who are being exploited. A key element in this model is the support and exit services, which are supposed to be of high quality and maintain a non-judgemental stance towards their clients. Offering support to those in prostitution and help them build a new life outside it, including: access to safe affordable housing; training and further education; child care; legal, debt and benefit advice; emotional and psychological support. As well as this support for the prostituted individual, it is key to help change perceptions involving; offering training, public information campaigns, tackling inequality and poverty. and effective laws against pimping and sex trafficking, with penalties that reflect the enormous damage they cause to those they exploit. As the NSWP’s Policy Brief on the Impact of Criminalisation on Sex Workers’ Vulnerability to HIV and Violence notes that several of the vulnerabilities connected with criminalisation persist despite the introduction of End Demand legislation. Citing a reduced demand meaning sex workers accepting more dangerous buyers, whom they would otherwise turn away.

Full Decriminalisation

This model, which has been present in New Zealand since 2003, is thought to safeguard the human rights of sex workers, to protect sex workers from exploitation, to promote the welfare and occupational safety and health of sex workers, as well as to create an environment that is conducive to public health. There has been a substantial amount of research into this model of regulating sex work, and there is evidence that supports that the safety has increased for sex workers in New Zealand, as well as evidence which contradicts this. It is difficult to discern in this short article a true understanding of if this model has ‘worked’. Here are some articles which might be informative for you on this matter: “Bad for the body, bad for the heart”, Understanding Legal Frameworks and the Struggle for Sex Work Law Reforms.

What can we do?

We recognise that criminalisation vs decriminalisation is a ‘hot topic’, and it can be very emotive on either side for sex workers and survivors.

Here at Rahab we believe that sex working is a complex and broad issue, and for now there doesn’t seem to be a right answer. However, this doesn’t mean we’re doing nothing! For us, the key is working with individuals to support them and to partner with local organisations to ensure that they get the help they need! The prostituted individuals mentioned several times throughout this blog are people. They have had complicated experiences and often have complicated responses to those experiences. Their primary needs are simple; food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety. This is not an exhaustive list, some clients have wider reaching needs, including treatment for the symptoms of an addiction, or someone who has experienced abuse and trauma. Many of the clients we work with have severe and multiple disadvantages, which are often perpetuated by negative stereotypes. Our clients have stories of their own, and many look forward to a day where they are free from prostitution and the cycles of abuse, poverty, and addiction.

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