“80 years on from Orwell’s journey and 107 since Mary Macarthur organised women in the Black Country, it’s clear that unfettered capitalism is a deep river that always finds its way through the softest rock. It seeks out the most vulnerable and exploits them. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. But it adds insult to injury when we see these new exploitations dressed up as freedom.” – Ros Wynne Jones
The agenda for the 2017 TUC Congress has been published. It includes a motion from ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, calling for the full decriminalisation of “sex work.” This approach implicitly decriminalises pimping, profiteering and related activities that are currently considered to be exploitation. The full text of the motion is set out in an appendix below.
More than 95% of ASLEF members are male. In March this year, their women’s committee put a similar motion to the TUC Women’s Conference. However, the TUC Women’s Conference rejected it.
Not content to allow the TUC Women’s Conference to take the lead on this issue, ASLEF has now put Motion 39 forward to the TUC conference.
One cannot help but wonder why an overwhelmingly male union would be so determined to override the democratically mandated position of the TUC Women’s Conference on this issue, which so disproportionately impacts women and girls.
The motion is worded in such a way that on a superficial level it appears to be in the interests of the women and children who are involved in prostitution. However, that simply does not stand up to scrutiny, as we show below. We take each paragraph of the motion in turn and show that it is flawed.
1. “Congress notes that austerity measures since 2010 have led to an increase in the number of people working in the sex industry and is concerned by examples such as Doncaster, where on-street prostitution has risen by 60 per cent, an increase primarily attributed to the impact of benefit sanctions.”
We agree that the appalling and inhumane austerity measures (including benefit sanctions) that have been implemented since 2010 have had a disproportionate impact on women and children and have driven many women into prostitution as a last resort. However, the full decriminalisation of the sex trade (including of pimps, punters and brothel keepers) as recommended by this motion is not the solution and is likely to only make matters worse.
A study conducted by UCL found that “violence is a prominent feature in the lives of [prostitutes] in almost all [prostitution] settings”; “a single year of engagement in [prostitution] is likely to have the same impact on mental health as an entire life of experiences prior to involvement in it;” and “Social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance into [prostitution] and exclusion is often deepened as a result of engaging in it.”
Full decriminalisation does not keep women in prostitution safe – because nothing can make it safe – and full decriminalisation would serve to institutionalise the expectation that impoverished women should support themselves by engaging in prostitution.
Is this really what the trade union movement wants to advocate? What next, children up chimneys?
2. “Congress recognises that many people would not choose to work in the sex industry and that they do so because of economic necessity rather than criminal coercion. It further asserts that 74 per cent of off-street prostitutes work in the sex industry to pay household expenses and support their families.”
There is no doubt that financial desperation is driving many women into prostitution. This is a form of coercion, caused by the austerity measures and neoliberal policies of the current government. We believe that the solution is to fight for an end to these heinous policies and that this is what the trade union movement should be focusing its time, energy and resources on.
It is a matter of record that many women and girls are coerced into prostitution by individual pimps and traffickers. Almost every week the media reports yet another case of mass grooming of girls in one town or another for sexual exploitation – which is prostitution by another name – and many cases, probably the majority, go unreported and undetected.
Fully decriminalising the sex trade legitimises and normalises prostitution. This inevitably leads to more men buying sex more frequently, and therefore leads to an increase in the numbers of women and girls being coerced into it by pimps and traffickers – because of the enormous profits that can be made.
The UK has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (sometimes called the Palermo Trafficking Protocol). These UN human rights treaties place binding obligations on the UK, including: to outlaw profiteering from prostitution; to take measures to reduce the demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking; and to address the poverty and lack of equal opportunity that make individuals, especially women and children, easy prey to pimps and traffickers. Motion 39 stands in direct contradiction to these binding obligations.
3. “Congress regrets that current UK legislation forces sex workers to work alone, leaving workers vulnerable to crime and the threat of losing access to their families.”
The idea that women engaged in prostitution are safer operating from the same premises appears persuasive at first sight. However, when you look at the issues more carefully, it is clear that this idea is an oversimplification, and experience in Germany proves that women operating together in legal “prostitution apartments” does not keep them safe: approximately 62 women were murdered in prostitution apartments by pimps and punters from January 2000 to July 2017.
For more on this, see The problem with “safety in numbers.”
We are unclear why ASLEF thinks that women working alone would lead to women losing access to their families.
4. “Congress believes sex workers should have the same rights as those in other industries.”
Workers in other industries are protected from sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact, and are required to wear masks, gloves, goggles, and protective clothing if there is any risk, however small, of contamination with other people’s bodily fluids and excreta.
Sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact are intrinsic to prostitution. Prostitution as it is actually practiced could not exist if appropriate protective clothing was made mandatory.
Surely this makes it clear that prostitution is incompatible with workers’ rights and legitimising it would implicitly erode these rights for everyone, particularly female workers?
5. “Congress acknowledges the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee report which recommended that sex work in the UK should be decriminalised and Amnesty International’s decision to adopt the same policy.”
This statement is incorrect. Although the report of the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into prostitution clearly favoured the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, unlike Amnesty International, it did not go as far as recommending that approach.
At the time of the inquiry, the Home Affairs Select Committee was chaired by Keith Vaz, who shortly after the publication of the report was witnessed buying vulnerable young migrant men for sex. As one of the inquiry’s briefs was to consider whether buying a person for sex should be criminalised, this calls into question the inquiry’s impartiality and discredits its findings. We had already identified that the report was flawed and biased.
Amnesty International made many very serious procedural errors in developing its prostitution policy. They have admitted that Douglas Fox, who was running the largest prostitution ring in the north-east of England, was a member of the branch that brought forward the motion calling for the policy of full decriminalization.
There were a few concessions over successive drafts of the policy – the original premise that buying sex is a human right was taken out, after it was realised that it couldn’t actually be justified. They inserted a section on “intersectional discrimination and structural inequalities,” which conspicuously lacks any discussion of the racism inherent in prostitution, or of prostitution’s role in colonialism and maintaining the structural inequalities between the sexes, or of the rights of women and girls to live free from commercial sexual exploitation.
The original reliance on advice from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects was downplayed after feminist writer and activist Kat Banyard exposed that its vice-president Alejandra Gil was a pimp who has now been jailed for 15 years for sex trafficking.
But the essence of the final policy remained as Fox first suggested: that all aspects of “consensual adult sex work,” including pimps and brothel-keepers (who they redefined as “organisers”), must be fully decriminalised in order to secure “sex workers’ human rights” even though, way back in 1949, the United Nations defined prostitution as incompatible with the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Most shockingly, at no time did Amnesty International carry out any research in any country, like New Zealand or Germany, that has in fact implemented the approach for which they now lobby.
For all these reasons, the TUC would be unwise to base its decisions in this matter on the recommendations of either the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee Report or Amnesty International.
6. “Congress further supports the New Zealand model of full de-criminalisation which would give sex workers protections as workers in law.”
New Zealand changed its prostitution law in 2003, when the Prostitution Reform Act (known as the PRA) was passed. Before that, soliciting was illegal, along with pimping and brothel keeping; and allegations of police violence and corruption were common. But within those constraints prostituted women were able to negotiate their own deals with punters, and maintain clear boundaries, including insisting on condoms and banning kissing.
This all changed after the PRA, which decriminalised all of the actors including pimps. Brothels now set the price through “all inclusives” and prices fell. Men expect more, including anal, kissing, and no condoms. Where before the men paid for the act – direct to the woman – now they pay the brothel, by the hour or half hour, and they expect whatever they want as many times as possible within that time.
Punter violence remains common and in 2008 the New Zealand Prostitution Law Review Committee found that a majority of prostituted persons felt that the PRA “could do little about violence that occurred.” The Committee further reported that abusive brothels did not improve conditions for prostituted individuals; the brothels that “had unfair management practices continued with them.”
People campaigning for the PRA wanted to improve things for the women – to give them more power. In fact the PRA has had the opposite effect. More power has gone to the pimps and punters. Although police violence is now less common, women seldom report pimp and punter violence to the police.
Local authorities have some control over where the larger brothels are sited but not the smaller ones, classified as “Small Owner Operated Brothels” (or SOOBs), over which authorities and local residents have no say. There’s been rapid expansion in the number of SOOBs, and many are run by pimps. SOOBs are excluded from the official brothel data, which therefore gives a distorted view of the reality.
Sex trafficking is now recognised to be prevalent in New Zealand, and Māori and Pacific Islander women and children are disproportionately represented. Because brothels and SOOBs are legal, there is little or no oversight from the police.
The PRA has also failed to stop the prostitution of children, which remains a major problem. Mama Tere Strickland, a community worker, says: “At least the old law kept a lid on the numbers, but with no law on the streets, the pimps and gangs have moved in.” The children typically have a background in family violence and sexual abuse.
Since the change in the law there’s been a significant rise in reported rape, sexual assault and other male violence against women and girls in the general population. This is not surprising given that there’s been an increase in the amount of prostitution, and evidence that prostitution-buying makes men more prone to sexual violence.
New Zealand has a small population and is uniquely geographically isolated. Since the law changed, it has become a sex tourist destination. However, its isolation and the expense of getting there, mean numbers are relatively low. Were New Zealand situated in Europe, no doubt numbers would be closer to Germany’s, where there are huge commercial brothels in every city, more than a million men buy sex every single day, and hundreds of thousands of women are trapped in prostitution, most of them trafficked from the poorest communities in Eastern Europe.
Two journalists who studied the legalised prostitution system in Germany concluded that the intention to improve the position of prostitutes through legalisation has in fact achieved the opposite:
“Women have become a resource, to be used as efficiently as possible for profit.”
Does the TUC believe this to be an acceptable state of affairs for women in this country?
7. “Congress calls upon the TUC to adopt a policy in favour of full de-criminalisation and to campaign alongside appropriate organisations to achieve this.”
Rather than full decriminalisation of the sex trade, the Nordic Model is the human rights-based and equality model. Also known as the Sex Buyer Law, it decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides services to help them exit, and makes buying prostitution a criminal offence, while imposing tough penalties on pimps and traffickers. The aim is to change behaviour and reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking; thus setting new social norms.
This is the approach that is supported by the TUC Women’s Committee. Please listen to them and vote against Motion 39.
Appendix: Motion 39: De-criminalisation of sex work
From page 34/35 of the TUC Congress 2017 Agenda.
“Congress notes that austerity measures since 2010 have led to an increase in the number of people working in the sex industry and is concerned by examples such as Doncaster, where on-street prostitution has risen by 60 per cent, an increase primarily attributed to the impact of benefit sanctions.
Congress recognises that many people would not choose to work in the sex industry and that they do so because of economic necessity rather than criminal coercion. It further asserts that 74 per cent of off-street prostitutes work in the sex industry to pay household expenses and support their families.
Congress regrets that current UK legislation forces sex workers to work alone, leaving workers vulnerable to crime and the threat of losing access to their families.
Congress believes sex workers should have the same rights as those in other industries.
Congress acknowledges the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee report which recommended that sex work in the UK should be decriminalised and Amnesty International’s decision to adopt the same policy.
Congress further supports the New Zealand model of full de-criminalisation which would give sex workers protections as workers in law.
Congress calls upon the TUC to adopt a policy in favour of full de-criminalisation and to campaign alongside appropriate organisations to achieve this.”
4 thoughts on “TUC Congress 2017 Motion 39: Decriminalisation of sex work”
Prostitution is a dehumanising distuctive act against people usually women who have no or little choice in what they do. Many of whom have been subjected to sexual abuse as children. Decriminalisation will only empower pimps and the profiteers who are generally men.
Thank you so much for this.
Is there anything I, as a Unite member can do, or is this not something that will go to a general vote?
(Or has that chance been and gone? I’m ashamed to say that I am not a very active union member.)
Apologies for the delay in replying. Thankfully the TUC Congress voted overwhelmingly against the motion. However, we expect further attempts to bring a similar motion through the same or different unions in the future. We therefore would like to encourage you and everyone in the UK to take this opportunity to get a discussion going in your workplaces, unions and communities.
We understand that Unite has Area Activist Committees which are regional cross-branch lay member forums. These are a potential route to planning for motions to be generated. Please contact us (through the Contact Us page) if you’d like more information and suggestions etc.
Please see our separate post which explains that many of the arguments put forward by supporters of the motion do not stand up to scrutiny and are in fact misleading and sometimes downright dishonest.
You may want to consider arranging a showing of the Nordic Model Now! slideshow for your local union branch or similar. The slideshow explains the harms of prostitution to individuals and society and the common legislative and policy approaches and why we believe the Nordic Model to be the human rights and equality approach. You can download the slideshow and find more information here: