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Tuesday 30 May 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen
Opinion 'All labour involves selling our bodies in some form, so what is different about sex work?'
Sex workers exist, there is no sign of them disappearing, and they deserve the same rights as other workers, writes Danny Rigg.

LAST MONTH I marched in Copenhagen Pride with a sex workers’ rights group operating the Sexelance, a renovated ambulance intended to provide street workers with a safer, healthier and more dignified working environment.

This issue piqued my interest a few years ago as it is an intersection of numerous issues: workers’ rights, women’s rights, migrant rights, and bodily autonomy.

The language of the Sexelance group is one of rights, not rescue. In trying to avoid adopting the role of knight in shining armour, riding in on horseback to save a damsel in distress, they are working around the legal situation in Denmark to find a grassroots approach to what has long remained a reality.

Sex workers exist, there is no sign of them disappearing, and they deserve the same rights as other workers.

All labour involves selling our bodies in some form, so what is different about sex work?

Is it the sex or the exploitation?

We recognise the dangers and exploitation involved with mining, farming or factory work, but instead of seeking to ban these industries entirely, we seek to improve working conditions, to increase pay, and to allow workers to organise in unions so as to have more power.

With sex work, we seek to criminalise either those working in the industry or their clients. In doing so, we push them into the shadows, possibly limiting their range of clientele and deteriorating their working conditions.

The law in Ireland

In March 2017, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act came into force in Ireland. The Act’s most important focus was on child exploitation, but Part 4 criminalises the purchase of sex while decriminalising the sale of sex.

Even during the debate on this law, the potential for it to reduce the number of sex workers was highlighted, and in February 2018 even supporters spoke about how little they thought it had achieved after almost a year.

Many feminist and left-wing figures came out in support of this legislation with the best of intentions, despite one of its main supporters being Ruhama, an organisation which was founded in 1989 by two religious orders. A few, such as Brid Smith, Clare Daly, Mary White and Colm O’Gorman, voiced opposition.

In 2016 when this Act was being debated, Kate McGrew of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), wrote:

It is legal to work alone and indoors. We are not allowed to advertise, solicit, work in pairs or groups, work outdoors, hire anyone as security, or hire anyone to translate or manage bookings. No one, not even a partner or relative, is legally allowed to share in the earnings of our work.

It is still the case that more than one sex worker operating from the same property counts as a brothel, which is illegal. 

This issue of where and how sex workers work is similar to in Denmark where sex work is legal, but third party profiting (pimping and renting rooms) aren’t. One issue raised by people at Copenhagen Pride was the difficulty in finding suitable places to work given the risks landlords face in letting to sex workers.

The Sexelance treads carefully the legal space in Denmark, removing money from the situation by allowing sex workers to use the service for free. Street workers in Denmark are violated or threatened 31% of the time compared to only 3% for those in brothels, with migrant and trafficked workers feared to be at particular risk, illustrating the need for this project.

There are few street workers in Ireland, but such an approach could provide an immediate, short-term solution at a grassroots level, working around legislation to help improve the situation of, predominantly, women in sex work.

‘We must cast aside stereotypes’

At the heart of this matter are the issues of consent and bodily autonomy, which have characterised discourse on reproductive rights and sexual harassment. The way forward with sex work must be to recognise the agency of sex workers.

We must cast aside stereotypes and prejudice to recognise these people as individuals with diverse experiences. There are undoubtedly those who are coerced, trafficked and exploited.

There are also those for whom sex work is a means to establish financial independence as an escape from domestic abuse, as a means to get by as migrants in a new country, or to cope with homelessness or addiction. Some, an often more privileged minority, even view sex work as liberation, allowing them to be their own boss, set their own terms and fees, choose their own clients, and work their own hours.

If the intention of legislation is to end exploitation and improve the lives of sex workers, it cannot diminish their autonomy and their ability to define their own existence. It must also not criminalise them, directly or indirectly.

The restriction on brothels, while well intentioned, not only means women work alone in dangerous situations, it risks landing them with criminal records making it harder to exit the industry. The focus must be on providing alternative sources of income for sex workers to choose, and on facilitating sex workers taking consent-based control of their industry.

We must also continue to tackle the problems of human trafficking, child abuse, and coercion.

We must listen to sex workers and their call for rights and decriminalisation. Most importantly, any approach must prove to be effective.

Danny Rigg studies Modern History and Politics at the University of Liverpool and is a regular contributor on current affairs at the Socialist Economic and The Smoke Room. 

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