Open Letter from the Sex Work Research Hub to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission on the Global Sex Trade
The Sex Work Research Hub is a network of experts and academics, including the majority of UK-based academics researching different aspects of sex work in the UK and internationally. We read with interest the recent report by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, The Limits of Consent, 2019.
As a body of scholars responsible for delivering publicly-funded research at the highest standards we are deeply concerned about the flawed methodology and ideological bias characterising this report. The self-fulfilling premise of the research and associated findings cannot be regarded as a credible and authoritative basis for policymaking on the complex relationship between sex work and sexual exploitation.
The collective voting record for the group of MPs who commissioned this report reveals that the majority have consistently voted against welfare reforms, gay marriage, abortion rights, and equality legislation. Those who have made parliamentary statements related to sex work favour criminalisation. MP Fiona Bruce, who is the chair of this report, is an Evangelical Alliance council member, sits on the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, and has long campaigned to criminalise the clients of sex workers. As citizens and as members of the academic community, we question whether it is in the public interest for a commission so blatantly invested in neo-abolitionist politics to produce a report on the sex trade.
The findings of the report reflect a neo-abolitionist conflation of sex work with sexual exploitation, and of sex work with trafficking and modern slavery that does not correspond with the empirical reality demonstrated by our research. It does not reflect complex and diverse experiences of those working in the sex industry, nor does it reflect current legislation in the UK according to which sex work is not illegal and is distinct from sexual exploitation, trafficking and modern slavery.
As researchers, we are deeply concerned that this report opens and closes with the dismissal of the considerable peer reviewed data on sex work in favour of ‘ethical questions’ posed by the commissioner. In the foreword, it is claimed that the report ‘sought to examine some of the underlying questions of principle’ (p.7), and the report concludes that the ‘evidence only takes you so far’ (p.45). Policies cannot and should not be made by dismissing the available evidence in favour of moralising. Given that most of the widely available research on sex work, sex workers, and legal frameworks directly contradicts the findings of this report we can only conclude it has been deliberately excluded to produce a report that is little more than a deeply biased opinion piece.
This bias is clearly demonstrated in which sources the authors decided were 'rigorous' enough and/or reflected the overarching discourse of the report. For example, in section 4 - under 'alternate policing approaches', the report pits two academic evaluations of the Leeds Managed Approach to street sex work against an article from the Daily Mail, and clearly favours the findings of the Daily Mail. That a journalistic piece is favoured over rigorous academic evaluation is demonstrative of the previously made statement that evidence will ‘only take you so far’; yet the assumption that policy should be based on morality, feeling and emotion above evidence is deeply problematic and subjective.
The Managed Approach policy was introduced in October 2014 and there is evidence of its benefits from a service perspective. An increased access to outreach services and higher take up of social and health care interventions has been shown; there has been a 110% increase in interactions between street working women and support services. Additionally, reports that sex workers are less fearful of arrest and are therefore more likely to report are evidenced. Sex workers reporting crime and providing full details of the incident to West Yorkshire Police increased from 7% in 2013 to 52% in 2015 (Brown and Sanders, 2017).
In several places of the report (incl. the exec summary and conclusion) it is stated that there is not enough evidence to support that decriminalisation improves the safety of those in prostitution. There is, in fact, considerable evidence to support the decriminalisation of sex work which has been ignored throughout this report. A systematic review of all sex work research conducted in 33 countries from 1990 to 2018, found that criminalisation of sex work is linked to ‘extensive harms’ among sex workers (Platt and Grenfell, 2018). Sex workers who had experience repressive policing were found to be three times as likely as other sex workers to experience sexual or physical violence, twice as likely to contract HIV or another sexually transmitted infection, and one and a half times as likely to report having condomless sex with a client. Fear of police and an increased police presence were associated with sex workers avoiding healthcare services, presenting less often for HIV testing, and having less access to HIV prevention (Platt and Grenfell, 2018; British Medical Journal, 2019; Amnesty International, 2016).
The report also claims that ‘the available research presents a confusing and contradictory picture’ (p.18). Published, peer reviewed evidence demonstrates that this is not the case. The research also shows that the criminalisation of the purchase of sex leads to unsafe working conditions, increased violence, and further stigma against sex workers. The research shows that decriminalisation, as used in New Zealand since 2003, is the safest legal model for sex workers (Abel, 2014; Armstrong, 2016).
The report cites Sweden, France, Ireland and Canada as successful examples of Nordic Model policing. However, current and ongoing research shows that the criminalization of clients has gravely harmed sex workers in Sweden, which has further been corroborated by recent research on the so-called Nordic Model (Vuolajärvi 2018). Since the Nordic model was introduced in Ireland in 2017, there has been a 54% increase in crime against sex workers reported to Ugly Mugs Ireland, and violent crime is up by 77%. This was the case also with the introduction of the so-called Swedish Model in France in 2016, which made sex workers more exposed to violence, disrupted their recourse to crucial health services and medical treatments, and rendered their livelihoods more precarious and exploitative (Mai, Giametta and Le Bail 2018). Similar trends have also been seen in Canada, and Canadian sex workers have been successfully campaigning to show that any form of criminalisation of the sex industry is anti-constitutional (Krüsi A, Pacey K, Bird L, et al., 2014).
Despite the report claiming there is not enough evidence to support the case for decriminalisation, it is clear that ample evidence has been made available and ignored for this commission. This is made particularly clear in section 12., ‘Evidence from other Jurisdictions’, where in sub-section 3.0 the authors list 7 different pieces of written evidence that show that the Nordic model does not support the safety of sex workers, followed by a single piece of evidence from the Swedish Police that claims that the law does help police protect sex workers.
Furthermore, the report is riddled with inaccuracies and fails to understand basic legal terminology. Attempts to clarify terminology in section 1 are belied in section 12 where decriminalisation and legalisation are conflated, despite being very different regulatory models. New Zealand is cited as an example of a 'legalising model', when New Zealand uses a decriminalised system. Understanding the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation is an essential requirement of any research into the sex trade. To reproduce this misunderstanding in a national report is not only demonstrative of a lack of nuanced knowledge, it is dangerous.
We are also concerned at the dismissal of evidence presented to the commission by grass root organisations representing the voices and realities of sex workers in the UK, whose voices should be a guiding resource for the report rather than being ignored. It is telling that there are no voices of current sex workers in this report. Such exclusion of vital voices operates to reinforce the marginalisation of sex workers so prevalent within society. The only voices of sex workers featured in the report are those of former sex workers who now campaign for the abolition of the sex trade. While these personal experiences and views are important and must be taken into consideration by policymakers, they cannot be used to subsume or epitomise the complex diversity of people’s experiences in the sex industry, which range from positive case of self-realisation through sex work to extreme cases of exploitation and trafficking. The fact that the report does not include the views and voices of representatives of the social groups whose realities it aims to address and ultimately improve is unethical and methodologically problematic.
The voices of individuals and groups who campaign for the abolition of the sex trade and the implementation of the Nordic model are prioritised above the views of sex workers, sex worker support agencies and sex work scholars throughout. Such an exclusionary and one-sided approach would be completely (and straightforwardly) unacceptable if the research addressed ethnic or religious minorities living in the UK. The same criteria of inclusion of people being researched in the research process must apply to any social group being studied, including sex workers. This is crucial to ethically sound and professional research, which must be validated by research ethics boards composed by experts and qualified scholars. These ethical and methodological concerns are very important for the Sex Work Research Hub, which is committed to undertaking Participatory Action Research and collaborating with sex workers and other marginalised social groups in the production of knowledge and interventions concerning them.
This report reads like a self-fulfilling political pamphlet strategically juxtaposing evidence rather than building a scholarly argument by reviewing critically all evidence supporting and challenging the research question being asked.
As a collective of professional scholars delivering research projects at the highest level, we have to conclude that the report has been poorly conceived and undertaken and that it cannot form a reliable basis for policy making and law enforcement on sex work and sexual exploitation in the UK.
Professor Teela Sanders, University of Leicester
Siggi Mackenzie, University of Plymouth
Dr Rosie Campbell OBE, University of York
Thomas Ebbs, University of Sussex
Dr Mary Laing, Northumbria University
Prof Nick Mai, Kingston University London
Professor Maggie O’Neill, University College Cork
Marjan Wijers, MA, LL.M, University of Essex
Dr Angelika Strohmayer, Newcastle University
Dr Kate Lister, Leeds Trinity University
Prof. Mark McCormack, University of Roehampton
Dr Kate Brown, University of York
Associate Professor Gillian Abel, University of Otago, New Zealand
Dr Anna Di Ronco, University of Essex
Dr Lynzi Armstrong, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Dr Isabel Crowhurst, University of Essex
Louise Cahill, Clinical Nurse Specialist Sexual Health, Unity Sexual Health at the WISH Clinic
Dr Alison Jobe, Durham University
Professor Jane Scoular, University of Strathclyde
Dr Lucy Neville, University of Leicester
Dr Sarah Kingston, Lancaster University
Dr Monique Huysamen, University of Bath
Dr Max Morris, Kingston University London
Dr Fairleigh Gilmour, University of Otago, New Zealand
Dr Pippa Grenfell, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Lilith Brouwers, Leeds University
Camille Waring, The University of Westminster
Dr Simanti Dasgupta, University of Dayton
Professor Clarissa Smith, University of Sunderland
Dr Nicki Smith, University of Birmingham
Professor Prabha Kotiswaran, Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London
Dr Laura Connelly, University of Salford
Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh, University of Kent
Professor Sunny Sinha, Marywood University, Pennsylvania
Helen Rand, University of Essex
Dr Natalie Hammond, Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr Inga Thiemann, University of Exeter
Dr Julia Laite, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Simanti Dasgupta, University of Dayton
Dr Mirna Guha, Anglia Ruskin University