The news that police forces across England and Wales have have an endemic problem of officers abusing vulnerable or marginalised people, particularly people experiencing domestic violence, people who use drugs, sex workers, and people who have been arrested, is sadly no surprise to SWOU. Many sex workers fall into several of the above categories, and know from experience that contact with the police spans a spectrum from fear-inducing to abusive.
This news should give those who advocate carceral ‘solutions’ to the sex trade a pause. The police are structurally racist, misogynist, and transphobic. They cannot deliver safety to people who sell sex. Safety for us looks like access to housing, healthcare, and childcare. Safety is an end to immigration enforcement and the closure of detention centres. Safety is labour rights, both within and outwith the sex industry. Safety is being able to work on the street or indoors with a friend without fearing arrest. Safety is resources to lift us from poverty.
When the sex trade is criminalised, the police are given power over us. This is the case in all criminalised systems, including in so-called progressive modes of criminalisation such as the Nordic model or ‘sex buyer law’. For example, End Demand’s report on how to implement the sex buyer law in the UK (which was produced by a group containing 100% more Lords than current sex workers), recommends that as part of enacting the sex buyer law, police will: “review [sex workers’] advertisements … and confirm that prostitution is taking place by visiting the venue. Personnel will not typically reveal that they are police officers at this stage”. The report adds that “police officers would need to be trained in covert operations.” This is surveillance of sex workers. This is power that the police have over us.
In affirming that the police should have these rights of surveillance, the sex buyer law as a mode of criminalisation makes sex workers intensely vulnerable to criminalisation and other kinds of police violence, ranging from immigration checks and enforcement, punitive responses to mental ill-health, and prosecution under anti-drug laws. Advocates of the Nordic model agree that ‘prostituted women’ are often marginalised in multiple ways, including through immigration status, and yet persist in recommending as a “solution” the increasing police powers of surveillance over us. The results are sex workers deported – and not a peep of protest from End Demand and co.
The End Demand report then recommends the use of the brothel-keeping law as “existing enforcement practice … to enforce the Sex Buyer Law”. The brothel-keeping law criminalises people who sell sex when we work together indoors for safety, and it is shocking that End Demand UK would be so openly supportive of it’s use, and our criminalisation. The law also enables the police to steal money from sex workers (see Edinburgh and Chinatown), which makes us more precarious, more vulnerable to eviction, less able to leave bad relationships, to save, or to put money into the electricity meter.
Nordic model advocates have responded to today’s news by suggesting that having more women in the police would be a solution. Women police officers were involved in both the Edinburgh and Chinatown raids linked above. Far from the imagined care and safety that this would bring, a woman who experienced the Edinburgh raid commented, “I felt very bad, so violated … I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.” In both raids, sex workers’ money was stolen from them. As a result of the Chinatown raid, women were taken to Yarl’s Wood. Is it better that all this was done by women police officers? Is it feminist if we’re prosecuted by women police officers for sharing a flat with a friend? ‘Radical’ feminists claim to want to go to the root, but apparently have nothing to say about borders while sex workers are deported – and their answer to structural police violence is that the police should #diversify.
Today’s news regarding endemic police abuse is no surprise to us, who are communities at the sharp end of it. Police power over us harms us, and we need full decriminalisation (not the surveillance, prosecution and deportation offered by the Nordic model), situated within a framework of migrant justice, as an immediate measure to roll back that power.