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The UK sex work landscape is currently considering implementing dangerous SESTA FOSTA or Nordic model frameworks. Everyone is shouting loudly and with passion in these debates, often without recall to evidence.
What is SESTA and FOSTA? Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (link to SESTA bill) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (link to FOSTA bill) were implemented as law in the USA on April 11, 2018. Contrary to their applaudable sounding titles they have resulting in increased harm to sex workers, both trafficked and voluntary alike. The SESTA-FOSTA package effectively removes section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (link to explainer), often referred to as the most valuable tool for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet. Section 230.C.1 principally states "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Basically, an interactive platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, will not be held legally accountble for the actions and posts of all of the users. This makes sense. SESTA-FOSTA removes this and allows prosecution of any platform allowing users to post adverts for sex work.
What sites did this affect? The main target was undeniably Backpage which was seized by the FBI and closed completely on the 6th of April 2018 (link). Craigslist no longer display 'personal adverts' (link). Google drive is removing adult content (link). Other platforms are being more subtle, such as Twitter introducing the mysterious 'shadow ban' for sex workers (link). This is devastating many sex workers client base and means of income.
Why is this bad? I hear you cry. Well, if a sex worker can solicit and communicate with their clients independently online then they have no need for pimps or any intermediary who might control the conditions of their work. Online platforms allows providers to be their own boss, market themselves as they are comfortable, charge the fees they want and select the clients they wish and feel safe with. They can create their own screening process and their own networks. These are all empowering and increase safety for the worker. Removing these plaforms will not remove sex work, which is often due to poverty and financial need, it will only make sex workers find other less safe ways of accessing clients, and if a pimp is then used they often lose access to rate setting, choice of hours worked, choice of clients seen etc. Even without a pimp, by suddenly having reduced access to potential clients sex workers can become more desperate and potentially take greater risks by seeing clients who they would never consider seeing had they more customers to select from. Reducing client contact does not solve the fundamental cause behind the need: poverty. It only makes people who are often desperate, more desperate.
How does this relate to the UK? In July 2018 the UK parliament debated whether they should introduce a SESTA-FOSTA equivalent into the UK, which would primarily target Adult Work and Viva Street, although it would affect other platforms too. The consequences to sex workers would be similar to the USA. The debate was the result of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (link to report), published in May 2018, which was formally supported by UK Feminista (link to organisation) who were cited in the report acknowledgements. The APPG have been openly hostile to sex workers on Twitter and refused to engage with them in comments or discussion. The report often takes aim at 'pop up brothels', but under UK law of The Sexual Offenses Act 1956 (link to act) "if more than one person (say two independent voluntary sex workers sharing a flat, maybe an AirBnB, for increased safety and reduced isolation) is available in a premises for paid sex, then that is a brothel. However, if one woman works alone (and is thus vulnerable and isolated), she is not keeping a brothel." The end result of the July debate was a research project was commissioned by the Home Office called 'Prostitution and sex work: nature and prevalence in England and Wales' undertaken by the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies Centre for Gender and Violence Research (link to research). This work is ongoing and the survey will remain open until 31 December 2018 to allow for ongoing engagement. The research is careful to state it is 'trying as far as possible to confine our work to documenting what is going on, rather than what ought to be going on, in relation to prostitution and sex work in England and Wales', although presumably as it was commissioned by the Home Office the report will influence future policy on sex work laws and the potential implementation of SESTA-FOSTA and Nordic model laws. It is unclear how Scotland would be affected.
What is the Nordic Model? It is an approach that seeks to make the purchase of sex illegal while keeping the sale of sex legal or decriminalised. In effect, clients of sex workers can be arrested and prosecuted while the sex workers themselves will not be punished. If one is opposed to the idea of sex work, and chooses not to think about it too much, then this approach makes a lot of ideological sense and is thus the preferred model for many feminists. It stems from the Swedish government’s statement that “Prostitution is considered to cause serious harm both to individuals and to society as a whole”. One of the most vocal organisations for this model in the UK is 'Nordic Model Now' - Link
It falls apart when the lived consequences are examined. Clients are suddenly hunted and so will be more likely to refuse a sex workers safety screening (ref link). Condoms are often used as evidence in such prosecutions, and as such both clients and sex workers become reluctant to use condoms, with the resultant rise in STD infections. In countries who have implemented this, observed street prostitution does decline, thus they claim demand has been reduced. The reality is that with less customers, sex workers are pressured to charge less, and by charging less demand and repeat customer volume can increase (simple market forces at work). Incidence of violence from clients increase post model implementation (ref link) partly because sex workers become less discerning on who they meet, because they need money. The stigma and semi-legality of the sex workers position means that often a landlord will evict a sex worker if their work becomes known (ref link), further marginalising already vulnerable sex workers.
The ideological flaw of the Nordic model is that it assumes that by reducing clients it will reduce sex work. This fails to recognise that it is poverty, food and accommodation insecurity that usually drives people to stay sex work (ref link) and reducing the number of clients does nothing to assist these issues, in fact it does quite the opposite. Neither should the claim that the model works in reducing prostitution (ref link) be taken too seriously, it is more the case that sex workers and clients find less visible ways to make contact (ref link) - out of sight does not mean out of reality.
This model began in Sweden in 1999 and later that year in Denmark (Greenland kept prostitution fully criminalised). But the Swedish model which became known as the Nordic model has since been adopted by Norway in 2008, Iceland in 2009, Ireland in 2017, Luxemburg, Portugal, Italy and the Faroe Islands. Ireland particularly saw a marked rise in violence against sex workers following the laws implementation - Link
Do you only care about yourself? What about all the trafficking victims? The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), after careful research and consideration finds that full decriminalisation of both sex worker and client is the most effective way to identify and help trafficking victims (ref link). Likewise Amnesty International comes to the same conclusion (ref link).
Why should I believe the arguments you set out above?
An evidence resource thread in the form of a literature review is on a separate tab on this website, to be used and shared in discussion around harm reduction and decriminalisation in sex work.
Sex work laws in each country in the world - Link
(Work in Progress)