With a third by-election loss likely in Batley and Spen, the Labour Party has been in the news a lot this week. In fact, the constituency’s former MP turned West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin, has been making headlines, and for all the wrong reasons. This time, it’s all about sex work.

Holbeck, a suburb of Leeds, has been a hub for sex work for decades. In an effort to protect the women and girls working there and to regulate the sex work industry, a “Managed Approach” area was introduced in 2014. This week, Leeds City Council announced an end to this managed approach, which will mean the reintroduction of fines for working women in the area. Brabin controversially welcomed the end of this approach, claiming that it “didn’t protect women and girls”, but the reality is that regulation of sex work does protect those practising it.

“Time and time again we see poor women being thrown under the bus to protect the delicate sensibilities of middle-class women.”

– Lydia Caradonna

Without fear of prosecution.

Make no mistake: the regulations formerly in place in Holbeck did not decriminalise sex work, but it did regulate it. The Yorkshire Post cites that “the policy allowed sex workers to trade at specific times within the area without fear of prosecution.” This is where the former Holbeck policy differs from total decriminalisation: sex work was only permitted within certain hours within a certain time frame, and while this policy protected sex workers by guaranteeing no legal action for trading, it was not as far-reaching as it could’ve been.

So, what is decriminalisation, and how is it different to legalisation? The New Statesman distinguishes the two: “under legalisation, sex work is controlled by the government and is legal only under certain state-specified conditions. Decriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws, although sex workers and sex work businesses must still operate within the laws of the land, as must any businesses.”

Mayor Tracy Brabin.

Swedish Model.

The decriminalisation approach is in stark contrast to the Swedish Model, a prostitution policy that “criminalises that purchase of sexual services in the belief that sex workers can be made safe only by ending demand.” This model is in place in Sweden and Norway, and is endorsed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and the European Women’s Lobby.

There have been a few examples of countries operating under a legalised system, including the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany. New Zealand has been operating under full decriminalisation since 2003, with Decrim Now reporting that decriminalisation “increases sex workers’ power in their interactions with clients, managers, police and landlords. It makes people safer. It reduces the transmission of HIV.” This method of regulation is supported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, the WHO, Sisters Uncut, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. The benefits are stark, which begs the question: has Brabin done her research?

Harm reduction.

Lydia Caradonna (@LydiaCaradonna) is a founding member of Decrim Now and has been involved in SWARM for five years. She works on sex work and health policy and gives talks and training on the decriminalisation of sex work as a form of harm reduction. She advises: “decriminalisation, not legalisation or any form of criminalisation, is the legal model that is safest for sex workers. Any form of criminalisation is harmful for sex workers. When our clients are criminalised, we are forced to either protect them from the police by working in more isolated – and dangerous – ways.”

She continues: “When we are criminalised, most of us have no choice but to keep working despite the criminality. We don’t disappear when new laws are created, we just continue working with fewer rights and protections. It is ridiculous to expect to solve any issues by giving police more powers – police are often our clients as well as our rapists and abusers.” 

On Tracy Brabin’s comments, Lydia states: “Tracy represents the Labour Party and has betrayed one of the most marginalised groups of workers. Time and time again we see poor women being thrown under the bus to protect the delicate sensibilities of middle-class women.” 

Lydia advises that, as the West Yorkshire Mayor, Brabin’s office should cover the fines given to the women working in Holbeck: “I can tell you now that when sex working women are given soliciting fines then they end up working longer hours and seeing clients that they feel unsure about, because working is the only way they have to make money.” In fact, an independent review conducted into the Holbeck zone, which has been operating under regulation until now, concluded that this model was the safest option. 

“You cannot criminalise these women out of existence. It will only lead to more violence. These women need money, comprehensive support, and housing. They don’t need more laws making their situation more dangerous”, Lydia concludes.

“Maybe sex work is patriarchal”.

Mini is a sex worker and uses OnlyFans to create and sell LGBTQ+-specific content. She too has strong opinions on Brabin’s stance, stating: “The idea that you can prosecute buyers in the sex industry and avoid criminalising sex workers is just unrealistic. Inevitably, they’re interlinked. If buyers of sex work are being prosecuted that means that sex workers can’t safely work their industry because they can’t report any wrongdoings without risking their own livelihood. Ending regulation in Holbeck will only create problems in the long term.”

Modern-day feminism has a complicated relationship with sex and sex work, to say the least. Feminism that isn’t inclusive of sex workers is not feminism, but a strand of feminist thought interprets sex work as inherently patriarchal. On this, Lydia theorises: “Maybe sex work is patriarchal, because we live in a patriarchy. We can’t untangle sex work from its context, which is that it is something predominantly done by women due to poverty in a world run by men.”

Vulnerable.

She continues: “Is sex work empowering? I don’t always feel empowered in my job having sex with men I don’t like who I don’t feel respect me – but I feel extremely empowered being able to pay my bills. Finding a job that’s “empowering” is a massive privilege in our society…how many nurses, or retail workers, or office workers, find their jobs empowering? It’s irrelevant to my safety.” 

Being a “woman”, whatever that means in the twenty-first century, does not make it impossible to be misogynistic. As Brabin has proven this week, misogyny can, too, be performed by women, and it can be performed by so-called “feminists.” 

Criminalising sex work does not eliminate it: it only pre-empts it. Sex workers will not cease to trade if their work is criminalised: it only renders them more vulnerable to arrest and violence.


Read more of Eleanor Noyce’s columns here.

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