The Duel: Should it be illegal to pay for sex?

Last year it became illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland—following the model of Sweden and Norway. The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently investigating UK prostitution laws
October 13, 2016

Joan Smith (left) is a columnist, novelist and co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board (though writing here in a personal capacity). @polblonde

Click here to read more from our November 2016 issue


We are in the middle of an epidemic of violence against women. In England and Wales, recorded offences relating to rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse are at an all-time high. The number of reported rapes in London alone (a fraction of the real figure) rose by almost 11 per cent in the year to June 2016. In the same period, over 150,000 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded in the capital. This is a highly gendered phenomenon. Almost nine out of 10 victims of sexual violence are women, as are three-quarters of domestic abuse victims.

Something similar is true of prostitution: estimated numbers of male and transgender individuals vary, but most who sell sex are women. In a culture that tolerates appalling behaviour towards women generally, it is not surprising that women who sell sex are among the most vulnerable to—and suffer the highest levels of—male violence.

According to senior police officers, “the murder of sex workers continues to take place at an alarming rate.” An all-party parliamentary group talked about “near pandemic levels of violence experienced by women in prostitution.” The Home Affairs Committee heard that 152 people working in the commercial sex industry were murdered between 1990 and 2015. “The evidence that prostitution is harmful is hard to dispute,” a former prostitute testified.

None of this is an accident. In the west, it has never been easier to get sex without paying for it. Buying access to women’s bodies is a choice, and one that no one who just wants sex needs to make. It’s about power, rooted in inequality, and requires vulnerable women—often poor, foreign or with addictions—to collude with archaic fantasies about pleasure. It has no place in a society committed to achieving gender equality.

Molly Smith is a pseudonym for a sex worker and an activist with Sex Worker Open University and ScotPep. @pastachips


I agree: sex work is largely done by women—both transgender and cisgender—and clients are overwhelmingly men. Sex work is deeply structured by inequities of gender, race, class and migration.

I also agree sex workers are subject to appallingly high levels of violence. But you’ve left out some important context. Across the UK, soliciting and kerb-crawling are criminalised, meaning street-based sex workers face prosecution, and are pushed to work in dark, isolated locations. Indoors, we’re prosecuted for working together for safety: it’s common to get a call asking “are you working alone”? and have to weigh up whether it’s the police (“no one else here, just me!”) or a violent man (“us girls love to keep each other company!”). When Suzy Lamplugh vanished in 1986, female estate agents started doing house-viewings in pairs: if sex workers try this same safety strategy, we risk arrest. To hold up the violence we suffer in this context as illustrative of the violence of prostitution is akin to pointing to dangerous, botched abortions as an illustration of “the harms of abortion”—without mentioning that the jurisdiction you’re describing criminalises abortion access.

If criminalising the purchase of sex made people who sell sex safer, I’d support it. But it doesn’t. Look at America, with its tough penalties against purchasers. In many states, clients risk jail for the first offence, and several years’ incarceration if caught again. Yet America is filled with people selling sex. That’s because when people desperately need money, or are unable to work legally due to their immigration status, they’ll navigate criminalisation as best they can. To “tackle” the sex industry, you need to give people options that they themselves judge to be better—not make what they’re currently doing to survive more dangerous.


Yes, the current regime criminalising anyone who sells sex is wrong, which is why I want to get rid of it. I support decriminalisation of selling sex, along with wiping convictions for archaic offences such as soliciting. Under the model I support, the buyers face sanctions, while those selling it (mostly women) get help with addictions, poor health and homelessness.

You jump from talking about high levels of violence against women in prostitution to the harms done by the UK legal framework. The “clients” seem to have gone AWOL here, yet they are the ones who make life so dangerous. No laws compel men to verbally abuse, beat or rape women who sell sex—they choose to do it. I don’t think they’re very different from men who abuse their partners—my guess is there’s quite a big cross-over between the two groups.

Men who abuse women do it because they like it, and because they can. Demand drives the sex trade, creating a market in which most of the sellers are poor and vulnerable. It’s a huge challenge for any notion of universal human rights, which requires that men and women are valued equally. I don’t agree that tackling demand makes women less safe but it does threaten the very existence of the commercial sex industry. Hence the outcry against it.

Some people argue there is a “fair trade” version of prostitution which harms no one, but I believe harm is integral, not a side-effect. Prostitution offers carte blanche to men who enjoy abusing women and it can’t be separated from epidemic levels of violence against women generally. That’s the wider context I’m interested in, and I don’t think it’s the job of the state to enable further abuse by making it easier to pay for sex.


You write “criminalising anyone who sells sex is wrong”—except that sex workers are criminalised by the legal model you advocate. In your writing in favour of the Nordic model, you neglect to mention that if two sex-working women share a flat for safety in Sweden or Norway, they can both be prosecuted. “End Demand UK,” a campaign group you’ve publicly supported, also recommends the retention and use of the law which prosecutes us for working with a friend. Can you throw some light on this discrepancy between your stated values and the reality of the law for which you are lobbying?

When you criminalise our clients, you take away our safety strategies. One way street-based sex workers stay safe is by talking with a client before getting into his car—to check he’s on the same page regarding prices and services; that he isn’t drunk or aggressive; that he’s not got someone hiding in the back seat. But if he’s criminalised, he’s scared he’ll get caught if he talks too long—so to keep his business, the woman has to get into his car immediately, and have that conversation when they’re already speeding off. Some clients do stay away—but for both indoor and outdoor workers, that makes us less able to refuse those that remain, even if they seem pushy or have a reputation for violence. After all, we still have rent to pay.

You may not agree, but the Swedish head of anti-trafficking policy does: in 2014, she told a reporter: “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution—but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.” “Valuing men and women equally” cannot come from further endangering women who sell sex.


This is like trying to debate capital punishment with a member of the National Union of Hangmen and Rope Technicians. I keep talking about the bigger picture—how prostitution fits into the context of epidemic levels of violence against women—and you don’t look beyond your own experience. You describe the precautions you have to take as though it’s all the fault of the legal framework, when it actually speaks volumes about the ever-present threat of violence from “clients.”

I don’t think those men go home and transform into model husbands and boyfriends. I do think that being able to pay vulnerable women to do whatever they want, and force them if they’re reluctant, reinforces the most outdated gender stereotypes. Particularly now we have a law that recognises coercive control—including exercising financial power over women—as a form of domestic abuse.

I speak for myself, by the way, and I’ve already said that I support the abolition of all penalties for women who sell sex. What organisations say and do is up to them: I support Amnesty International, for instance, but I believe its policy on prostitution—full decriminalisation—is profoundly misguided. A human rights organisation should understand the importance of everyone having the same rights and value. That’s not compatible with a practice that enables men to abuse vulnerable people.

What you’ve talked about is making something very dangerous slightly less so. I’m more ambitious than that, because the damaging effect of being able to buy women’s obedience goes far beyond its immediate and obvious victims. I want properly-funded exit strategies so women don’t have to sell sex to pay the rent, and medical help for those with addictions. But forcing sex buyers to recognise the harm they do is essential if we’re ever going to reduce the horrendous levels of domestic and sexual abuse that currently exist.


The laws sex workers, human rights activists and anti-trafficking campaigners are calling for simply allow us to take unexceptional safety measures: safety measures akin to those that other workers already take for granted. To vet clients, to not face eviction if we report rape, to work with a friend without fear of arrest. Exposing women who sell sex to more violence—as collateral damage in your war against the sex trade—doesn’t deliver liberation or tackle “outdated gender stereotypes.” As a Norwegian government report found: “the law on the Purchase of Sex has made working as a prostitute harder and more dangerous.” Not exactly a triumph of feminist lawmaking.

Like abortion, migration, or drug use, the criminalisation of sex work hardly reduces its incidence—but makes it massively less safe. (One meta-study of 681 peer reviewed articles found that almost no criminal sanctions “quantitatively suppressed” the sex industry: the only programme that did was that of the Taliban. So much for those progressive gender roles!) The good news is that you can shrink the sex industry—by tackling poverty. Why not focus on what works rather than what makes you feel good? The English Collective of Prostitutes do amazing work challenging benefit sanctions and fighting appalling enforcement actions against migrant women.

You accuse me of lack of ambition, but here’s my ambition: I’d like for people talking about sex work policy to treat the safety concerns that sex workers raise as actually important. Not to immediately try to pivot away; not to bizarrely dismiss our legitimate safety concerns as “not looking beyond our experience;” not to compare us to hangmen for having the temerity to raise our concerns. Sadly, your responses to me demonstrate just how radical that ambition still is.