Yes, We Must End the Stigma around Paying for Sex

If we’re to protect sex workers, then we have to break the silence and stigma around paying for sex.

Stigma, so often, increases danger. We’ve seen this time and again with taboo subjects. Whether it’s sexuality, mental health or any other silenced topic, the isolation can create a dangerous environment and have a negative impact. This is true too, of sex work.

One of the few things talked about in fair terms is the act of paying for sex. The moral connotations come thick and fast. There is huge stigma around paying for sex, but this focus on shaming the act of buying sex puts those who sell their labour in danger. The ‘Nordic Model’ which is supported largely by those who are generally anti-sex work anyway, is a model whereby the onus is on those who pay for sex. The logic behind this is that it makes sex work a “social” problem. It targets those (particularly men) who pay for sex, while, in theory, sex workers are safe and not prosecuted when they may be exploited or face pressure to be sex workers. However, using morality to define laws often has its problems and this has been shown time and again with the Nordic Model, which has become an incredibly dangerous legislative framework for sex workers.

The ‘Nordic Model’ has seen harassment of sex workers by police increase, to the extent that sex workers don’t feel safe to go to the authorities if they have experienced violence. Some don’t feel safe carrying condoms, in case they’re searched. The laws criminalising buying of sex too means that those who purchase actually have an element of power. Sex workers need their income. Those purchasing their labour then can claim they feel unsafe in public settings in case they are arrested, forcing the sex worker to have to meet in their home and away from neutral or safe territory. Extensive research by Amnesty International into the Nordic Model found that while the intention may have been to make sex workers safer, the culture of morality has actually escalated so that sex work was seen as a social problem which increased stigma, and sex workers reported that this in turn had an impact in increasing the harassment sex workers were exposed to. Sex workers ended up with fewer places to turn to, fewer safe spaces and less power to be able to safely and autonomously carry out their work.

The criminalisation of buying sex then does not work. The moral arguments against buying sex work also do not work – and are entirely irrelevant. Sex has been sold and bought throughout history. When we make moral cases against buying sex work then we’re also slinging mud at sex workers. In the wake of the sexual harassment scandals which have broken since 2017, many commentators have said that if people have those “urges” they should go to sex workers. It’s a completely false argument. Those “urges” aren’t to have sex, but to be violent towards someone. That’s arguing that sex workers should be exposed to abusers. It’s disgusting and shows the respect – or lack of – we have for sex workers as a society.

“The criminalisation of buying sex then does not work”

The truth is that billions each year alone is generated through the sex work industry. You can’t judge who pays for sex. People who experience trauma may buy sex. People with disabilities may pay for sex. People who have high pressured jobs and don’t have time for relationships may pay for sex. The chances are someone you know has paid for sex at some point in their lives. Hell, not to mention, most people pay (or should be paying) to watch porn. It really doesn’t matter though about the personality or personal history of someone buying sex. What matters is making it so sex workers can talk about their experiences without being shamed, so sex workers can form collectives and be able to share their stories. By decreasing the stigma around purchasing sex, we can create spaces for necessary conversations where we listen to sex workers about how to truly make sex work safer and not let moral panics dictate how we approach different topics.

Sorry if someone you know has cheated in a relationship by paying for sex – the problem though isn’t sex work, but the fact he cheated. If Britain is too scared to have conversations because they’re scared all men will want to buy sex then we have the national maturity of Donald Trump’s evangelical Christian base. Sex workers aren’t the problem, but we’re making their lives problematic by increasing the danger that they face. Let’s be clear – some abusive men do seek out sex workers, because sex workers are a vulnerable group, often silenced and shamed in society and therefore with little support. That won’t change unless we stop the shaming.

Buying sex isn’t immoral. It’s a choice people make every single day, for many different reasons. Men, women and non-binary people will all pay for sex. If we really want to make sex work safe then let’s shut up about morality and start talking about effective policies. Your outrage is irrelevant.

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