Comment Writer Sarah Mawson sheds light on the plight of sex workers who have been forgotten and ignored during the pandemic

Written by Sarah Mawson
American and Canadian Studies student
Images by Bojan Cvetanović

Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault 

Time and time again sex workers, prostituted women in particular, have been failed by the government, both overseas and in England, namely by maintaining a state of partial decriminalisation that is so ineffective it drives a lot of sex workers to illegal practices. Prostitution is already a notoriously dangerous job from both the work itself and the added risk of arrest, and since March sex workers have faced another danger: a virus that has now killed over a million worldwide.

The state of partial legalisation in the Britain means selling sex is legal but owning or working in a brothel is illegal, which makes it harder for sex workers to rent apartments or houses if they disclose their profession as landlords could be accused of technically owning a brothel. As brothels are largely acknowledged to be the safest form of sex work, not being able to work in such an organised setting also decreases the safety measures available to prostitutes as there aren’t other sex workers or security professionals around to check the workers are safe. So-called ‘streetwalking’ is also illegal, presumably under the reasoning that street work is the most dangerous form of prostitution as it gives a great deal of control to the customers, in many instances leading to assault. Because it’s so dangerous, most who work on the streets only do so out of desperation, the need to provide for themselves and sometimes families is greater than the fear of arrest. These limitations leaves sex workers with two options: either go the legal route and work independently, which is difficult and dangerous, or choose one of the illegal paths and risk arrest and assault, the latter often by the same police officers that arrest them as police have a long and international history of assaulting sex workers. 

Most who work on the streets only do so out of desperation, the need to provide for themselves and sometimes families is greater than the fear of arrest

It is now 2020, the world is in the middle of a pandemic, and prostitution is one of very few careers where the exchange of bodily fluids is almost a requirement, meaning that sex workers can either keep themselves and those around them safe and (at least temporarily) stop working, or continue working and put themselves at great risk. On the surface it sounds like an easy choice, essentially choosing life over death, but it’s not. Lest we forget, there’s the small issue of earning money and the flawed furlough system Britain has. Furlough is wonderful for most, unless your normal salary barely covers your day-to-day expenses, made even harder to afford with the 20% cut, or you’re self-employed and therefore don’t qualify for the furlough pay. Unfortunately for sex workers – those in both the legal and illegal practices – the legal restrictions mean that most are forced into self-employment, and therefore back to choosing whether to risk their lives (even more than usual) or see how long they can make the contents of their fridge last. 

The pandemic has shed light on all the growing cracks in government, and the country’s attitude to sex work is no exception. Not only is it showing the state of semi-legalisation Britain has towards sex work is seriously flawed and ineffective, but the lack of support available to workers has pushed some into online sex work as another method of income, sky news reports.

The pandemic has shed light on all the growing cracks in government, and the country’s attitude to sex work is no exception

This being said, the solution isn’t so simple. It might seem obvious, surely if Britain (and the wider world) were to just legalise prostitution then prostitutes would not only be granted access to furlough but to the bonuses more mainstream jobs get, such as health benefits and the like. However, countries that have legalised prostitution have shown it’s not the sexually liberated paradise it might be in theory. Germany, for example, passed the Prostitution Act in 2002 and has enjoyed a bustling sex industry ever since, but sometimes at the expense of the sex workers themselves. Firstly, the law legalised not just sex work but pimping, meaning that managers (who are often the enemy in sex work, Juno Mac and Molly Smith make clear in their book Revolting Prostitutes) can control the work of prostitutes and take a cut of their money. Legalisation also makes for a competitive market, leading to sex workers carrying out physically and mentally exhausting work for a fraction of what the work is really worth. This is far from what sex workers want for themselves and the industry, especially when legalisation could lead to forced sex worker registration and mandatory, invasive, STI testing, as a 2017 bill in Germany proposed

So what is the resolution? Fully legalise sex work, but keep pimping illegal and allow sex workers to, for lack of a better term, get on with it in peace? Allow brothels, and sex worker unions so they can gain access to labour rights and benefits, such as furlough? Could a temporary moratorium on the arrest of sex workers be possible, if only to alleviate some of the stress that weighs heavy on sex workers at this time? Unfortunately, sex work has never been in the forefront of any politician’s ideology and legalisation is rarely, if ever, one of the pillars of a candidate’s platform. It’s often too taboo to be pushed to the front of discussion, and therefore gets put on the legislative backburner time and time again, and no doubt will continue to be not only in England, but across the globe, and prostitutes will continue to suffer, even when they cease to be at risk of a deadly virus. It’s extremely disappointing, to say the absolute least, that what legend deems to be the oldest profession in the world, and those who partake in it, can be so grossly mistreated.

For more from Comment:

Confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett: Manipulation of the US Supreme Court Nominations?