On Wednesday 25th November, Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) passed “#PledgeDecrim”, a motion at Council resolving “to support and campaign for the full decriminalisation of sex work” and “campaign against any attempt to introduce the Nordic model [of sex work]”, a set of laws implemented in countries such as Sweden, Norway, and Northern Ireland, into the rest of the UK.
The motion, proposed by OUSU Women’s Campaign Officer, Stephanie Kelley, and seconded by Lucy Delaney, OUSU’s Vice President for Women, also included a resolution “to campaign particularly for the rights of student sex workers, including mandating Sabbatical Officers to advocate on behalf of sex workers’ interests to the University,” as well as offer support to any student who comes out privately as a sex worker.
Cherwell understands that the motion received over 60 votes in favour, four against and nine abstentions. Writing that “sex work is work: it is the exchange of money for a form of labour,” Kelley’s motion relied on the notions that sex workers should have the right to engage in prostitution, and that it would be safest for them if sex work were fully decriminalised.
Kelley notes that “criminalisation of sex work is a safety and health issue” and that “criminal laws threaten sex workers’ access to health and social services, and expose them to violence, discrimination, and arbitrary arrest.”
Currently, the sale of sex is not illegal in the United Kingdom, but pimping, solicitation in a public space, and brothels (defined as two or more sex workers working together) are. Kelley points out that current law prohibits many practices a sex worker might use to keep safe; for example, the ban on solicitation drives women into more isolated areas.
An alternative to current UK law is the Nordic model, which Kelley roundly condemns. Under it, the sale of sex is held to be legal, but its purchase is illegal – an attempt to protect the workers while also reducing sex trafficking.
In November 2014, MP Fiona Mactaggart proposed an amendment to the Modern Slavery Act based on the Nordic model.
The amendment would have made it a crime to pay for sex, while also legalising solicitation and requiring the Home Office to help women leave the prostitution industry if they wanted to get out of it. However, the amendment was dropped prior to passage of the Modern Slavery Act in March 2015.
Kelley’s motion at OUSU Council comes off the back of a move by Amnesty International, a prominent human rights group, to urge decriminalisation of prostitution worldwide, which has proven controversial for them. Though Amnesty International argues that the stigma surrounding prostitution serves as a barrier to stopping abuse, human trafficking and the spread of sexually transmitted infections like HIV, the group has received significant backlash from antitrafficking organisations.
In an open letter on 22nd July, which has attracted thousands of signatures from human rights activists, prominent academics and Hollywood celebrities, the Coalition Against Trafficking Women wrote that Amnesty International’s position “flies in the face of [its] historical reputation”.
The group writes, “Growing evidence shows the catastrophic effects of decriminalisation of the sex trade. The German government, for example, which deregulated the industry of prostitution in 2002, has found that the sex industry was not made safer for women after the enactment of its law. Instead, the explosive growth of legal brothels in Germany has triggered an increase in sex trafficking.”
Actress Lena Dunham said on Twitter, “While there are clearly sex workers by choice, the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc. Aka lack of choice.”
Two case studies of countries that have legalized and regulated prostitution seem to teach greatly different lessons. While Kelley wrote in her motion that “decriminalisation is a deterrent against violence, as has been shown by New Zealand, a country in which sex workers have the ability to screen clients,” the Netherlands has seen what CATW describe as “an exponential increase in sexual trafficking” since it legalised sex work in 2000.
A spokesperson from the radical feminist group Oxford Radfems told Cherwell, “We are dismayed that OUSU have gone against the interests of women’s safety and security and instead have passed this motion.
“Decriminalising the sex industry would be a disaster for the welfare of prostitutes – this has already been shown in countries where prostitution has been decriminalised, including Holland and Germany, where sex trafficking has grown massively. “OUSU chose today not to listen to the voices of women who are being silenced in this debate, but listen instead to a largely white panel of highly privileged students, most of whom will never experience the realities of prostitution, an industry that has systematically repressed women for centuries.
“We urge students whose views were not heard today to speak up and speak out against this motion.”
Neither Kelley nor Delaney replied to request for comment when contacted.