The current state of our sex laws criminalises women who are making tough choices out of desperation. Borrowing from models tried in other countries, the English Collective of Prostitutes argue that the law would do better to address the circumstances that lead women into prostitution in the first place.

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The ECP have been campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution since 1975

Previously: The Logic of Our Sex Laws, Part 1: An Overview

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), part of the International Prostitutes Collective, has been campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution, and for viable economic alternatives for sex workers, since 1975.

The ECP believes that prostitution laws not only unfairly criminalise prostitutes and their families, but bring about the segregation of sex workers from the rest of the community.

By ‘driving prostitution further underground’, as Cari Mitchell argues in her 2010 article, some of the most basic human rights afforded to the rest of society are denied to sex workers. The right to report an act of violence, theft or rape without the fear of being arrested themselves, the right to move on to a different profession when they want to – without a criminal record – and the right to work in such a way as to increase their safety (i.e., collectively), are just some of them.

By not allowing prostitutes to work together, their vulnerability is increased immeasurably. As highlighted by the Ipswich murders of 2006 and Bradford murders of 2010, this can have devastating consequences. While these series of killings brought the issue of sex worker safety to the forefront of the public consciousness, they were not isolated events and it is estimated that at least 60 prostitute women have been murdered in the past 10 years.

For the ECP however, the severe lack of safety is just one of the myriad problems caused by the criminalisation of prostitution. Another key point to its campaign is that sex workers are seen as just that – workers. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the moral implications of what they do for a living, they are making a living – much of the time as a means of survival – and as such should be allowed the same benefits as other workers. For example, the right to a pension; to form or join a trade union; to free, non-discriminatory healthcare; and to free or low-cost childcare. The ECP also calls for the contribution sex workers make to the survival of families, communities and the economy of every country to be recognised and  measured by including this work in national accounts.

Those fighting for decriminalisation recognise that prostitution is a desperate measure for most, but helping (normally) women leave the industry is another factor that the ECP feels is being  dealt with ineffectively. In the aftermath of the Ipswich murders, the organisation spearheaded the formation the Safety First Coalition (SFC) alongside community members such as nurses, doctors, probation officers, drug reformers, residents from red light areas, sex workers and members of the church.

The SFC wants to bring an end to Clause 72 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which introduces compulsory rehabilitation under threat of imprisonment. Rather than enforcing rehab through the threat of imprisonment, what would be more effective, argues the SFC, would be a service independent of the criminal justice system, to address the individual circumstances that have led women to prostitution in the first place. In most cases: poverty, debt, rape and domestic violence, homelessness, drug use and depression.

Having been in existence for almost forty years, the ECP has witnessed a huge range of developments in the UK’s approach to prostitution, and its campaign includes many more reactions to these, such as its view that trafficking claims are wildly exaggerated, and the Swedish method of criminalising clients is ineffective (‘sex between consenting adults should not be the business of the criminal law’).

The overriding message however seems clear: it’s time for the UK to get over its sexual prudery, move forward with the decriminalisation of prostitution, and give sex workers the human rights that they deserve.