Friday the 13th and sex work advocacy

A few years back, I used to read a blog by a retired escort worker who now blogs, under the name of Maggie McNeill, for the rights of sex workers. I drifted away due to time constraints, and, since then, have gradually realised that I actually disagree with her on some very fundamental issues around feminism and consent, so if you check out her blog (The Honest Courtesan) do be aware that there is a lot of stuff on those topics that I would not endorse and that I think most people here wouldn’t either. (Also, of course, there’s a lot of very NSFW stuff on there.) However, I do agree with her on the main point her blog seeks to make; sex work should be decriminalised. What’s more, laws intended to provide legal protection for sex workers need to be worked out with the guidance of actual sex workers, using a model that puts their agency first rather than framing them as helpless victims who need protection.

Anyway, I’m posting about this now due to a rather nice idea that Maggie had- namely, to make every Friday 13th a day for sex workers and non-sex workers alike to speak out in favour of decriminalisation of sex work. As Maggie wrote:

Let’s start getting the word out that whores are no different from other women, and that “a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body” is more than just a euphemism for abortion.

I quite agree, and so, ever since running across this custom of hers (a year or two after she’d instituted it) I’ve tried to stick to it, every Friday 13th. (Successfully, in fact, if we gloss over the one time I missed the precise date and sent a text to a friend about it on Saturday 14th instead.) You can read two posts about this on my old blog (on other Friday 13ths between then and now, I’ve posted or commented in other places):

  • Their Bodies, Their Choice is a general explanation of my view on the matter (sorry about the paragraph breaks, by the way – I moved that blog from Typepad to WordPress and some of the formatting on the archives got messed up in the process)
  • Anti-Prostitution Laws: The Trouble With The Swedish Model is a post in which I discuss the problems with the commonly-advocated idea of making prostitution itself legal but making it illegal to be a client of a prostitute.

This, of course, will be the first Friday the 13th post on Geeky Humanist. Yay! A chance to spread the word to a wider audience.

As I’m in the UK and I know the readership here is heavily, though not exclusively, from the US, I think it’s worth explaining a bit about the different laws. Unless I’ve missed any recent updates, the law in nearly all of the US is that prostitution itself is illegal; a draconian waste-of-resources law that benefits nobody (other than, I suppose, politicians looking to score points with the Religious Right) and is simply not morally defensible under anything other than a religious or quasi-religious form of sexual morality. Anyone here really want the police spending their time and resources on prosecuting consensual sex (which most prostitution is) when they could be putting that effort into better prosecuting crimes like rape or domestic violence?

In the UK, we’re at least somewhat more enlightened, in that it’s not against the law either to sell or to buy sex. (The latter is unfortunately in danger of changing – see below – but I think at least we’re safe on the former; I’ve never heard of anyone here wanting to make prostitution itself illegal.) But we do, alas, still have several laws on the books that make life far more difficult than it needs to be for sex workers.

Looking for up-to-date information on British law for this post, I found this useful leaflet from the English Collective of Prostitutes’ site informing sex workers of their rights, which lists the laws in straightforward layperson’s language. Some of this I already knew; I was aware, for example, that it is illegal in the UK to earn money from organising prostitution, and that, while this law was probably set up with the good intention of wanting to prosecute genuinely abusive pimps who are forcing women into prostitution in order to make money off them, it has backfired badly by preventing many, many sex workers from seeking the extra protection that could come from working together/organising brothels with proper security services.

didn’t, however, know about the law on prostitute’s cautions, and this one really shocked me. Apparently, it is still quite legal in the UK for two police officers to record a ‘caution’ about anyone whom they believe to be loitering publicly for purposes of soliciting, without having to present any evidence – and the person cautioned has no right of appeal against it. Good grief – I’m sure that law never gets abused, then. Two such cautions in a period of three months can lead to a conviction for soliciting, which then shows up on any further enhanced criminal records check done during the person’s lifetime. This article describes the problems this archaic law can cause.

On top of this, there’s a vocal lobby in favour of outlawing the buying of sex (the legal system known as the Swedish or Nordic Model, which I discussed in the second of my two linked posts above). Despite the fact that the English Collective of Prostitutes vehemently oppose this idea, the Home Affairs Committee are currently looking into the possibility of recommending this change in law to the government. That one is still a ‘watch this space’, and the latest development seems to be positive; three days ago, the Committee heard evidence from retired sex workers Brooke Magnanti and Paris Lees, who are also both firmly opposed to bringing in such a law, and they seem to have been willing to at least take that viewpoint on board and consider the possibility of recommending more constructive changes such as abolishing the law against brothel working. The transcript (which also has a link to the video, if that’s what you prefer) can be found here and makes excellent reading.

So we can hope that that one will be a non-starter. But it’s nevertheless clear that, when it comes to protecting sex workers or to taking them seriously as people who should have input into the laws that are supposed to protect them, UK law and UK society still have a long way to go. I guess I’ll be blogging about this on a good many Friday the 13ths to come.


  1. Karen Locke says

    USian here. As far as I know (other readers, please correct me!) prostitution is not illegal at the federal level here. State and local laws prohibit it. There’s one place I know of, an unincorporated area outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, where it is actually legal… and highly regulated. The establishment (singular, I think, though I’m not totally sure) treats its employees as professionals, makes sure they get tested regularly for STDs, manages the money so the employees and customers are not in danger of getting stiffed, and provides a significant amount of security for everyone. This is pretty much a model in my mind for how sex work should be handled: professionally.

    Note that prostitution is illegal everywhere else in Nevada, including Las Vegas itself.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Karen Locke @ # 1 – Last I heard, prostitution is legal across the state of Nevada, though nominally banned in Las Vegas (and maybe Reno?).

    In Vegas, “escorts”, “masseuses”, “private dancers”, et alia, advertise heavily to offer relief for fun-loving tourists.

    During the savings-&-loan-meltdown debacle, somehow the federal government for a while owned and operated a (non-Congressional) brothel whose owners hadn’t keep up certain payments.

  3. Dr Sarah says

    @Karen: Oh, blast! Sorry, I did know about Nevada and meant to modify that sentence to say that prostitution was illegal in nearly all of the US (for reasons of keeping post length reasonable I wasn’t going to go into the Nevada situation, but I did mean to at least make that sentence accurate). Have now changed that sentence accordingly. Thanks.

    I didn’t know it was a state law and not federal law thing, but of course when I think about it that makes perfect sense as I assume if it was federal law then prostutiton couldn’t be legal in Nevada. As a UKer I’m not used to thinking in terms of whether law is state or federal as we don’t have that distinction here.

    As I understand it, the Nevada situation is still problematic in that prostitution is only legal if it takes place in those specific, regulated circumstances, and otherwise remains illegal. So, in effect, we have the reverse of one of the problems we have in the UK – instead of sex workers not legally having the option to avail themselves of the increased safety of working in brothels, they don’t legally have the option of not working in a brothel. So, let’s say a woman can’t get a place in a brothel or can’t work the hours they demand but still needs to do sex work to make money… she’s still stuck with working illegaly. Or would rather work independently as an escort and is happy with that situation after doing a risk-benefit calculation… she doesn’t get to make that choice. So it’s certainly an improvement on the situation elsewhere in the US, but isn’t really a good model for a legal framework around sex work.

    (That, by the way, is why you will typically see sex workers’ organisations calling for decriminalisation of prostitution rather than legalisation of prostitution. The distinction is that they’re looking to take away the laws around it, not to make a whole bunch of new laws about just how and under what circumstances people can take part in sex work that would still leave many sex workers legally out in the cold, so to speak.)

  4. Peter B says

    Apparently there is a US federal law about “facilitating prostitution”. IIRC, myredbook(?) .com/.org(?) was taken over by the feds and those running it were jailed. One “proof that the owner(s) knew that the site was about prostitution” was a list of shorthand for various sexual acts i.e. BJ, CBJ and BBBJ where the C and BB parts mean covered and bareback.

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