The Fight For Decriminalisation – Honouring Laura Lee

Since the news broke yesterday that high profile sex work campaigner Laura Lee had passed, I have tossed and turned about how I would be able to honour her work.

The truth is, there is no way. How can you honour a woman who had words such as “powerhouse”, “titan”, “award-winning” “bold” “fearless” attributed to her? You can’t. But what can be done is to speak out, and in my case, write about the concepts that she fought so heavily for.

Laura was mostly active in Northern Ireland, where in 2015, we saw the introduction of the non-sensical “Nordic Model”. The Model saw a set of laws put in place whereby it moved the criminality of selling sex over to the criminality of purchasing sex. In short, it moved the “punishment” over from the sex worker themselves, to the “punter” or “client” of a sex worker. It was to provide a deterrent to any man (or woman) who wished to engage the services of a sex worker. After all, much of the world is yet to move away from the concept that sex work and human trafficking go hand in hand, and ignores the fact that often, sex work is a legitimate occupation.

It had been considered “overwhelming successful” in Sweden, and therefore other misguided countries such as Northern Ireland believed that a legislative regime such as the Nordic Model was required in their country too.

The truth is, the Nordic Model is dangerous. The Nordic Model has not been overwhelmingly successful in Sweden. It has been debunked by Amnesty International and various other leading human rights organisations.

As a lawyer, it is almost counter-intuitive to say that legislation is not needed. However, the decriminalisation of sex work is, in my professional and personal opinion, the only way we can move forward with sex work.

One of the most powerful things often said by Laura Lee was this (with words to the following effect):- “you do not have to like what sex work is, but you should at least want sex workers to be safe.” My job, like Laura’s, has never been to convince anyone that sex work is everyone’s cup of tea. We are all guided by our own morals, ethics and background, some of which say that sex work is not acceptable. However, we should all believe in one thing on a universal basis – that anyone who goes to work, should not have to die as a result of their work choice. It will never be okay that a woman or man’s safety is placed at risk by laws developed by our own governments.

It is for this reason that we need decriminalisation. That is, the complete removal of criminal culpability associated with sex work. From the seller to the purchaser.

Importantly, we need to step away from the concept that by accepting decriminalisation, we are somehow giving the green light to human trafficking and sex slavery. Firstly, sex work and human trafficking are not the same thing. Furthermore, decriminalisation is not the wiping of laws which severely punish those who traffic women, men and children across borders for the purposes of selling sex. That will never be okay, and any person who supports decriminalisation will say that these illegal acts should always remain illegal. We must get to a point where we realise that most often, a person entering sex work is doing it in a consensual and (for the most part) informed way.

Laura Lee fought for decriminalisation in Northern Ireland and was outspoken in Scotland, her home country. The two countries have different legislative regimes and Laura wanted decriminalisation in both of them. In Australia, some states treat sex work as decriminalised (NSW), some states have sex work as legalised (VIC, QLD), and South Australia is criminalised. It is a complex web and the answer to all of this is full decriminalisation.

There are so many reasons for decriminalisation, and I have written these in some of my posts back in 2015. However, to understand how toxic laws relating to sex work are, I’m going to give examples of where it goes wrong.

  1. As discussed, in Sweden and in Northern Ireland, the Nordic Model operates. The aim is to arrest the purchaser of sex. The man and in limited instances, a woman as the client. Men are threatened with arrest and sex workers are threatened by police that their clients will be arrested. This leads to underground transactions. This leads to transactions in places which are hidden. Clients are desperate to stay anonymous so sex workers find it very difficult to be able to do screening of the clients before engaging in the transaction. Some clients are fearful that DNA on condoms may be used against them. They therefore push for natural sex, increasing the chances of sex workers contracting HIV and other STIs. Sex workers then cannot present themselves to health services in fear of being involved in a criminal transaction, or threats from clients to take their matter to the police or other services.Criminalising the purchase of sex makes clients agitated and nervous, and thus seek sexual services in a rushed manner and a risky manner. Some are threatened with violence. Some are threatened with murder. This is the reality of the Nordic Model.
  2. In Victoria, Australia, there is a legislative regime that allows sex work to occur in certain situations, as long as the transaction and the people involved meet certain rules and regulations monitored by a Licensing Authority. One of the rules states that a sex worker cannot “sell sex” in her own home, which within the industry is called “an incall”. A sex worker may naturally fear attending the place where the client wishes them to meet, whether it be a hotel room or a home premises, or a car for that matter. The sex worker feels that her only chance of being safe is in the comfort of her own home, where she may security processes and procedures in place. The client arrives, and an unfortunate incident happens whereby a sex worker is raped or assaulted. She cannot report it to the Police because she will have to explain that the incident happened in her “incall”. The Victorian Police have expressly stated (to me, as a lawyer) that given the laws relating to incalls are “indictable offences”, then the police are unable to turn a blind eye to that crime and the sex worker would likely be charged for that offence, alongside her client who would be charged with rape or assault. A sex worker is therefore unlikely to seek assistance from police or other support services. Clients know this. Clients abuse this, and seek out women who do incalls, and know that these boundaries can be pushed because the fear of incrimination does not exist. This is the reality of a legalised sex work regime.
  3. In South Australia, if you are a sex worker, you are directly engaged in criminal behaviour by merely involving yourself in the providing of the service. To this day, there are hundreds of sex workers in South Australia willing to take that risk for the sake of feeding themselves or their children.

Laura Lee fought daily, and I (by far, a considerably less prominent and vocal sex work advocate) fight daily to try and have people realise that regardless of whether sex work makes you feel “icky”, or if it goes directly against your morals and values, surely as a basic human being, you do not want these women and men dying. This is based on the fact that human rights are universal.

You cannot pick and choose who you think has the right to live or die just that little bit more than another human being.

Everyone should be safe to earn a living, whether that living is one that you agree with or not.

Surely we should have government regimes that keep people safe, rather than maintain or increase the violent environment they find themselves in.

Surely we need to rise above the old concepts that by criminalising activities, it will eradicate them. We have learnt that through the war on drugs. The war on sex work does not work. It makes things worse.

We need to resist the temptation of punishing people who are choosing to do the work that they choose, regardless of whether we agree with it or not. We need to equally protect those who traffic women and children for the purposes of sex work, but we need to do it with the laws that we have. Sloppy “one size fits all” regimes like the Nordic Model believe that it is worth placing 80% of people at harm, for the sake of “saving” the 20% that need it.

Protect Laura Lee’s legacy by continuing to fight for decriminalisation. Read her work. Watch her interviews. Listen to the sex work organisations who, time after time, endorsed the words that she spoke – to them, to the Government, to the workers, to the “victims”, to the “survivors”.

May she rest in power.





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