Twitter followers come and go, at least the vast majority that you either don’t know in real life or interact with to any great extent online. I long ago stopped keeping track of who had followed me or unfollowed me, but it was nonetheless a very pleasant surprise, a few years ago, to see that I had been followed by Terri -Jean Bedford. I don’t see myself as particularly prominent among those campaigning for sex workers’ rights, so I felt honoured in a strange kind of way.
For at the time, in 2013, Bedford was something of a celebrity in the sex workers’ rights movement. She had worked for some years as a professional dominatrix in Ontario but had been prosecuted, with two other women, under Canada’s archaic anti-prostitution laws for keeping a bawdy house. As a result she went to war against these laws, and achieved a major victory when, in 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 judgement, struck down the laws. The reason for the decision was that the laws endangered the safety of sex workers. To quote from the judgement,
“The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risk.”
Specific reference was made to the prohibition on sex workers operating, for reasons of personal safety, from shared premises, and being forced to work on the streets. Laws against living off the proceeds of prostitution were also struck out. The court applied a test of proportionality. Does the harm that the law seeks to prevent outweigh the harm that the law itself may cause? The court found that it did not. The dangers to which sex workers were exposed could not be justified by the social nuisance that the laws seek to prevent.
Nearer home, sex workers still have to operate in the shadow of laws whose effects are precisely those of the laws struck down in Canada. Only last year, two Polish women were jailed in Yorkshire for “running a brothel.” In fact, they were working together from a flat for their safety. Our laws endanger sex workers. There are areas where unofficial toleration exists, but this can change quickly, for example when there is a change of police chief. Edinburgh had an enlightened policy towards the city’s saunas in the days of Lothian and Borders Police. All this changed after the creation of Police Scotland. There was a string of raids in the city, with sex workers’ money and mobile phones being confiscated and not returned. Where sex workers cannot trust the police, do not feel able to report incidents and know they will be taken seriously, they are in danger.
Which brings me to Ireland. In recent years the buying of sex has been criminalised, both north and south of the border. This was sold to the public as an adoption of the Nordic Model, the criminalisation of clients to “End Demand”, combined with the decriminalisation of sex workers who would be given support to “exit”. I hardly need add that nobody asked the sex workers if they wanted to exit or not. It was taken as read that they were all coerced and in need of saving. In practice, however, the existing criminal sanctions were left in place and a number of women have been imprisoned in the Republic, with, in some cases, the courts ignoring the fact that they were mothers and sole carers for their children.
And what effect has this had? A recent study in Northern Ireland looked at the effect of client criminalisation there. This was particularly interesting as, unlike other jurisdictions such as Sweden, Northern Ireland had good quality data on sex work from the period before the criminalisation of clients. The results are perhaps unsurprising. There has been no measurable decrease in the prevalence of sex work and some suggestions that it may even have increased. Either way, the laws are a triumph of ideology over evidence that endanger vulnerable women.
We, in the UK, could really do with judges who see things with the clarity and common sense of the justices of the Canadian Supreme Court. Above all, we could do with a strong and determined woman to fight the cause, and take it to the highest court. A woman like my Twitter follower @Madame_deSade aka Terri-Jean Bedford