There has been a recent push to criminalise the clients of sex workers. Often, those in favour of this law cite poverty as a form of economic coercion that pushes people into selling sex, taking away their choice. This, they argue, means the consent of sex workers is not freely given, and therefore we should criminalise clients.
As sex workers, we know first-hand that poverty is a huge factor in why people sell sex. However, we cannot understand why criminalising the income source of people who sell sex is presented as a ‘solution’ to the economic coercion of poverty. If campaigners are concerned that poverty takes away people’s choices, we suggest that a real solution would be to tackle poverty, not to criminalise what is often the final option that people have for surviving poverty.
As such, we are calling for:
If any one – or all – of these policies were implemented, fewer people would be forced by poverty to sell sex. By providing people who sell or trade sex with additional options, these policies treat sex workers respectfully, as people who know best about their own lives. This is in contrast to the approach of criminalising clients, which is a punitive, patronising, one-size fits all policy that provides no new options, and that attempts to drive people out of sex work with the threat of renewed poverty (what else does criminalising our incomes do?) and worsening working conditions.
The commonly-seen argument that “it isn’t poverty that creates prostitution – its men’s demand” locates the problem not in poverty, but in the fact that some people respond to poverty by selling sex. When these arguments are marshalled in favour of “end demand” laws, they identify “prostitution” as the issue that should be tackled, leaving poverty untouched. So long as a person does not sell sex, her poverty is acceptable to these campaigners. Well, as sex workers, we have a moral objection to poverty. Poverty is objectifying, demeaning, and coercive. A society that accepts poverty or finds poverty inevitable does not respect women. Poverty is a form of violence, a violence that disproportionately affects marginalised people. Poverty cannot be made safe.