In-person sex work is under lockdown at the moment (unsurprisingly, there has been a spike in camming and other online services), but this is difficult for those for whom sex work is their main income. Many individuals selling sex are carers (for children, partner, parents); may be managing long term mental or physical health issues (which make ‘regular’ jobs difficult); are migrant workers; or are transitioning gender, and so on. See this recent Home Office report.
Some individuals are registered with HMRC but many, if not most, will not be eligible for the self-employed support being provided by the Government. They are some of the hundreds of thousands of people who are part of the (GDP-contributing) ‘grey economy’. Remember, it is not illegal to buy or to sell sex in this country. It is some of the related activity which is criminalised, such as kerb-crawling or working with another person out of premises, which in English law constitutes a ‘brothel’.
National Ugly Mugs, a national organisation which works to improve the safety of sex workers, is asking Government to recognise these under-the-radar workers. It is also calling on adult online platforms and others to contribute to hardship funds. Some are asking whether these online platforms should be closed temporarily (as with other businesses), but it is likely this will only displace activity to more informal apps and sites, possibly presenting higher risks. Instead, the leading adult online platforms are being encouraged to remove in-person service adverts and remind users on the public health message. Getting financial support quickly to those involved in survival sex work will also reduce supply.
A recent Europol intelligence report suggests a number of trends given the COVID virus – a decline in domestic burglaries; an upsurge in domestic abuse reporting; a reduction in cross-border drug supply and on-street dealing but an increase in drug distribution through mainstream couriers; more child abuse activity shifting to the Dark Web; and an impact on refugee camps, where COVID outbreaks are forcing migrants to make dangerous onward journeys. In terms of sex work, this shift to online activity means organised crime gangs may now open online platforms to advertise coerced individuals. This presents a significant policing and prosecution challenge.
Police often do not have the resources to focus on sex work, except where there is exploitation or community complaint. So the law is selectively enforced, depending on local priorities, initiatives and contexts. Criminalisation does not keep sex workers safe, does not recognise the different motivations and contexts for selling sex, and can raise significant barriers to leaving.
This pandemic experience may provide the tipping point for action on practices and ways of thinking which, for so long, we have either tolerated or failed to question. Criminalisation of sex workers should be one of them.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.