Decriminalisation is not the end product, but it is the first step to give recognition to sex workers to speak for themselves and for abused victims to be protected, Lilia, a Swedish sex worker told The Malta Independent on Sunday.
“I believe that it is important that full decriminalisation is not seen as the end product of the discussion, but that it is the first step towards making the situation better,” Lilia said, adding that “criminalisation does not help sex workers but traps them.”
Whilst not many sex workers in Malta are comfortable to speak up openly about the industry and what they do, The Malta Independent on Sunday managed to obtain an exclusive interview with three European sex workers, who explained why they have taken the decision to remain in the sex industry and gave their own take on how the situation of sex workers in Europe, and Malta, can be improved.
The discussion on a reform on prostitution and human trafficking laws has been a heated one. Back in August, the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Reforms, Rosianne Cutajar, had informed this newsroom that the Prostitution Reform Technical Committee is in the initial stages of drafting a legal framework that aims to decriminalise sex work.
This was followed by several statements from groups and individuals who are both against decriminalisation and in favour of the Nordic Model (criminalising the buyer) and those who are in favour of decriminalisation.
A coalition of 40 women’s organisations, better known as the Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, has argued that ditching the Nordic model is an insult to women and that full decriminalisation will turn Malta into a “hub of sex tourism.”
It is important to note that the interview was held online through a Zoom call and that none of the sex workers interviewed are Maltese. Each person has given their full consent for their names and photos to be published. In fact, they explained that they have nothing to hide and are proud of the work that they do.
Important to not individualise the narrative as it can leave out sex workers
This newsroom spoke to Thierry from France (a country which follows the Nordic Model), Lilia, who is from Sweden but now resides in Amsterdam, and Lucas, who is based in Brussels and is part of the Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), a network representing 104 organisations led by or working with sex workers in Europe and Central Asia.
All three explained that they started sex work out of a combination of curiosity and financial reasons. “I tried it (sex work) out and did it for a while then stopped for a time. Once I started my studies, I kept sex work on the side and now I am doing it full time as an escort,” explained Lilia. Thierry and Lucas have both tried a number of jobs within the sex industry, from working on the streets, to gay bars, pornographic movies and being escorts.
“Whilst the individual stories are very important, they never truly reflect the full picture of why many sex workers are in the industry and remain in the industry for many different reasons. Our reasons can be viewed as privileged when compared to why a migrant or trans woman might decide to do sex work. We need to understand that some individuals might not have the economic opportunities, but nonetheless, sex workers need to have rights,” said Lucas.
Thierry said it is important that, in the discussion regarding sex workers, one should not reduce their understanding of sex work by focusing on solely one experience. “There are sex workers who have been forced and there are sex workers who have opted to go into that line of work. It is important that we remember the diversity of the industry and not stick to just one narrative, as by doing so we ignore the rest of the sex workers who do not stick by that narrative.”
He pointed out that the Nordic Model uses the narrative that all sex workers are victims and that those who are not are exploiters. “It (Nordic Model) portrays that there are good people and bad people, so just because I am perfectly fine being a sex worker, therefore I do not fit the victim narrative and am wrong. This type of individualising in this important debate is completely wrong and we truly miss the full understanding of the situation.”
He said that the discussion should not be about how people joined the industry, but about how to improve working conditions and rights for everyone. “All of us are committed to fight against abuse, exploitation and force labour in the industry, and by improving our laws and our labour rights we are then working towards fighting exploitation.”
‘Nordic model is horrible and only favours the client’
Both Thierry and Lilia have first-hand experience of working in a country which follows the Nordic Model, and both have felt that the model itself does nothing to help protect the sex worker.
Instead, there have been a number of times when they felt threatened by their clients.
“I find it horrible,” explained Thierry. “It only creates a market in favour of the client, because if I am with a client who is afraid of being caught, they will tend to negotiate more or find ways of exploiting you, (…) there are times when the police even use this against sex workers, who then arrest their clients and put workers in danger.”
He pointed out that the Nordic model forces sex workers to move away from the streets and into more dangerous or remote zones to find work. “People believe that the Nordic model has improved the lives of women and sex workers when in reality we have had a large number of murders. In the past 15 years as an activist in the field, I have never seen so much sexual violence and murder, and I link this solely to the law.”
Prior to living and working in Amsterdam, Lilia had experience of working within the Nordic Model and decriminalisation. “Sweden gives the image of having a super feminist focus, which is far from the case. The model is used against us to stigmatise us and be used against us. The police track sex workers in order to get to the clients, and we are treated as criminals even though we are not.”
She explained that in Amsterdam she is allowed to verify her clients and that in the Red Light district there are qualified police and social workers who work with sex workers.
“The idea that the Nordic Model is meant to provide safety for sex workers is a complete lie, and there are no good statistics coming out of Sweden to prove this at all,” explained Lilia.
“People are under the impression that, just because we want full decriminalisation means that we will not help those who wish to quit or exit; this is far from the reality,” Lucas said.
“Decriminalisation still means that we punish the exploiters and traffickers and report those who are violent towards sex workers. Unfortunately, any form of criminalisation has only reduced the trust between the police and the sex workers, and we are seeing that fewer sex workers are reporting rape or abuse to the police, as they are afraid they will be reported or arrested, especially those who are migrant workers or, in some countries, LGBTQI individuals.”
Sex workers are so stigmatised that it can stop them from reporting a crime to the police
“It is already very difficult for straight cisgender women to report rape, let alone for the marginalised communities such as migrants, transgender and LGBT individuals, so we believe that decriminalisation is used as a first step to improve relations between sex workers and the police for these crimes to be taken seriously,” said Lucas.
He hopes Malta will also follow a good consultation process to discuss decriminalisation and that violence against sex workers is taken seriously. “The fundamental flaw of the Nordic model is that it states that all prostitution/sex work is against women and that prostitution is rape and abuse; which is not the case. I speak for myself and my colleagues, we have all had bad clients and seen abuse, we can tell the difference between rape and sex work, so to make a blanket statement that all sex work is violence is actually making the situation of sex workers worse.”
All three mentioned that they have heard of cases, from friends and former colleagues, that they have been laughed at when reporting to the police and, in some cases, sex workers would be murdered even though they tried to report a client to the police.
When discussing how the stigma on sex workers can be improved, Lilia said that it will take time for mentalities to change, but that a system like the one in Amsterdam, where sex workers have specific health centres and police working with them and treating them like individuals, has made a huge step forward.
“Decriminalisation is a big thing, but it is not enough, we need to think much further and discuss about the working rights of sex workers and to be taken much more seriously,” added Thierry. “We do not need to repeal or re-write laws, but implement laws which already exist, such as labour rights for employers, and ensure that sex workers have the correct legal labour rights which do not leave them in the dark if they are ever left without employment, like what has happened due to the pandemic.”
He explained that, earlier this year, when France was on lockdown, many sex workers had contacted the government asking for help them since they could not work. “In France there is an allocated €5 million which goes into a programme to help sex workers quit; we were not asking to quit but asking to be supported with this money so that we could continue living and paying our taxes.”
He said that, with decriminalisation, sex workers can have access to proper social protection and labour rights. “We need to keep in mind how diverse the industry is. There are single mothers, students, migrants and trans-people who all have different reasons for working in the industry and who all need support.”
Malta should not consider a blanket statement that all sex workers are victims
Talking about the local debate, Lucas said Malta cannot accept models such as the Nordic model, which gives a sweeping blanket statement that all sex workers are victims.
“This will only give more power to exploiters and leave sex workers in the dark. As a committee, we believe in full decriminalisation and that sex work should not be part of a criminal code but should be tackled as a social and labour issue. There will be people who need support to exit as they might be in a toxic cycle of sex work, exploitation and drugs. But we must also provide support and rights to those who have made a free decision to remain in this industry.”