The UK’s biggest nursing union will lobby ministers to decriminalise sex work after a landmark motion was passed by a huge majority at its annual conference.
Louise Cahill, the nurse specialist in sexual health who was behind the proposed Royal College of Nursing (RCN) policy, said decriminalising sex work is vital if sex workers’ safety and health is to be protected.
She told the conference that sex workers avoid seeking health care for fear of prosecution, and don’t report assaults for similar reason.
Cahill said: “Current UK law makes it a criminal offence for sex workers to work together for safety. Brothel keeping is defined as just two or more sex workers working together.
“Therefore, sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.”
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The nurse added that decriminalisation would reduce the number of HIV cases among sex workers because they could better negotiate safer sex.
She said: “Lending our voice to support a stigmatised and marginalised group was not only the right thing to do but will lead to improved health outcomes.”
Figures show that nearly nine in 10 of the estimated 70,000 sex workers in the UK are women, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes.
RCN public health lead Helen Donovan expressed frustration that the “political appetite to fund sexual health services targeting sex workers isn’t there,” but that as nurses they had a responsibility to “serve the needs of society’s most vulnerable”.
The RCN will lobby politicians in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to push through the policy to safeguard sex workers.
But Abigail Lawrence, a nurse from the east of England, opposed the move. She described sex work as “exploitative, manipulative and based on coercion”.
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, but put strengthened laws against compelling or coercing people into the industry.
"Well and truly passed" #RCN19 votes to support decriminalisation of prostitution. 👏 Thank you @Cahill_Lou, @GilmoreJNurse and all at @theRCN. Also all the sex worker led orgs who worked on this @ProstitutesColl @ukdecrimnow and everyone else (wonderful collaborative work) 💚
— UglyMugs.ie (@uglymugsie) May 20, 2019
Buying sex is legal in England, Scotland and Wales, but soliciting in public and running a brothel are among the related activities which remain illegal.
It is also a criminal act for sex workers to work together – a key element of why campaigners say decriminalisation would improve safety in the industry.
Blair Buchanan is an organiser with Decrim Now, a campaign group made up of sex workers and trade unionists. She said the RCN’s policy was “wonderful news”.
“Nurses are frontline workers and it is clear that they understand the principles of harm reduction,” Buchanan said. “They looked at the ample evidence that criminalisation – whether of sex workers directly, or our clients, managers or landlords – harms people who sell sex. Law and policy should prioritise sex workers’ safety and we are so happy that nurses endorsed that.”
The World Health Organisation said in 2012 that countries should aim for the decriminalisation of sex work.