- Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
Currently, sex work is legal to do in England, but only in isolation. Management, co-working for safety, letting out premises, and providing many other non-managerial services to sex workers are all criminalised. Even two workers who share a workplace for safety are considered to be running a brothel. This means that workers feel forced to choose between working alone and without support, or risking prosecution for themselves or any third parties they work with.
Working closely with grassroots organisations in the field of sex-work, I conducted research in 2022/23 involving a survey of 185 full-service sex workers (those who offer in-person, physical sex services) in England. The survey asked participants questions about their experiences with third parties such as managers, colleagues, maids, drivers, receptionists, and security staff.
The research also involved an in-depth investigation of the legal status of a range of third parties, as well as the effect of this criminalisation on sex workers themselves. Third parties provide services such as work premises, advertising, business support, cleaning, client screening or security.
Participants reported that the criminalisation of workplaces and third parties leads to: reduced access to justice and labour rights, reduced safety at work, fewer workplace options, worse management practices, being forced to work in isolation, increased power of third parties over workers, and increased risk of losing their workplace or home to police intervention.
Although many people may think of managers (those who run sex work premises or who have managerial power over the work or hours of sex workers) when they think of criminalised third parties in sex work, the most commonly encountered group of third parties is actually colleagues.
Colleagues, either in managed workplaces or while working independently, take on a range of roles for each other, including: co-workers, co-entrepreneurs, security, workplace sharing, and information and skill improvement. Like in many forms of informal work, partners or friends often support sex workers by helping out with security, administration, cleaning, transport, tech support, or other tasks.
Even though the vast majority of third party activities are criminalised, regardless of whether a sex worker consents to or even requests the third party support, there is no proof that third party support is universally harmful to sex workers.
Research participants reported a mix of positive, negative and neutral experiences with third parties. However, they had more positive experiences with wider work relations (non-managerial third parties such as colleagues, receptionists and drivers), and more negative experiences with managers. Wider work relations were described as providing useful services, company, and especially a sense of safety.
Although some managers were described in the same positive way, others were described as taking unreasonable cuts/fees, putting pressure on workers to see more clients, or as bad or abusive managers.
Participants described that while working without any third parties at all meant that they had complete control over their work and could keep all their earnings, this also meant that they were isolated and felt unsafe.
The criminalisation of third parties has the underlying assumption that sex workers do not have access to agency in their relationships with third parties. However, this research found that sex workers freely and commonly leave unsatisfactory third parties and workplaces to work somewhere else.
Additionally, they regularly move from one type of sex work to another, depending on their circumstances and needs. For instance, they move from agency work to independent work, or from work-in-premises to street-based work. This shows that sex workers have access to, and regularly use, their labour mobility power.
Finally, the research found that sex workers overwhelmingly argue for legal change to the status of criminalised third parties in order to improve their working conditions. Instead of protecting sex workers, the criminalisation of third parties and workplaces reduces their access to labour rights, to workplaces with good management practices, to cooperatives and worker-managed workplaces, and to the police and the justice system. For this reason, many research participants argue for the decriminalisation of some or all third parties in sex work.
Additionally, they want social changes in society that improve the rights of sex workers and reduce the poverty and social exclusion that causes many people to turn to sex work for income. This includes access to labour rights and workplace protections, reduction of anti-sex worker stigma, a better welfare system and sufficient benefits, improved support for carers and disabled people, an end to the hostile environment for migrants, better support services for sex workers, the ability to legally employ third parties, and an end to the financial discrimination of sex workers.
• The most commonly encountered third parties as reported by participants are not managers, but are other sex workers – mainly in the role of colleagues.
• Sex workers describe more positive experiences with non-managerial third parties (colleagues, receptionists, cleaners etc.), and more negative experiences with managers.
• Like in many other forms of informal work, third parties are often friends or partners.
• Sex workers very commonly leave unsatisfactory work situations and workplaces, either to work in a different workplace, or to work independently.
• Many participants feel forced to choose between working alone and without support, or risking prosecution for themselves or any third parties they work with.
• The criminalisation of third parties and workplaces reduces sex workers’ access to labour rights, to workplaces with good management practices, to cooperatives and worker-managed workplaces, and to the police and the justice system.
• Sex workers argue for legal change to the status of criminalised third parties in order to improve their working conditions and relationships with them.
Third parties in sex work are neither universally good, nor universally bad. However, the interventions that decrease the power of harmful third parties over sex workers, simultaneously increase sex workers’ power over their working lives and their access to third parties who positively affect them. For that reason, there is an urgent need to focus on interventions and legislation that increase the agency of sex workers in their relationships with third parties.
Of course, abusive management and harmful workplace practices would still be illegal if third parties were decriminalised, just like they are in other industries. However, the decriminalisation of third parties would give sex workers more agency to choose how, where, and with whom to work.
This project is an extension of Lilith Brouwers’ PhD research project – “I feel safe when I'm working with her": Sex workers' experiences of management and wider work relationships”. The extension is supported by the Leeds University Business School Impact and Engagement Support fund.
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