RCN Congress debates whether it should lobby governments to stop criminalising prostitutes in the best interests of public health.
Currently, England, Wales and Scotland have similar laws regarding prostitution; the exchange of sexual services for money is legal but a number of related activities such as soliciting in a public place are against the law. Northern Ireland has a different law which makes it illegal to pay for sex.
The motion’s proposers argue that decriminalisation is not the same as legalising prostitution and laws would remain in place to prevent sexual exploitation and human trafficking. They point to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines that recommend countries work towards decriminalising sex work.
They also point out research published in The Lancet that shows decriminalising prostitution would help lower the rate of sexually transmitted infections and make it easier for sex workers to insist on condom use.
RCN professional lead for public health Helen Donovan said:
“Nurses often take a leading role in the care and treatment of sex workers, and advocate for their health and wellbeing and they want to know if there’s more that can be done to safeguard their patients. Services that nurses provide for sex workers have seen their funding slashed. Local authorities have had to make difficult decisions about what preventative health services they continue to support. Unfortunately, the services hit hardest are often those that provide advice, prevention and promotion and those in which nursing staff make a vital contribution.
“The political appetite to fund sexual health services targeting sex workers isn’t there. As nurses, we have a duty to ensure we serve the needs of society’s most vulnerable. The future of these services depends on a proper, meaningful investment and we must also consider if the Government must change the law to improve the health of these people. “
Kate Nulty is a nurse practitioner who works in sexual health and has worked in a range of services that provide care, treatment and advice to sex workers.
“I would go out and meet these women on the streets. I’d give them essential advice on contraception, drug and alcohol use as well as safety and health issues. By seeing them where they worked, I could see first-hand if they were safe or frightened. They learned to trust me.”
“I’ve known many of my clients for years now. They remember the feeling of being looked after when they were at their most vulnerable. They remember being safe and not being judged. Being able to tell us anything is really valuable for them.”
Some people believe decriminalising prostitution would be seen as an endorsement, could lead to an increase in sexual violence and that organised crime would reap the benefits.