“This was T’s Massage on Great Eastern Street, it used to be pink now it looks like dirty skin. Sex clubs aren’t perfect but they are a lot safer than working in the street,” says Hackney artist Stik. Photo: Claude Crommelin

Hackney Council is calling for residents’ views on how they think  sex establishments in the borough should be licensed. On 20 September, it  launched a public consultation on the issue to help the licensing committee to decide on appropriate measures for the regulation of commercial sexual services.

The licensing committee is responsible for regulating sex shops, sex cinemas and sex entertainment venues such as lapdancing clubs and erotic dancing venues. It has recently drafted a new policy to determine whether and how to grant sex establishment licences in Hackney.

The draft Sex Establishment Licensing Policy will guide the licensing committee when considering applications for licences in balancing the conflicting needs of commercial interests, patrons, employees, residents and communities.

The document proposes a ‘nil’ policy, which would mean that no licences would normally be granted to sex establishments in Hackney, and the licensing committee wants to know whether local people think this is appropriate.

Hackney currently has one licensed sex shop and four premises that are “licensed to provide live performances or displays of nudity solely or mainly to sexually stimulate audience members.”

Cllr Chris Kennedy, Chair of the Licensing Committee, said: “The Licensing Committee is proposing a ‘nil’ policy on licensed sex establishments as we do not believe they fit with the character of our town centres and neighbourhoods.”

The licensing committee is particularly keen to find out the views and experiences of those who live, work or run a business near to one of the current sex establishments. Residents’ views will help the committee determine a policy based on local knowledge about the impact of sex establishments on the  community, which may, for example, include concerns about noise and anti-social behaviour or their effect on local businesses.

But it is not clear that the policy is in line with changing trends in public opinion. A survey carried out as part of the 27 September Sunday Morning Live discussion on BBC1 showed overwhelming public support for accepting prostitution, with 71% of the British public in favour and only 29% against.

This echoes a government funded Ipsos MORI poll in June 2008: almost six in ten (59%) agreed that “prostitution is a perfectly reasonable choice that women should be free to make.”

In the Sunday Morning Live debate, Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) called for policy that solves problems based on evidence and  reality, rather than on ideology, dramatic individual cases and stereotypes. She argued that stigmatisation of sex work plays a large part in violence and trafficking.

According to the IUSW the clients are not the problem; they cite evidence showing that the majority of robbery, abuse and physical or sexual violence experienced by sex workers comes from those who do not pay for sex. Many assailants express hatred of sex workers and appear to feel their actions are legitimated by the social attitudes of abhorrence for commercial sex.

Stephens says, “It’s time to start treating women with respect and equality, regardless of their sexual behaviour. It’s time to give people in the sex industry the same human rights as other citizens, so we can work together for safety, and call the police without fear of arrest. It’s time to decriminalise prostitution.”

For a hard copy of the consultation document go to: the licensing section of Hackney council’s website or call or e-mail the Hackney Council’s licensing team on: 020 8356 2431 or: licensing@hackney.gov.uk. For an executive summary of the draft Sex Establishment Licensing Policy in an alternative format such as Braille, large font, audio tape or another language, please contact the licensing team.

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