The resolution was “well and truly passed”, noted congress chair BJ Waltho after a sea of green cards went up in favour of the motion, which was submitted by the RCN Greater Bristol branch.
“Decriminalising prostitution is the best way to safeguard sex workers’ health”
The branch highlighted that World Health Organization guidelines from 2012 had recommended that countries “work towards the decriminalisation of sex work”.
It also noted that, currently in England, Wales and Scotland, prostitution itself is legal. However, a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, curb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering, and more than one sex worker working together, were crimes.
Meanwhile, the law in Northern Ireland is different to the rest of the UK as it has “conflated sex work and human trafficking into one issue”, meaning it was illegal to pay for sex there, said the branch.
“As nursing staff, we have a responsibility to call for what is in the best interests of public health and the patients who entrust us with their care,” said those behind the motion.
“Lending our voice to support a stigmatised and marginalised group is not only the right thing to do but will lead to improved health outcomes,” they stated in the written supporting material.
“Nurses often take a leading role in the care and treatment of sex workers”
Most speakers said they supported the motion, with the exception of one or two. Many argued that the so-called Nordic model does not work.
Under the model, the buyer is criminalised but not the seller, the idea being that demand for sex workers will be reduced.
Louise Cahill, who put the argument for the resolution, said: “Decriminalising prostitution is the best way to safeguard sex workers’ health.
“Criminalising clients gives them more power over sex workers, not less,” she added, in relation to the Nordic model.
She tweeted after the vote that delegates had “just sent a clear message to the world that we will always advocate for patients’ best interests, no matter how controversial”.
The RCN public health forum supported the resolution to decriminalise prostitution, said Jason Warriner during the debate.
Former RCN president Andrea Spyropoulos also highlighted that it was 12 years since congress debated the issue, while urging members to vote in favour of the resolution.
In a statement, 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.
RCN warns of ‘profound public health challenges’
“Services that nurses provide for sex workers have seen their funding slashed,” she said. “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,” she said.
“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,” said Ms Donovan.
She added: “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.”
Resolution 1: That this meeting of congress calls upon council to lobby governments across the UK to decriminalise prostitution