A lack of trafficking evidence highlights the flaws in a policing and crime bill that fails to distinguish between types of sex work
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 October 2009 10.00 BST
Last night, I went to a play about sex trafficking at the Arcola theatre. The programme notes: “While elements of It Felt Empty When the Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now are inspired by real-life events, all characters, their names and incidents portrayed are entirely fictitious.”
In his article Sex, lies and trafficking, Nick Davies has made clear the extent to which this policy-inspired-by-stories approach has infiltrated the government’s attitude to sex work. It’s fine to take the truly horrid real-life events experienced by a small number of women who have been rescued from enforced prostitution by a crusading NGO and weave those events into a moving drama. It is absolutely not fine to weave those same handful of stories into public policy.
The fact is, these stories of big-hearted women who get tricked by boyfriends into prostitution make good drama precisely because they are outliers. That doesn’t mean trafficking doesn’t exist, or even that it is negligible. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to respond. But we need to respond in a way that makes it possible to help those who need help most.
Pushing the sex trade further underground does not achieve that goal. We need to make a clear distinction between those who really need help and the vast majority of men and women who sell sex for the same reason that men and women sell hamburgers, footballing skills or yen-euro futures – because it pays the rent.
The policing and crime bill, which was due to be discussed again by a House of Lords committee, still bears the mark of its feminist midwives, Jacqui Smith, Harriet Harman and their ilk. Working closely with the crusading NGOs that informed the play I saw, they are fired by the belief that all sex work is an affront to female dignity (they say little or nothing about men who sell sex). It follows that no woman would sell sex unless she was forced to do so. Ergo, all prostitutes are forced into their work, ergo trafficked. Those who say otherwise (the English Collective of Prostitutes, the International Union of Sex workers) are so brutalised by their work that they know not what they say. To wipe out trafficking we have to wipe out prostitution, by making it illegal for men to buy sex from women who are “controlled for gain”. And that’s what the policing and crime bill is trying to do.
Who is controlled for gain? Anyone who uses a booking agent. Not pop stars or after-dinner speakers or concert pianists, of course. Just any sex worker with a booking agent. Anyone who shares the rent on a flat with someone else in the trade. Practically anyone who isn’t working in absolute isolation, where she is most vulnerable to assault and least accessible to support services. Obviously, forcing women to work alone makes the legal activity of selling sex a much more dangerous business.
Under the new bill, a punter is at fault even if he didn’t know the vendor was “controlled”, so anyone who buys sex, even from someone who says he or she is working voluntarily, is at risk if she later turns out to have been sharing a flat, for instance. Right now, punters provide the police with most of their tips about sex workers who are potentially coerced or underage. But if reporting your suspicions might land you in jail yourself, you’re going to be a lot less forthcoming. Obviously, then, criminalising men who buy sex will make it harder to find and help the small number of women who are genuinely forced or terrorised into selling sex.
The policing and crime bill is bad for people who want to sell sex, and it’s bad for people who are forced to sell sex against their will too. By conflating the dramatic and often tragic stories of the second group with the often rather dreary, workaday realities of the first, the government does a disservice to both.
See Original and discussion at Guardian UK
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