Published: 27 December 2007
I’m caricaturing, of course, but not by much. Next month, when MPs return from their Christmas holidays, they’ll be asked to vote on an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which would give councils and police chiefs the power to ban men from paying for sex in designated areas. The idea is to extend action against kerb crawlers to brothels and massage parlours, which is where the majority of trafficked women are forced to “work” in this country; it’s a British version of a Swedish law which came into effect nine years ago and has radically changed the way many people think about prostitution.
Like most radical proposals, it has polarised opinion, although the degree of personal invective against those of us who support it is an eye-opener. Actually, I can’t help suspecting that some of the critics have a vested interest in maintaining a man’s “right” to buy sex, or their responses wouldn’t be quite so hysterical.
Their Pollyanna fantasies could not be more out of touch with the real world of prostitution and trafficking, two phenomena which are inextricably linked. Voluntary prostitution – by which I mean that minority of women in the sex trade who go into it because they are poor, out of work and dependent on drugs – is such an awful job that there are simply not enough women and girls to meet demand.
According to a study published four years ago in the Journal of Trauma Practice, 89 per cent of women in prostitution want to escape; a field study in nine countries showed that between 60 and 75 per cent of women in prostitution had been raped, between 70 and 95 per cent had been physically assaulted, and 68 per cent displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture. Other research, this time from Canada, suggests that women in prostitution are 40 times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the female population.
Against this background, a lucrative opportunity has opened up for sex-traffickers to bring foreign girls and women to countries like the UK to satisfy growing demand. No one knows how many trafficked women are “working” in city centre and suburban brothels in this country, with estimates varying from 4,000 to 25,000. What is clear is that in most Western countries the sex trade is now dominated by foreign women, many of them tricked or coerced into sexual slavery. The men they are forced to service are not the classic shy loners beloved by pro-prostitution fantasists; research shows that most clients are sexually-active men aged between 30 and 55, married or co-habiting, whose attitudes to women are about as enlightened as your average Manchester United footballer.
They buy sex because they like variety, because they want sex acts they can’t get from regular partners, and because they like verbally abusing or beating women; it is these men – ordinary husbands and fathers who spent a fortune on presents for their wives and kids a couple of days ago – who are the engine of the trade in trafficked women. The US State Department considerably understated the case when it suggested that where prostitution is legalised or tolerated, “there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery”.
Amazingly, there is still no shortage of people arguing that the answer is legalisation. Here we enter another fantasy world, where all the problems associated with prostitution are about health and safety, and can be answered by setting up legal establishments where attractive young women with certificates of sexual health happily service polite clients (themselves free of STIs). There was a time when such arguments appealed to liberals like me, but that was before they were put into practice in several countries – notably Germany, the Netherlands and some parts of Australia – with disastrous consequences.
Legalising prostitution stimulates demand, encourages trafficking and promotes the existence of a parallel illegal industry where men can get unprotected or anal sex. In Victoria, which has a population of only 3.5 million, the number of legal brothels jumped from 40 to 94 in a 10-year period, and were easily outnumbered by unlicensed establishments. But the most astounding figures come from Germany, where legalisation has created a situation in which 1.2 mllion men pay for sex each day. An estimated 400,000 women are working in prostitution, 80 per cent of them foreign and a high proportion trafficked. During last year’s football World Cup, many of them “worked” in narrow booths on motorways, forced to have sex with dozens of men each day.
In the nine years since Sweden made buying sex a criminal offence, there has been a drop in the number of women working as prostitutes and in trafficked women. Fewer than 600 women are trafficked into the country each year, compared with more than 10,000 in neighbouring Finland, and intercepts of telephone conversations between traffickers show that they’re giving up on Sweden. At least 1,700 men have been charged with paying or trying to pay for sex, and the figure would have been much higher if the courts had been able to handle them.
It’s a bold experiment, and the government is unashamed of the fact that the law is based on the notion that prostitution is an aspect of male violence towards women and children. I couldn’t agree more, and I have a final thought for those who have steam coming out of their ears. If prostitution is so great, why don’t you encourage your daughters to go and work in a brothel? Not to mention your sons.
Letters in Response:
Sex workers are not helpless victims
Sir: I am a sex worker and a sex manager. I run an agency and I work as a male escort and have done so for ten years. I have met hundreds of clients and represented hundreds of sex workers. I have never come across anyone who was coerced or trafficked.
Thousands of sex workers throughout this country work freely and by choice in an industry that provides them with a good income and flexible hours. Many sex workers do the work for a short time and others make a full-time career out of it
I wonder how many real sex workers Joan Smith has met (“Yes, it should be a crime to pay for sex”, 27 December). I suggest she speaks to real sex workers and learns the truth about the industry.
I do not argue that there is not a problem with trafficked victims, but I do question the numbers and strongly urge that further criminalisation will do nothing to stop this vile trade. It will have quite the opposite effect.
Sweden is seen by prohibitionists as a model for the destruction of the sex trade, but Sweden had a tiny sex worker community to begin with and those few sex workers are now more victimised than ever before.
Further criminalisation will not work here but rather will push the industry further underground and into the hands of the criminals we all despise. If she is genuinely concerned with helping the victims of crime, then she should look to decriminalise the industry and open the industry up to public scrutiny. The vast majority of sex workers are not victims and hate being classed as victims, just as the vast majority of managers are not evil pimps but rather are employees of sex workers, employed by them to provide collective services.
How many lives will be destroyed by the state egged on by people like Joan Smith simply because they have chosen to work in an industry that she disapproves of?
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Sir: Joan Smith’s article “Yes, it should be a crime to pay for sex” is in danger of reinforcing common mistaken stereotypes concerning prostitution and victims of human trafficking. A genuine, coerced trafficking victim is not a prostitute. She is a rape victim.
Ms Smith states that estimates vary between 4,000 and 25,000 sex-trafficking victims in the UK. Whilst both these figures seem to have emanated from the Home Office, no methodology explaining their foundation has been made available. The nationwide police operation Pentameter 1, which used the Palermo Protocol definition of trafficking and involved all 55 forces in the UK, found either 84 or 88 depending which report you read, Crimestoppers or Acpo. Its successor, Pentameter 2, has found more, but nothing like the number that would justify even the smaller of the two figures.
The 4,000 figure appears on page 25 of the 2005-6 Joint Committee on Human Rights report on Human Trafficking, where the committee reported the “Government told us that [research] showed that there were an estimated 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in the UK during 2003 at any one time. Because the research has not yet been published, we have not been able to judge the validity of this figure.”
All this does not mean society should not do what it can to identify genuine cases, prosecute those responsible, and end the sufferings of real victims. However, as a great deal of police evidence on trafficking victims comes at present from prostitutes’ clients, rendering the latter illegal and pushing prostitution further underground is hardly a constructive way of going about matters.
Colwyn Bay, North Wales
Sir: I write in response to the letter from a host of academics entitled, “Sex workers need no moral crusades” (22 December). I entirely agree with the points they make. It is wrong, of course, for anybody to be forced to work in the sex industry and there should be criminal sanctions in place to tackle those involved in that aspect of the market. But why should everybody engaged in selling and buying sex be subjected to draconian criminal measures? This is one reason that those working in the industry should be involved in a debate on the subject.
In many instances, women choose to sell sex because they want to, not because they are forced to. The reasons may be many and varied – choosing when and how they work and the amount of money they are capable of earning, for example, might feature among those reasons. If a man chooses to buy sex from a woman choosing to sell it, what harm is being done? To criminalise such transactions would mean that numerous people would be hauled up before the courts when there is not even a victim.
Our laws on prostitution have always been behind the times and ineffective. Why not have brothels that are regulated? That would be one way to make sex workers offer their services in a safer environment than a dimly-lit street.
Sir: How does Julie Harrison (letter, 29 December) know that many people object to men buying sex? Most people, I suggest, are completely indifferent to prostitution so long as it doesn’t affect them. And what evidence does she have of men “in their thousands” sexually exploiting women? So far just 88 trafficked women have been rescued from the sex trade.
Cowling, North Yorkshire
Sir: Julie Harrison alludes to large numbers of women being enslaved and beaten. These are extremely serious matters; so serious that it would be surprising if they were not already covered in criminal law. Ms Harrison offers a case neither for enacting new legislation nor for making this gender-specific.
Harrogate, North Yorkshire