Labour party parliament officials in Britain are currently working to outlaw prostitution.
Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader and minister for women, gave public backing to a ban on prostitution yesterday.
Home Office minister Vernon Coaker and junior women’s minister Barbara Follett are to visit Sweden, where paying for sex is illegal, to see what the ban there has achieved.
The Home Office considered making paying for sex a specific crime in 2004, but decided against it. Harman’s comments have put the issue back on the table. “Do we think it’s right in the 21st century that women should be in a sex trade or do we think it’s exploitation and should be banned? Just because something has always gone on, it doesn’t mean you just wring your hands and say there’s nothing we can do about it,” Harman told Radio 4’s Today programme.
She said the government had to deal with the problem of sex workers trafficked into Britain. “I think we do need to have a debate and unless you tackle the demand side of human trafficking, which is fuelling this trade, we will not be able to protect women from it. That is what they’ve done in Sweden. My own personal view is that’s what we need to do as a next step.”
The Newspaper Society will produce new guidelines on small ads offering services at brothels next month. “I think that the new guidance will stop those ads. But the next question is, can we really stop this trade when we’ve still got a lawful sex trade going on?” Harman said.
I think that Harman’s last question is a valid one with no easy answers. I also think that her first question is innately flawed. To ask whether we think that the sex industry is exploitative and then declare that if we do, we must outlaw it, is to work off of the disproved basis that criminalizing the sex industry will somehow make it less exploitative.
From everything I’ve read about the plan, the new laws would simply criminalize the purchasing of sex and not the selling. Indeed, in some small ways it even officially lessens the restrictions upon sex workers themselves. The goal here is a noble one: to put the sex trafficking industry out of business, and therefore decrease the number of abused and exploited women, as well as to increase the safety of all sex workers.
The problem is, as sex worker advocacy groups and the Liberal Democrats (a smaller more politically progressive party in parliament) have pointed out, that the restrictions will probably make sex workers less safe, not more.
The English Collective of Prostitutes attacked Ms Harman’s support for the Swedish system and urged her to look at New Zealand’s system of legalising brothels instead.
Spokeswoman Cari Mitchell said the Swedish system of criminalising men who buy sex had forced prostitution further underground and “made women more vulnerable to violence”.
Similarly, Sarah Walker, also from the group, said the deaths of five prostitutes killed in Ipswich last December was largely due to young women being forced underground.
She called for the government to concentrate on factors such as poverty, homelessness and debt which she said pushed many to prostitution.
A man is due to stand trial next year in connection with the Ipswich killings.
Liberal Democrat spokesman David Howarth said a ban was not the answer, arguing that it could put women in more danger.
He said: “Evidence from Sweden in making prostitution illegal has shown that it doesn’t help in reducing human trafficking. It, in fact, increases violence against women and makes the practice of prostitution far more risky for all involved.
“Outlawing prostitution completely will mean that men will be far less likely to come forward to help with prosecutions for fear of criminalisation themselves.”
Well said. Regardless of what the laws state, criminalizing the purchase of sex is going to turn sex workers into outlaws, too. To suggest otherwise is either incredibly short-sighted or just a flat-out lie. Men will not frequent sex workers who advertise or who work in known brothels for fear of a sting. So in order to continue working, sex workers will have to take their business further underground. And the farther away from the public eye the sex industry gets, the more exploitative it becomes.
This is indeed a classic example of well-meaning but clueless people trying to “save” a marginalized group while completely ignoring that group’s actual needs. Sex workers have advocacy groups for a reason, and proposals like this is one of them. The only thing that this change in the law would do is make the public feel better, and though it too-often is, that certainly shouldn’t be the point. In order to help sex workers, we first have to ask them what they need.
I have made my views about Johns exceedingly clear, and it’s just about as unflattering of an image as one can have. But we have to face facts: prostitution is generally accepted in Britain. One in ten British men admit to paying for sex. And self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, which means that the number is probably significantly higher. That’s a huge problem. But I don’t think that sweeping it under the rug is going to fix anything. It’s true that when Norway and Sweden outlawed prostitution, reported patronage of sex workers dropped dramatically. I personally imagine that some of that decrease would have to do with less-honest reporting (indeed, British polls have shown that the threat of jail time is not a deterrent to men who buy sex). The rest would go to men who decided that the risks were no longer worth the benefits, but I doubt that this is the reason we want men to stop treating women like sexual commodities. And in any case, the numbers of Johns going down doesn’t make sex workers less safe. Indeed, it will cause many to engage in increasingly dangerous behavior to continue to make ends meet, and the Johns who will continue patronage are likely to be the craziest out of the bunch.
And how, exactly, outlawing willful prostitution is going to help stop sex trafficking is incredibly unclear to me. It seems to be entirely symbolic, about public attitudes rather than actual results. Sex trafficking is already illegal. Brothels that “employ” trafficked women pretend that the women are working willfully, and it always has been very clear when this is a lie. Those who are currently breaking the law have the least to lose by continuing to sell rape. A lot of these brothels currently advertise in the papers, and so police could be busting them now, if they wanted to. How the hell is driving these often publicly run brothels underground going to assist in finding and dismantling them?
Howarth has a good point. No matter how much we hate Johns, we need them to blow the whistle. By and large, I don’t think that the men who frequent brothels where women are working unwillingly are specifically seeking out trafficked women to rape as opposed to sex workers who can make an autonomous exchange. I just think that they don’t care, either way. And we need to find a way to make them care.
Making Johns believe that they will face legal prosecution for reporting a suspicious brothel is certainly not going to help matters. These women are generally held prisoner. They can’t come forward. The men who visit brothels can.
For that reason, I personally see benefit in taking out bold ads alongside those in the paper for sex workers stating something along the lines of “X number of women are trafficked into the sex industry every year. If something seems wrong, it probably is. Not leaving could make you a rapist. Walk away and report it.” We need to make men see the difference, to help Johns develop some sort of a conscience, to finally inform them that paying to “have sex” with a trafficked woman is rape. Though, of course, this would only work if the government did actually decide to legalize proper brothels, so that sex workers and brothel owners would not face other legal action in the case of a false report. This is yet another road block.
I also certainly see the benefit of actually talking to the women we’re supposedly trying to help. They know best what threats they face and what causes them. They know their own concerns. They understand that not all sex workers want out of the industry, but also that resources need to be available for those who do. They know what increases the risk of violence and disease transmission. And they sure as hell are the best judges of what does and does not exploit them.
What are your thoughts?