I used to be conflicted on this one, but one look at who’s proposing it should tell you what side of the argument is the right one:
She (Home Secretary Jacqui Smith) will outline plans this week to criminalise paying for sex with a woman ‘controlled for another person’s gain’. The new offence will carry a hefty fine and criminal record, which could prevent those caught from getting jobs in sensitive occupations.
A great idea in principle, to legislate against the exploitation of women, and in particular against their trafficking. Paying for sex with a women who has been trafficked, whether you knew her circumstances or not, would become a very serious criminal offence, which on the surface should be a good thing. But criminalising most men who pay for sex with women (hang on, are men not exploited in the sex industry too?) seems to make no sense to me. On the one hand we have a desirable outcome in addressing the commodification of people, which to me is where the biggest danger lies in all prostitution, but it seems to me a principle root cause of prostitution itself is being missed here:
One anonymous lapdancer who provided a statement for the ECP said she could earn £250 in four hours of dancing. ‘Nine out of 10 women turn to prostitution or lapdancing because there’s not enough money to survive. Recently my mum couldn’t afford a pair of school shoes for my brother and sister. When I worked a day job I couldn’t help her, but now I can.
‘If the government is offended by the work we do, then give us the financial means to get out.’ She said that there was ‘no pressure to have sex with men, only opportunities’, in her job.
If you’re to attack the exploitation of women, why focus merely on the sex industry? The world of work is fundamentally balanced against women – why not address the inequality of women in the labour market before attacking an industry which will go quickly underground if made largely illegal? Surely the solution is to legalise prostitution, to tax it, and keep it visible to mainstream society for the protection of women? Instead, women in Britain face worsening inequality:
The UK has fallen lower down the world league table on gender equality for the third year running, and is now ranked 13th out of 130 countries in terms of women’s pay and work opportunities, political power, health and education.
Last year Britain came 11th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, while in 2006 it held 9th place.
The biggest decline in performance was in the ranking for equal pay, where Britain dropped 20 places to number 81.
One of the report’s co-authors, Saadia Zahidi, said this translated into thousands of women being significantly worse off. “There was a 4% drop in wage equality in the UK in the last year, but this equates to a drop of 20 places on the rankings from 61st place to 81st,” she said.
Prostitution Reform however point out the flaw in this argument: it does nothing to address the crisis in women trafficking:
If the process is legalised the situation for the trafficked victim remains largely the same. It does not help to alleviate her suffering, as there is no law against men visiting prostitutes. There is also no reason to raid the brothel, such that a woman may be trapped in a violent and abusive situation for many years with no means of escape. The main difference being, that if the trafficked victim manages to escape captivity, she has not committed a crime and should not be subject to criminal charges.
Again it’s a seductive argument, but bear in mind (which Prostitution Reform do not) that although the criminalisation of men using female prostitutes in Sweden (the model being adopted by Jacqui Smith) was accompanied by legislation decriminalising the selling of sex, there have been undesirable outcomes:
When the prostitution market disappears underground it is harder for the authorities to intercept the persons that really need help. In Gothenburg many young women seek help to detoxify because of their addiction to heroin and almost all of them have sold sexual services. But the city’s prostitution group (social workers) seldom comes in contact with these women because they don’t show up on the streets today.
The risk of infection have gone up because if a sexseller gets infected with a sexually transmitted disease, and the authorities advise customers to the sexworker to contact them, many are afraid to do so.
If a client meets a sexworker that he/she suspects is in need of help the client is scared to contact for example the social services. Anf if a customer meets a sexworker that he/she suspects is the victim of sexual trafficking that person is today scared of going to the police. Before you could obtain evidence against traffickers and pimps based on customer’s testimony. These days they aren’t likely to participate in trials and if they are forced to testify as the same time they are prosecuted for buying sex their testimony are not credible in the same way.
Legalisation in New Zealand however has been hailed as a broad success:
The overwhelming response to the legislation has been positive. Police have moved from clogging courts with prosecutions for soliciting to preventing violence against sex workers.
And the findings of the New Zealand government’s report into the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) found:
There has been no rise in numbers of women working, including of young people who feel able to contact agencies for help.
Sex workers are more likely to report incidents of violence to the police and other agencies. This was particularly true for the street workers.
There has been a change of attitude by members of the police. Some individual officers and some police districts, have gone out of their way to work with the sex industry, with Christchurch being the obvious example. However, stigmatisation still plays a key role in the non-reporting of incidents. This is the inevitable result of years of the sex industry operating illegally, with the police seen as posing a threat rather than offering protection.
Judges have ruled that sex workers are entitled to expect the same protection under the law as anyone else.
Attacks are cleared up more quickly as women are more likely to come forward with information without fear of arrest, making all women safer.
Women find it easier to leave prostitution as convictions have been cleared from their records.
It is easier for sex workers to refuse to have sex with a client.
Brothel owners are more supportive and less coercive to employees.
Evidence from Scot-Pep, the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, shows that in Edinburgh – where kerb crawling laws have only been recently introduced – they can lead to assaults on street sex workers doubling.
They are blamed for the breakdown of street sex workers’ networks, relied on for safety, as they disperse as members seek un-patrolled locations to safeguard their customers. This in turn makes them more difficult for outreach workers to locate for safe sex counselling, drug rehabilitation or support in pursuing routes out of prostitution.
Ms Smith’s plans to give councils and the police powers to close brothels and “clamp down on exploitation” drew further criticism.
I’m not surprised, because it seems to be entirely counter-productive to her central rationale of the policy:
“Brothel and agency owners and their clients are the most likely to see and report victims of trafficking – by continuing their criminalisation, and extending criminalisation to some clients, the government makes it less likely abuse will be reported, increasing the vulnerability of those they wish to help. Trafficking victims will pay the price.”
I cannot fathom why, yet again, Jacqui Smith wilfully refuses to join the dots. Is it because she again wishes to be seen as a ‘tough’ Home Secretary who appeals to the ‘law and order’ instincts of the Conservative right wing? Or is she just stupid? The evidence clearly shows that criminalisation and heavy handedness are not productive solutions to tackling the exploitation of women in the sex industry. Criminalising men who pay for sex with women and giving powers to local councils to be heavy handed (look to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to see how eager they are to be heavy handed) is a regressive step which won’t help women who need help to get help. Making it impossible for abused and trafficked women to identify themselves and be identified is typically ignorant of such an authoritarian (and frequently stupid) Home Secretary.