Britain’s prostitution laws are a mess. The proposed alternatives are worse.
Sally abandoned a job in management to sell sex. She works independently, without the interference of an agency or a pimp.
She is not victimised and relishes the fact that she has full control of what she does and when she does it.
Her clients are a mix of men and a few women. They are not criminals or rapists; they are, however, lonely. But if the government follows the recommendations of a report released on March 3rd by the all-party Parliamentary group on prostitution, her customers would become lawbreakers.
The politicians’ report calls for an overhaul of the muddled laws that govern prostitution in England and Wales. The legislation does not protect vulnerable women, argues the group. It criminalises sex workers, making it hard for them to exit prostitution. It does not crimp demand and so sanctions the sexual exploitation of women by men. And it fails to recognise prostitution as a form of violence against women. The group proposes criminalising the purchase of sex and toughening laws on pimping and underage prostitution.
Sweden, which criminalised the purchase of sex in 1999, is cited as an inspiration. But the Swedish model is dodgy. The number of street prostitutes dropped after the law was introduced but soon rose again, says Jay Levy, who has written a book on the subject. Counting them has become harder because women have moved to side streets over a larger area.
More are selling sex online, rather than on the streets. And the trade is more dangerous, reckons Mr Levy. Social workers are reluctant to hand out condoms because they do not want to encourage prostitution. Clients who buy sex online are wary of giving any identifying information–something prostitutes value as a safety measure. Men who might once have told the police about women they feared had been trafficked are now reluctant to do so.
Those who work with prostitutes in Britain fear the MPs’ proposals could have similar consequences. Georgina Perry of Open Doors, an NHS centre in east London that offers health services to sex workers, says that no form of criminalisation reduces prostitution; it just makes it less visible. One escort worries that women will not report crimes committed against them, fearful of the police targeting other clients and harming their business. Alex Bryce of Ugly Mugs, a scheme that encourages prostitutes to report violence, claims he has yet to meet a police officer who wants to enforce a law criminalising adults who buy sex from other consenting adults in private.
“The law in this country doesn’t have any clear principles,” laments Gavin Shuker, a Labour MP who leads the all-party prostitution group. His fellow abolitionists, by contrast, have several. The group’s members are a curious mix. Of the nine Conservatives, all but two voted against gay marriage in 2013. Some also voted in favour of reducing the term limit on abortion. The group’s research was supported by CARE, a charity that says it brings Christian insight and experience to public policy. The Labour members include both Christians and feminists.
In contrast to Scandinavia, feminism is not a powerful force in British politics, and neither is Christianity. But Ms Perry worries that Sweden-style laws could get onto the books anyway. Few want to speak against them, she says. Men worry about accusations of being patriarchal oppressors; women fear being criticised for lack of solidarity. Mr Shuker is encouraged by the passing in February of a non-binding resolution in the European Parliament recommending similar legislation. Britain could end up replacing one set of dismal laws with another.
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