Roundtable: Prostitution in the UK
While prostitution is currently legal in Englandand Wales, many of the activities associated with it are not. With the Morning Star’s letters page acting as a discussion forum for this highly polarised debate, interested parties from both sides consider the problems faced by the estimated 80,000 women in prostitution – and what can be done to improve their lives.
Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, shadow minister for women and equalities
In countries where prostitution is legal or tolerated there is still a high rate of violence, death and exploitation of prostitutes. Bureaucratic health and safety policies as in New Zealand, and now being discussed in Western Australia, don’t prevent prostitutes being likely to die much younger than other women. We need to recognise that prostitution as it is actually practised involves violence especially towards women and girls (most prostitutes in Britain were recruited as children). While no-one knows exactly how many prostituted women have been victims of trafficking it is clear that significant numbers have been.
So the aim of policies must be to improve the safety of people who sell sex, while we reduce the incidence of a trade which requires people to use their bodies as commodities.
For a year it has been an offence to pay for sex with someone who is subject to force. Yet only 43 people have been prosecuted. The present government did not back the law and police claim it is complicated to prosecute, so it is time we adopted the simple Swedish approach of prohibiting the purchase of sexual services. Research shows that buyers are deterred most by the risk of legal action and they have choices unlike either residents affected by street prostitution or exploited women.
English Collective of Prostitutes, Campaign for the abolition of the prostitution laws, economic alternatives and higher wages
Because criminalisation drives sex workers further underground undermining safety, prostitution must be decriminalised, that is removed from the criminal law. New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act has been a good basis for serious change. It allows people to work together collectively and distinguishes between violence and consenting sex. Crucially, it has been shown to improve sex workers’ working conditions and has made it easier for those who want to get out, to do so.
We also demand:
• viable economic alternatives to prostitution, financial recognition for mothers and other carers. Mothers are the lowest paid workers - it is no accident that 70% of prostitute women are mothers;
• reinstatement of benefits including to under 18 year olds, the single most important measure to prevent young people being forced into prostitution by poverty;
• police and courts to prioritise safety by vigorously investigating and prosecuting rape, sexual assault, domestic and other violence, rather than targeting sex workers working consensually and collectively;
• anti-trafficking laws to target abuse and violence and not to be used as an excuse to deport immigrant sex workers; the UN definition of trafficking to be used, which includes force and coercion.
As we write, Sheila Farmer, a seriously ill woman is facing trial on 5 September for brothel keeping because she worked independently with others for safety. Such prosecutions deter sex workers from coming forward to report violent attacks out of fear of criminalization, so cannot ever be in the public interest.
Heather Harvey, Research and Development Manager, Eaves
Women in prostitution are seriously discriminated against. We should all be campaigning for the decriminalisation of selling sex, whatever else we believe.
Those who campaign for the legalisation or decriminalisation of the sex industry are actually, whether they know it or not, campaigning for legitimacy for pimps and exploiters.
Those setting up brothels in legalised or decriminalised regimes do not need a license, only planning permission. Once open for business, the premises are not checked by health and safety or law enforcement officials. Under legalisation, the numbers of illegal as well as licensed brothels flourish, and there is compelling evidence the links between the sex industry and organised crime continues. Trafficking into those countries where brothels are an accepted part of the service industry increases, as does street prostitution.
Evidence coming out of Australia about the failures of legalisation is largely damning. For years the Dutch enjoyed bragging about how legalising brothels and setting up street tolerance zones was a solution to the myriad of problems associated with the sex industry. The police have come to realise that all legalisation does is attract more pimps and predators into the country, but offers no protection for the women. Many of the window brothels are being closed down by the police, as are the street zones. Legalisation of pimping and brothel owning does not work, either for the women, or the broader community. It works for the exploiters.
Professor Gregor Gall, author of the 2006 book Sex Worker Union Organising. An international study
For better or worse, depending on what side of the sex work debate people fall on, prostitution (and sex work in general) are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Prostitution is now part of a global, multi-billion dollar economic activity.
In light of this and the inability of the forces for the abolition of sex work to realise their goal any time soon, I believe it is incumbent upon citizens to understand that unionising sex workers provides a key means of regulating and controlling the business operators in the sex industry.
Unionisation, leading to collective bargaining, can help not only ensure minimum standards of working conditions but also allow sex workers a collective voice and to become a significant player in the industry they work in.
Clearly, unionisation is not the only answer as it is not appropriate to deal with forced or bonded labour. State regulation, influenced by and at the behest of sex workers, is therefore also vital.
The left must listen to the organised voice of sex workers - through their GMB union – if it believes the emancipation of workers is an act best conducted by workers themselves.
There are many hurdles to realising unionisation but sex workers acting collectively in the industrial and political spheres is one of the most effective ways to reduce the levels of exploitation and oppression in this industry.
Anna van Heeswijk, Campaigns Manager, OBJECT, a human rights organisation dedicated to challenging "sex object culture"
Prostitution is not a job like any other. A woman in prostitution is more likely than not to be physically and/or seriously sexually assaulted at the hands of pimps and punters and 68% of women in prostitution experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims.
It is therefore vital that those exploited in prostitution should not be criminalised for the exploitation that they face, and that services are available to support those who want to exit the industry to be able to do so safely and permanently.
Furthermore, to ensure that future generations are no longer drawn or coerced into prostitution, we must tackle the problem at its route – the demand. Tackling the demand means bringing the buyers out of the shadows by making it a crime to pay for sex.
This approach works. Ten years after implementation, Sweden is the only country in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking have decreased rather than increased and results are similarly positive in Norway and Iceland where the legislation was introduced more recently.
In the UK, a recent victory means that it is now a crime to pay for sex from somebody who has been pimped or trafficked and ignorance is no defence. This law must be implemented and publicised.
There has never been a more important time to join together to call for an end to the exploitative industry of prostitution, and an end to women’s bodies being bought and sold like commodities for sexual use. Only then will we have a genuine shot at equality for all.
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org http://twitter.com/#!/IanJSinclair