Legislation, institutions, and prostitution

Written by Mary Honeyball is MEP for London and Labour spokesperson for women in Europe. She is currently reporting on prostitution and sexual exploitation for the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee. on 12 December 2013 in Diary
The wind is blowing in favour of the Swedish Model of prostitution – we in Britain need to decide where we stand

This month police raided brothels and other sex premises in Soho. The operations, which came in response to sex trafficking and rape allegations, drew to the surface stark contrasts in attitudes towards prostitution. Pro-legalisation campaigners argued that immigrant sex workers in the area were employed safely, but senior officers took the opposite view, photographing the operation so that punters could see the “full story” behind the bohemian mystique of Soho.

As yesterday’s article in The Guardian showed, this is a discussion which is only going to grow over the coming months in the UK. Recently we have seen France vote to fine punters, as well as a growing awareness in Germany that their laissez-faire policies aren’t working. A debate is opening up across Europe, and Britain – which has thus far remained on the fence when it comes to this issue – will soon need to take a clear stance.

The basic choice is between all out legalisation, as practised in Holland and Germany, or the Swedish Model – which decriminalises selling sex but prosecutes buying it. As well as developments in France and Germany, Ireland has also shown signs of shifting the focus onto punters, and the extreme feminist group FEMEN have launched demonstrations against the Dutch system. The tectonic plates appear to be moving.

I am a strong advocate of the Swedish Model, and have written a report recommending it to the European Parliament. It is a system which has halved street prostitution in Sweden and made men significantly less likely to pay for sex. I believe it should be adopted across Europe.

Much of the opposition to the Swedish Model comes from men who want to maintain the status quo, such as those behind the shocking ‘Hands of My Whore’ petition in France. But there are also an articulate minority of female former sex workers who say that being a prostitute is a lifestyle choice. They advocate total decriminalisation, on the basis that selling sex can empower women, and that prostitution gives poorer women access to a ‘market’ they’d otherwise miss out on.

I personally believe that the sale of sex will always be a barrier to genuine equality – a demeaning last resort when people are desperate. Even if sex workers came from a variety of backgrounds – male, female, rich, poor, domestic, foreign – I would have serious reservations about legalisation. But as it is prostitutes are overwhelmingly women. In most cases they are foreign women or women from poorer backgrounds, who have usually been subjected to serious abuse before entering the industry.

Where decriminalisation has happened it has done nothing to change this, and I see no reason to believe it will. As sex trade survivor Rachel Moran puts it, “Prostitution is a crime against humanity. To legalise it is to condone this crime”. She says the real victims of the sex trade want to leave the job but are often ignored – a claim which is corroborated by the fact that, according to a 2003 study, 89% of prostituted women said they would leave the industry if they could.

In fact, with tourism, trafficking and freedom of movement making the sex trade increasingly international, I believe we are moving towards a less equitable state of affairs than ever. In France, for example, 90% of prostituted women are foreign compared with 20% back in 1990. And in Germany prostitutes are now also more likely to be from abroad, with mega-brothels built near border crossings increasing foreign custom. We are entering a new, globalised era of prostitution, in which relationships between buyers and sellers are becoming ever more imbalanced. The Dutch Model’s ‘open market’ approach – which increases trafficking and makes it easier for wealthy westerners to buy sex – will only tilt the power dynamic further in favour of men.

With a study finding that 49% of British men have travelled abroad for sex, and the majority of London’s prostitutes now coming from Romania or Bulgaria, we in the UK must think harder about where we stand. I hope that my work in the European Parliament will add to the groundswell of support for more progressive measures, and that Britain will be persuaded to follow France’s lead and go Swedish.

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