Prostitution: Social care not iron fist

Last week the House of Commons attempted to do what it loves to do : find someone to blame and have them arrested.

On Wednesday MPs ran out of time on an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill making it illegal to pay for sex. The legislation was an attempt to address the enormous rise in prostitution and human trafficking to this country, and in particular in London. The government has promised to bring forward more legislation in the next parliamentary session.

But this kind of “silver bullet” solution rarely works. Legislative attempts to halt the rise in drug use, for instance, have resulted in ever more drastic penalties around the world, yet we know that narcotics are more widely used now than ever before.

MPs are rightly concerned about this issue, though: Government estimates put the number of women working as sex slaves at 4,000. Charitable groups say the figure is closer to 10,000. Trafficked by highly organised gangs from Eastern Europe and South East Asia; beaten, raped and drugged, some are bought and sold for as little as £500 in a market worth £275 million a year.

The growth in the sex industry isn’t confined to the UK: governments around the world are struggling to find a solution.

The Dutch and Australian approach has been to legalise brothels bringing the industry into the open where it can be regulated. But a report by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University concluded that the main consequence of legalisation strategies is an overall growth in the sex trade. Illegal prostitution still takes place, because many women want to remain anonymous, but it is displaced, more secretive, with girls subjected to even worse abuse. In Amsterdam tolerance zones were eventually abandoned.

The new move by MPs follows the Swedish model where prostitutes are designated as victims, making their customers criminals. In the first three years of this policy, street prostitution dropped by two thirds. But ultimately police surveillance prompted the prostitutes themselves to move away from open, safer areas. More alarmingly, it frightened away less violent customers, which in turn gave more reckless and dangerous men greater access and opportunity.

What many of these solutions and their proponents miss however is the wider social context which allows the sex trade to flourish, and which will always ultimately frustrate their attempts to stamp out prostitution. Once that context is acknowledged, the issue ceases to be one of crime and punishment and becomes a matter of social policy; an arena where our skills are well-honed and we can be far more effective.

The last decade has seen significant change in British attitudes to prostitution. The number of men using prostitutes has doubled while our role models and heroes are regularly reported as dabbling in the world of paid sex: premier league footballers and celebrities use prostitutes openly and without consequence. Models and prostitutes are conflated in the pages of our tabloids. TV drama and Hollywood films show prostitution in a glamorous light, and the call girl blogs on the Internet are seen as “cool”. Paying for sex is becoming fashionable.

But then turning a blind eye, or a knowing wink to prostitution is a British tradition. The stereotype of the “working girl” with a heart of gold is powerful in our culture; but it lags behind the reality of violence and brutality that is the life of most prostitutes, particularly those brought against their will from abroad.

This cultural change has taken place against a backdrop of increasing sexualisation of children, especially young girls. In her book, Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls, Carol Platt Liebau graphically illustrates how the media teaches young girls that their body, rather than their mind, is their most useful tool: “The new female imperative is that it is only through promiscuity and sexual aggression that girls can achieve admiration and recognition”, she writes. According to Platt Liebau, we now live in a world where young girls would rather be called a slut than a prude.

And then there is corporate Britain, which has a vested interest in the sex trade. During my time as a Westminster Councillor we fought a long and bitter battle to have prostitutes’ advertising removed from telephone kiosks in the capital. Corporate Britain fought us every step of the way. We came to realise that telecoms, television, advertising, fashion and music industries all make millions from sex. When we asked the mobile telephone companies to block numbers used to sell prostitution, they refused. We realised why when we saw the sexual content they help sell, from chatlines to pornography: They saw our campaign as the thin end of the wedge.

Given these realities, the most effective thing we can do is what we do in other social policy contexts where abuse is taking place: we intervene.

When a child is subjected to sustained violence, the state has a duty to rescue them by physically removing them and taking them to a place of safety. Rescuing prostitutes would have the effect of making them a worthless commodity for traffickers. Why would you “invest” in secretly and forcibly transporting a young girl to the UK if as soon as she arrived she was detected and removed from your grasp?

In the case of prostitutes, MPs want to create yet more ‘criminals’ to be dealt with by the police who already have plenty to do, and courts that are clogged as it is. How much more effective would we be if we directed those same resources to providing prostitutes with a swift exit from a brutal life?

Those who truly want to remain in the industry can do so, those who are in it to support a drug habit (by far the majority) can find treatment and help. The sex slaves, children and others who want a way out, can be given one.

Government can do little in the short term about social attitudes, but it can confront social evils directly. Abused women deserve the same protection as abused children and it is time they got it.