This is an extract from a longer piece for Policy Review. Click here to read it in full.
Prostitution is an outrage which takes place on a global scale. Like many of the international challenges we now face, the sex industry transcends jurisdictions and spills across borders. As recently as September a police raid on an Ilford brothel revealed a house of Asian women, brought to the UK and made to work against their will.
Trafficking and ‘sex tourism’ mean that, at both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ ends, unilateral solutions are no longer enough. We need cross-border consensus if we are to achieve anything.
I believe the EU must set the direction of travel. Globalised crime networks and legal disparities between countries mean that, for example, Romanian prostitutes can now be transported en masse to London – or that British men can go on sex ‘holidays’ to Amsterdam. These problems will only be solved by a pan-European approach.
At present policies vary hugely from one country to another. In the UK we have blanket criminalisation. Prostitution is effectively illegal for both women providing services and men using them. This doesn’t address the core problem, and sometimes perpetuates it; prostitutes are convicted, criminalised and deprived of a route out, and thus return to the streets. As a result the UK system creates a subterranean economy, which is demeaning at best and dangerous at worst.
Holland and Germany’s ‘hands off’ approaches are no better. The Netherlands has become the top European destination for trafficking since decriminalisation, and Germany has seen steep increases in prostitution levels. The Mayor of Amsterdam has admitted it is “impossible” to create a “safe zone not open for abuse by organised crime”, and international women’s charity Equality Now say Holland’s system is “a failed experiment” which has “empowered buyers, pimps and traffickers”.
Moreover, neither the UK system nor the Dutch Model acknowledges the inequality which takes place when a man pays a woman for sex. Despite the fact that 96% of sex trafficking victims are female – and that 89% of prostitutes say they would escape the industry if they could – both systems effectively collude with the idea that women ‘choose’ to sell their bodies.
Later this year I will be reporting to my colleagues on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee on how we can address prostitution across Europe. I favour the Nordic Model, which permits selling sex but criminalises buying it. The approach was introduced in Sweden in 1999. It has halved street prostitution there and caused a marked reduction in trafficking. There is evidence, too, of a knock-on effect for social attitudes, with Swedish men now three times as likely to oppose paying for sex. Experts who have seen it up close say it has also increased trust between police and prostitutes.
For me the Nordic Model represents the ideal compromise – a middle way, which is neither overly judgemental of women forced into the sex trade, nor laissez-faire when it comes to dealing with the men who exploit them. Unlike the alternatives it makes a distinction between buyers of sellers of sex, and I believe it is the only solution which brings real gender parity.