Legislation, institutions, and prostitution

Labour Party

My article for Total Politics magazine on why I favour the “Swedish model”

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.

11 thoughts on “Legislation, institutions, and prostitution

  1. “The basic choice is between all out legalisation, as practised in Holland and Germany, or the Swedish Model”

    Not really the case. Why not mention New Zealand?

    “and made men significantly less likely to pay for sex.”

    Citation? The way I heard it, the Swedish sex industry had stayed about the same size as a whole. (I seem to think that’s in the Skarhed report, can’t remember now.) It’s only the street aspect of it they reckoned had shrunk.

    1. As I was saying …! See both male comments and the total ignoring of the endemic abuses of females and children that is the reality of the sex ‘industry’ … just doesn’t happen/is of no interest to these men … learnt psychopathic response to women and children as fellow human beings.

  2. Since apparently, Mary Honeyball doesn’t take evidence against the Swedish Model into account, here are a few reading tips, starting with

    Criminalising the payment for sexual services – An introduction for the uninitiated http://wp.me/p294H2-NM

    Since Ms Honeyball quotes Der Spiegel, here’s an article debunking the claims of the news magazine.

    Does legal prostitution really increase human trafficking in Germany? – http://wp.me/p1NLSO-eb

    And finally, since Ms Honeyball claims that Germany is rethinking its prostitution law, here are two commentaries I wrote about this incorrect generalisation.

    Commentaries in the international media

    All of the above are only intended as starting points for the uninitiated. Please refer to the cited sources to find out more.

  3. Interesting comments from men on ‘Hands off my whore’ article. The human rights abuses toward women and children in the ‘industry’ are totally ignored by themselves as if mass slavery and rape is simply not there. These men are psychopathic in their attitude towards women and children, they remind me of the nazis presenting death camps as holiday camps …. Tell a lie often enough you can make yourself believe it.

  4. Firstly the Northern Ireland Police are opposing a move to criminalise clients in Northern Ireland on the grounds that it will hinder the fight against trafficking. Do you not think that their views carry weight? Secondly some of the statements made here are literally incredible. I will discuss just one, the claim that 49% of British men have travelled abroad to buy six. Looking at the report I note that Melissa Farley is among the authors. You should be aware that Farley is not well regarded in academic circles and that her work has come under sustained attach for serious methodological flaws. Her integrity has also been questioned. And what do we see here? That the study that claims that 49% of men (that’s over 15 million by the way). have been abroad to buy sex is based on a study of er 103 (sic) men! Such an approach to evidence is laughable or would be if it wasn’t so serious. It is disappointing that someone in your position is not able to be more critical and objective.

    1. Am not sure that the police’s record on gender violence shows a real relish for getting to grips with prostitution, child abuse, rape, domestic violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and numerous other crime committed by men against women and children. I’m not sure about the 49% of UK men having travelled abroad figure myself, nevertheless I have seen other figures of 100,000 men a year travelling for the purposes of having sex with women or children so guess it may be more than you think and less than Melissa Farley’s small sample group indicates. However, the idea that criminalising men who are the prime customer for sex slavery would hinder the fight against trafficking sounds like very dubious reasoning to me. A bit like saying that criminalising radical extremists would hinder the fight against terrorism. Most male commentators seem unwilling to recognise the wolves amongst them and out them for what they are, thereby bringing your whole gender into disrepute.

  5. Derrrington it’s not dubious reasoning at all. What they say is that policing a prohibition of the purchase of sex would consume disproportionate amounts of police resources not least because of the difficulty of proving either that sex took place or that money was exchanged. As they say the majority of sex workers in NI are independent and that consequently their meetings with clients are consensual. They do not see it as their role to ;police the sexual activity of consenting adults and say that doing so would divert resources away from the investigation of trafficking. Another important point is that sex workers and clients are often an important source of intelligence on suspected trafficking victims. And a final point. If you bring in legislation to prohibit the purchase of sex you need to frame tight legislative definitions of both sex and of payment. I have had no convincing answers to how this could be done. What, for example, would be the position of a professional dominatrix and her clients? What about gay male sex workers and clients? What about sugar babies?

    1. Given that the average age girls are inducted into prostitution and the average life expectancy of a prostitute is 34 years old, that 70% report being raped by a client and that pimps and clients pay a premium/demand they work without basic health and safety considerations such as condoms, think the entire ‘industry’ is engaged in a bogus hoax with regard to the phrase consenting adults. There was huge controversy over the abolition of slavery 200 years ago, and we overcame bigger hurdles then for the sake of humane treatment of a segment of the human race. I don’t see the situation is any more difficult now, although I’m not sure I can solve the entire problem in an email to you, especially as I’m not even sure what constitutes a sugar ‘baby’.

    2. Eaves charity who deal with women exiting prostitution. Also, I went to the largest girls comprehensive in the UK. We frequently had young men who hung around the school gates, offering girls cigarettes and making out they were interested in a ‘relationship’ with those that took their bait. Other girls warned me that they gave the girls drugs and then once hooked, they worked them as prostitutes. My sister worked in a special needs school and they had the same experience there and looking at Oxford and Rochdale nothing much has changed with care homes thinking girls are making ‘lifestyle’ choices whereas actually they are being entrapped into prostitution. 13 is about the age that girls become marketable to men.

  6. Sorry, thinking faster than I can type – the average age girls are inducted into prostitution is 13.

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