Amnesty’s proposal to legalise prostitution is wrong – we can’t let men who exploit women off the hook

Labour Party

At the end of January I wrote for Mumsnet, the popular parenting forum, on the subject of prostitution. It’s a subject which really seems to have caught people’s imagination, and there was an extensive discussion on the Mumsnet forum afterwards. Some argued from a libertarian stand-point, and many others seemed to share my disappointment in Amnesty. Given that reports have suggested a rise in single-mums turning to prostitution following the 2008 crisis, I was particularly interested to see the different ways that mothers engaged with the issue.

My full piece is printed below:

An Amnesty International document leaked this week argues for the legalisation of prostitution. It says that approaches like the Swedish Model – which criminalise buying sex, but legalise selling it – are guilty of “devaluing” prostituted women and “criminalising the contexts in which they live”. In essence, the proposals say that most women who become prostitutes make a rational, informed choice – effectively , that they enter into a relationship of equals with the men who purchase their bodies.

I’m really disappointed in Amnesty. I’m a long term supporter of the Swedish Model and, for me, the idea that we should simply accept prostitution as a fact of life is totally wrong. It is particularly irresponsible at a time when it’s being reported that austerity is driving many women – and in particular single parents – into prostitution.

I believe Amnesty have got it wrong. Firstly, I don’t believe prostitution is, in most cases, “consensual sex between adults”, as the policy document describes it. The idea that women who go into prostitution are exercising ‘free choice’ just doesn’t stack up. Abuse and lack of alternatives are almost always a factor – many enter the sex trade young, and come from backgrounds fraught with suffering and abuse. Of course there are exceptions to the rule but, all things being equal, I believe most women don’t ‘choose’, in the true sense, to become prostitutes.

Secondly, I disagree with the idea there can be any real equality between a woman who sells her body and a man who buys it. As Amnesty admits, the conditions of the sex trade are “imperfect” to say the least. British ‘prostitute review’ sites like ‘Punternet’ – as well as the male-led ‘Hands off my whore’ campaign in France – show what so-called clients think of the women they buy sex from.

A large proportion of prostitutes say they experience aggression while working, and nearly seven in ten suffer the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The dynamic between buyers and sellers of sex ranges from the disrespectful to the downright abusive – but there’s almost always an inequality at play.

Of course, there’ll always be some who say that prostitution is “the oldest trade” and that there’s not much we can do about it. But this argument is as untrue as it’s depressing. In Sweden, for example, stopping the purchase of sex changes social attitudes, making men less likely to purchase sex and more likely to support prosecutions for others – and there’s no reason why this can’t happen in the UK. Amnesty need to aim much higher. We can do better, surely, than just make the exploitation of women better regulated.

The role of charities like Amnesty should be to lift standards up, not drive them down. Amnesty are supposed to be an ambitious organisation. They shouldn’t just shrug their shoulders and say “c’est la vie”. Over the years they’ve done an indispensable job in ending exploitation, improving human rights, and reducing inequalities. Legalising prostitution runs counter to all these things. It has turned Germany into a “giant Teutonic brothel”, as the Economist puts it – and, according to Equality Now, has “empowered pimps and traffickers” in Amsterdam.

Women at risk or in economic need require more opportunities and better protection – not to be told their only option is a demeaning last resort. For the sake of women and mothers everywhere I sincerely hope Amnesty will rethink their position.

The discussion is still going on among Mumsnet users. You can read it in full by clicking here.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Tensions ran high this week after Gabor Vona, leader of far-right Hungarian political party Jobbik, came to the UK to speak at a central London rally.  Despite 14,000 signatures being added to a petition to Theresa May calling for Vona to be banned, the leader of Hungary’s third-party was eventually permitted to speak. In a letter to May London Assembly member and former Labour MP Andrew Dismore wrote, “I think it’s very important to send the message that we won’t have hatred spread on our streets”, and as I wrote for Shifting Grounds earlier in the week, I believe we should not have allowed him to come.

Jobbik’s visit to the UK was designed to woo the 50,000 Hungarians currently living here. With elections approaching, Vona – whose party have 43 seats in the parliament there – is looking to win the absentee votes of Hungarian ex-pats. Jobbik’s policies are highly controversial, echoing the language and rhetoric of Fascist movements in the 1930s and 1940s. Travellers and Jewish people come under particular attack: “The integration of gypsies has failed. In most cases, segregation would be the most effective way of educating these people,” Vona is on record as saying.

In the end Vona’s speech, which had been scheduled to be held in Holborn on Sunday, had to be relocated after Unite Against Fascism (UAF) gathered there and prevented his supporters from leaving the station. UAF’s Sabby Dhalu said Jobbik’s views “had no place in a modern society”, adding that “Wherever fascists have a presence, racist, antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks increase”. Vona eventually managed to find a platform in Hyde Park, where he spoke for around an hour, addressing the crowd in his native Hungarian.

It is easy to associate Jobbik with a strain of Fascistic Eastern European politics which has no equivalent here in the UK. The BNP, after all, is a faded force which has never won a single parliamentary seat, let alone 43, and the EDL appear to have lost support. Yet we must not be complacent. The widespread scaremongering over Christmas about a Roma ‘invasion’ is just one illustration of how, in straitened times, dangerous myths can gain traction. With the issue of Europe acting as a lightening rod, those who oppose the EU and want a more insular Britain often play into people’s worst fears.

Vona himself eschews the traditional left-right perspective on politics, saying “The true division is between those who want globalisation and those who do not”. Just as UKIP are seeking electoral success off the back of an unholy coalition of white collar Eurosceptic Tories and blue collar voters worried about immigration, Jobbik have garnered their support from both ends of the political spectrum.

This is not to compare UKIP with Jobbik – although it is worth noting the number of UKIP representatives who have flirted with right-wing politics – but rather to point out the danger of allowing populist narratives to take hold. In a European Election year those of us on the left must engage with voters who feel alienated by globalisation, and make a positive case for why Britain does better by working with its neighbours.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, the trial of footballers Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema began in France. The two players, who are accused of having sex with an Algerian-born prostitute while she was under 18, face prison sentences if found guilty. In a week where my prostitution report (which recommends the Swedish Model) went through the parliament, the Ribery-Benzema case illustrates the need for a change in how we tackle prostitution. The sad fact is that, had the woman in question been a year or so older, it would have been perfectly legal for two multimillionaire footballers in their late twenties to buy her body for sex.

Speaking on Woman’s Hour about growing support for the Swedish Model

Labour Party

Yesterday I appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss the new laws on prostitution currently being passed in France.

It was great to be on the programme again – you can listen to the interview here:

Francois Hollande’s socialist government are moving towards adoption of the Swedish Model, and this week announced fines of as much as €3,750 for prostitute use. The aim of the bill, which is being pushed through by Moroccan-born women’s minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is to shift emphasis away from those selling sex and onto consumers.

The full proposal, which includes provisions for a €20m fund to help those who want to leave prostitution, will be voted on in the Assemblée Nationale later this week. It will then go to the upper house of the French parliament, the Sénat, for approval.

France is a perfect example of why we need better joined up thought on this issue. Prostituted women in the country are now 90% foreign – up from 20% in 1990 – with most coming from Eastern Europe and China. Human trafficking convictions have gone up by 30% there in the last three years, and there are accounts of sex tourism too, with some French men now crossing the border to liberalised Germany to make us of new ‘mega-brothels’. The situation in France shows that prostitution is a problem which has become globalised – and which now needs more internationally focussed solutions and greater consensus.

For that reason I am delighted to be taking my own report, calling for the Swedish Model, to the Women’s Rights and Gender equality Committee today.

Last month I discussed this with Radio Nantes – you can watch this by clicking here.

The committee will vote on it in January, with the aim of taking it to the plenary stage in February. If my proposals go through then it will add to pressure on domestic governments to adopt more nuanced policies towards tackling the sex trade, so that we can move beyond the blanket ‘Prohibitive vs. Permissive’ binary.

Norway and Iceland – two countries with world-class gender equality records – both adopted the Swedish Model some time ago. It looks as though France will now follow them. As I have said before, my hope is that, if the European Parliament as a whole approves the Nordic Model when we vote on it next year, then we can build on this momentum and see an overall shift of the centre of gravity across Europe. Member States will not be bound to implement the Swedish Model if they do not want to. But as other countries adopt it – and it receives EU approval – they will be more likely to examine whether their own systems are working.

For me this illustrates what the EU does best. In spite of what the Daily Express would have people believe, we are not a clunky regulator but a means of building international consensus and learning from each other, so as to overcome global challenges.