SARAH CHAMPION’S call on Parliament to criminalise paying for sex is a timely recognition that the sexual exploitation of women and girls is on the rise in this country.
Over 5,000 victims of trafficking and modern slavery were reported last year — the highest figure on record — with 41 per cent of those cases relating to children. National Crime Agency director Will Kerr has pointed out that organised criminals are increasingly using “adult services” websites to ply their trade.
As Champion notes, shopping for sex online is not illegal as the sale of sex in public spaces is — allowing men to more easily exploit women and girls in this way. Current British law is the worst of both worlds, seeing victims of the prostitution industry criminalised for loitering or soliciting, while the purchasers go free.
Some organisations, including the English Collective of Prostitutes and the liberal NGO Amnesty International, argue that the best solution is to decriminalise the sale of sex entirely.
This would cut down on risks associated with working illegally and alone, they reason, and allow those selling sex to do so in relative safety.
But this approach was rejected by last year’s TUC Congress. There are significant downsides to normalising the sale of sex.
As Champion points out, decriminalisation in Germany and the Netherlands has had dangerous consequences. It has seen the growth of “mega-brothels” in which large numbers of vulnerable women are concentrated.
Brothel chains do not feature empowered, organised citizens who have opted to sell sex as a career: Michael Beretin, marketing chief for the German brothel brand Paradise, described his firm’s “staff” to the New Statesman in 2015 as a “totally fucked up, dysfunctional bunch of people. Very few of them have any soul left.” Drug addiction and poverty remain associated with the sale of sex in countries where it is decriminalised.
Decriminalisation has softened the stigma around buying sex, making it a transaction like any other — which in turn increases demand, which increases the profits for unscrupulous traffickers shipping women and girls in from abroad.
Treating prostitution as “a job like any other” appeals to some on the left because it removes the criminal label from prostitutes.
But it carries immense drawbacks, particularly when considered in the context of a punitive social security system in which the government penalises anyone who refuses to take any job going.
In Germany, former sex workers who have struggled hard to escape the industry have reported being informed at the jobcentre that jobs at brothels are available in the area, and that refusing to take available work would carry the same sanctions as it would for other sectors.
The refugee crisis sparked by a series of catastrophic Western-led wars across the Middle East has made this an urgent, and growing, problem. Women and girls are sold as sex slaves to jihadist fighters, or as brides to rich Saudis, or disappear into the burgeoning prostitution industry in Europe. The criminal refusal of Theresa May’s government to provide a safe haven even for unaccompanied child refugees will have condemned many more vulnerable girls to this fate.
Liberals will continue to push for the liberalisation of all commercial transactions: if someone has agreed to buy, and someone has agreed to sell, there can be no objection in the capitalist playbook.
Socialists have to do better than that. Unequal power relations between capitalists and workers and between men and women affect how real any supposed “choice” may be. Prostitution, as Sarah Champion has bravely stated, mostly consists of the sexual exploitation of women and girls’ bodies for profit. The victims of this industry must not be criminalised; the pimps and punters responsible should not be let off the hook.
This is why Champion’s decision to back the Nordic model — where the purchase, but not the sale, of sex is criminal — deserves support.
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