Prostitution policy is not a major election issue here in the UK but the overall policy we adopt will have a big societal impact, in particular on the status and equality of women. The debate centres around two options: either the so-called ‘Nordic model’ which criminalises the buyer of sex (but not the seller) or full legalisation or decriminalisation of the industry.
The results of Sweden’s implementation of the Nordic model in 1999 are clear: both prostitution and trafficking have decreased, serious abuse (including rape) within prostitution has fallen dramatically and demand has been significantly reduced; the stigma of those working in the sex trade has been at least partly transferred to the men who buy sex. In comparison, those countries which introduced either legalisation or decriminalisation have seen an increase in both prostitution and trafficking but no discernible reduction in stigma or safety for prostitutes themselves. As Germany is now realising, once you go down the route of legalising the sex industry, it is very difficult to turn back: the risk of adding a potential 400,000 to the unemployment figures is politically untenable.
The evidence for the Nordic model is compelling; the European Parliament advocates the adoption of this model and a UK all-parliamentary group, after a year-long enquiry, reached the same conclusion in their report of March 2014. Northern Ireland became the first country in the UK to adopt the Nordic model as policy last year with full cross-party support. Otherwise, currently only the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have stated policies, and both come down on the side of full decriminalisation of the sex industry.
What is striking about both their policies is the absence of any gendered analysis of prostitution despite the fact that an estimated 90 -95% of prostituted people are women and girls and almost 100% of buyers are men. The Greens fail to even recognise gender inequality in their Responsibilities and Rights policy, which includes Sexual Orientation, Trans, Racism and Ageism but excludes Sexism and Gender. Denying inequality allows them to frame prostitution as a transaction between equals, using the words ‘workers,’ ‘adults’ and ‘people’ but not ‘women.’ The Liberal Democrat report ‘Towards Safer Sex Work’ pulls the same sleight of hand in ignoring gender; tellingly, however, their specific examples – ‘grooming of young women;’ ‘trafficked women;’ ‘survivors of violence against women,’ – inadvertently expose the gendered nature of the sex industry and the particular vulnerability of women and girls within it.
In the absence of a framework of structured gender inequality as a context for understanding prostitution, we can make no political analysis and we are left only with individual anecdote.
The Greens and the Liberal Democrats have devised their policies after listening to ‘sex workers’ and nobody doubts the importance of hearing the views of those directly involved in the industry. It should be noted, however, that the term ‘sex worker’ is an umbrella term for not only the women who work as prostitutes but also the pimps and brothel/escort agency owners who have a vested interest in the industry’s expansion. The sex trade is a powerful lobby.
For every sex worker collective advocating for decriminalisation there is a survivors network advocating for the Nordic model, and it remains unclear why it is that these women been excluded from the debate. If the personal is to overwrite the political then the voices representing the majority of women in the industry should be paramount. Survivors are women who also made a ‘choice’ to enter prostitution, but now speak out about the realities of an industry which leaves exited women suffering levels of post traumatic stress disorder comparable to war veterans and torture victims.
It is estimated that in the UK sex trade 50% of women enter the industry as minors and we are now depressingly aware of the subtle coercive power of grooming and the link between previous rape and childhood sexual abuse and the likelihood of ending up in prostitution.
‘Choice’ for the majority of women who enter this industry is an illusion; in reality it is a perceived lack of viable alternative choices which drives women into prostitution.
Tellingly, even Cari Mitchel, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, exposes the ‘free choice’ myth in her response to the cross-party report in favour of the Nordic model in March last year: ‘We are appalled that at a time when benefit cuts and sanctions, lowering wages, increased homelessness and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution the best that MPs can come up with is to increase criminalisation.’
In 2015 in the UK, are we really expected to accept prostitution as a viable safety net for vulnerable women forced into it through desperate circumstances?
In spite of this the Liberal Democrats state that decriminalisation would ‘help foster a positive culture where the importance of informed and enthusiastic consent is paramount.’
A world in which women are expected to enthusiastically consent to selling their bodies to men is only a ‘positive culture’ if you happen to be a pimp, brothel owner or buyer; the true beneficiaries of decriminalisation. The reality is that a prostitute is paid to fake consent to sex which she does not desire; she puts up with it, bears it or suffers terribly through it because the transaction has been made and she has no choice. Her ‘consent’ has been bought.
The Nordic model, uniquely, recognises prostitution for what it is: a form of violence towards women rooted within a context of structured gender inequality. The model transfers culpability to the men who buy women and recognises that the only way to tackle the global trade in women’s and girls’ bodies is to structure policy to reduce the demand that fuels it.
Legitimising the business, on the other hand, leads to growth, increased competition and the driving down of prices. Expansion creates increased demand which creates more trafficking because there are never enough women who want to do this job. Decriminalisation hands the power to the sex industry.
Which party has the political will to ensure that the UK doesn’t go down that route?
Originally published in Wales Arts Review