These proposals becoming law could make a huge difference to women trafficked, forced and manipulated into prostitution, and would be a great start to creating justice for women in this country.
Penalising the Punters
The home secretary has caused a storm with plans to change prostitution laws. She tells Julie Bindel why she is following the global trend to target men who buy sex
When I meet the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, on Wednesday afternoon, she is at the centre of frenzied press attention. She has just announced planned legislation to target those who buy sex from trafficked women, and though she has been talking about the subject all day, she shows no signs of flagging. She tells me she is "very proud" to have taken this step. I ask what motivated it. "I thought it was important to continue to look at the way in which we tackle prostitution," she says, "and we had not, until this point, looked at the impact demand has made on the sex industry." She explains that demand is one of the main reasons so many women are involved in the sex industry, including those who have been trafficked here to service the market. "We need to send out a message to men and to society in general, that most women do not choose to be in prostitution, whereas the buyers have free choice."
The proposals follow a six-month governmental review of the demand side of the sex trade. It should soon be a criminal offence to pay for sex with someone who is controlled for another person's gain - and it will be no defence for buyers to claim that they were unaware that a person was trafficked, pimped, or debt-bonded to their drug dealer or landlord. Kerb crawlers will also be penalised more than they have been: police currently have few powers to deal with a kerb crawler on a first offence, but the expected new law will remove the need to prove repeat violations. Police will also be given powers to close premises associated with sexual exploitation.
An estimated 80,000 women are involved in street, escort and brothel prostitution in the UK. According to government statistics, 4,000 women and children have been trafficked into prostitution in the UK at any one time, but the police suggest the real figure is far higher - studies have found that at least 70% of women working in UK brothels are trafficked from places such as Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. The fact is that a thriving sex industry, left to operate largely without government or police interference, is naturally a green light for traffickers keen to make easy profits in a welcoming environment.
The proposed new legislation has attracted both approving and angry attention from commentators, but one of the interesting aspects of this move is that it reflects an international trend. Lithuania and Finland both have laws similar to Britain's new approach, making it illegal to pay for sex with a trafficked woman. In Norway - where procuring, pimping and human trafficking are already illegal - the government is in the process of introducing legislation that will outlaw the buying of sex, but not the sale. This follows the lead set by Sweden, which criminalised all buying of sex almost 10 years ago, after a feminist campaign prompted by the suspected murder of a street prostitute called Catrine da Costa. The law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in Sweden came into force in 1999 as part of the larger Violence Against Women Act, with the parliament defining prostitution as a serious form of male violence against women and children - harmful not only to the individuals involved, but also to society at large.
When this law was introduced, there were an estimated 2,500 women in prostitution in Sweden. Today there are around 500. And what is particularly impressive is that the number of women trafficked into Sweden is now between 200 and 500 a year - the lowest tally in Europe. Some anti-prostitution activists in the UK are disappointed that Smith has not followed Sweden and criminalised paying for sex in all circumstances. I ask why she has taken what might look like a half measure, and she cites a recent Mori poll which found that the majority of people do not support a blanket ban - but well over half agreed that paying for sex with a trafficked woman should be criminalised. "It is best to go with the grain of public opinion," she says, "rather than try to do something which may be met with resistance at this moment."
Another country that has targeted punters is South Korea. Here, the move towards criminalisation began in 2002 after brothel fires in which 14 women died - it transpired that the brothel doors had been locked from the outside by pimps and were only ever opened to allow buyers entry. In 2004 the South Korean government criminalised the demand side of the sex trade, with punters facing a year in jail or a fine if caught paying for sex. This has massively reduced the sex trade in a country where prostitution once brought in an estimated $21bn a year - 4% of the gross domestic product. Now the red light areas are largely deserted, and bed spaces in the many government-funded refuges for former prostitutes are usually full. (The South Korean government has dedicated substantial resources to helping women leave the industry, something Britain has yet to do.)
Even the Dutch - long notorious for their legalised brothels - are moving towards increased regulation of prostitution. For years, the story given by the Dutch was that legalising brothels had been a solution to the myriad problems associated with the sex industry. Then last year, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen admitted that legalisation had been a failure. "We want in part to reverse it," he said, "especially with regard to the exploitation of women in the sex industry. Lately we've received more and more signals that abuse still continues." Members of the UK government visited Amsterdam in 2007 as part of the demand review, and did not like what they found. "Ministers came back clear that the problems of illegality and abuse are not solved by legalisation," says Smith. "On the contrary, there were still problems with organised crime and trafficking." Many of the Amsterdam brothels where women pose in windows are now being closed by police, as are the street tolerance zones where men could once buy sex without threat of arrest.
As the Netherlands has found, legalisation doesn't seem to be the answer, and the reason for this international push towards criminalisation seems to stem, at least in part, from the experiences of other countries where the sex trade has been liberalised. In 1984, for instance, Victoria was the first Australian state to legalise prostitution, and the main arguments put forward for the move (including by pimps and brothel owners) were that this would sever prostitution from organised crime and make the trade much safer for the women involved.
The reality does not match that early promise, as underlined by the occupational health and safety advice that is handed out to women by states that have legalised the trade. Women are advised to pretend they have a stomach upset if a buyer "insists on anal sex without a condom"; they are told to be careful when injecting local anaesthetic into their vagina, as it can mask more "serious injuries". (The idea that anyone would inject anaesthetic into their vagina is a stark reminder of the trade's brutality.) Then there is the advice that women should "learn basic self-defence", "be aware some clients can be rough" and that, when visiting a buyer's home, they should check for signs of a planned gang-rape, including loud music and too many cars in the drive.
This suggests that legalisation has been far from successful in protecting women's health and safety, and there is also good evidence that it has failed to stop the illegal sex trade. There are about 400 legal brothels in Victoria, and far more illegal ones. This reflects the situation in Nevada, the only US state to legalise brothels, where the illegal prostitution industry is currently nine times larger than the legal one. The fact is that anywhere that liberalises prostitution quickly becomes a prime destination for punters - many more pimps will set up business there than are legally approved.
In the UK, Smith is bracing herself for more criticism from those who consider the new laws part of a "nanny state" approach to government. One man wrote on this newspaper's website that he was so appalled at the legislation that he would never again "vote for a female in ANY election, local or general". Smith laughs at this, and tells me that she believes she is doing the right thing.
"We are trying to get the vast majority of the law-abiding public to help protect vulnerable women," she says. "I am willing to accept that there are women out there who say they have chosen to sell sex, but they are in the minority, and laws are there to protect the majority. In this case, the majority of women in prostitution want to get out, and suffer violence and exploitation. If there are women who have made a free choice, there are more who have had no choice".