At present, prostitution is legal throughout the UK yet soliciting in public places, kerb-crawling, pimping, brothel keeping and trafficking for the purposes of prostitution are illegal. This week, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report that recommended changing the law, so that it would no longer be illegal for prostitutes to work together in groups and solicit for trade. However, in my opinion the report does not go far enough: if we are to end the exploitation of vulnerable women in prostitution, we must end the demand.

This year I’ve had the opportunity to work with a Member of the Scottish Parliament who, for years, has pushed for the Challenge Demand approach to Prostitution in order to protect the most vulnerable and create a fairer society. For those who don’t know what the Challenge Demand approach is – which I must admit I didn’t:

Challenging Demand sees prostitution as a form of exploitation and violence rather than legitimate work and realises prostitution as a gendered issue. The demand to buy sex comes overwhelmingly from men, whilst it is mainly women who ‘sell’ sex. As with all forms of Gender-Based violence, it stems fundamentally from gender inequality and is created and maintained by the demand from men to buy sexual access to women. The approach:

  • Decriminalises those selling sexual activity
  • Criminalises those creating the demand (purchasers)
  • Provides support and exiting services for those exploited through prostitution

Now coming straight from quite a liberal university, I immediately found this approach quite problematic. I had a real issue with viewing prostitution as exploitation rather than legitimate work: surely it’s a woman’s choice to sell her body? What right do we have to take away her agency? Would not decriminalising both the purchase and the sale of sex be the safest route, bringing those involved in prostitution out into the safer, more public space? These are common questions that certainly do need to be investigated thoroughly.

My position started to shift however when I began to appreciate the true nature of prostitution within the UK. At this point I should say that I am fortunate enough to have never had to prostitute my body for sex nor ever chosen to sell my body so I am not giving the voice of experience, but what I want to unpack is some of the alarming statistical evidence about prostitution in Britain:

  • 50% of the women involved in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old.[1] (In the US and Canada, 80% prostitutes involved in a study had been sexually abused as children)[2]
  • 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drugs users.[3]
  • Over half of women involved in prostitution in the UK have been raped and/or sexually assaulted, the vast majority committed by sex buyers[4]
  • Once in prostitution, 9 out of 10 women report wanting to exit but feel unable to do so [5]
  • A study from 9 countries on prostitution found that 68% involved met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder)– comparable to the rate detected among survivors of state-sponsored torture.[6]

Now I don’t know about you, but those figures are pretty staggering. They tell of a ‘profession’ that we should rightly be appalled at, immersed in violence, fear and exploitation. Any industry where 95% of its employees are problematic drug users speaks for itself, eradicating the myth that this is a profession women gladly enter into. I would recommend having a listen to End Prostitution Now’s interview with Cassie below, someone who has worked in the sex industry. Furthermore, for the brave amongst you, I would suggest having a look at The Invisible Men blog, which publishes descriptions punters have made about different girls they’ve paid for, to appreciate the dark and dehumanising nature of prostitution. These resources help us to realise that women involved in prostitution need real support to escape its downward, drug-fuelled spiral and that prostitution is helping to fuel gender inequality and violence against women. Whilst this may not always be the case, statistically it seems to be the overwhelming norm. Perhaps there may be the more socially mobile few for whom this is a legitimate form of personal income, but bold decisions need to be made to protect the vast majority of vulnerable women.

Particularly, I would suggest so, because prostitution is so linked to human trafficking. Sweden was the first country to adopt the Challenge Demand approach into law in 1999 and, as well as seeing prostitution halved[7], the change in law has been backed by the National Criminal Police[8] for creating a hostile environment for traffickers and the Council of Europe has named it ‘the most effective tool for preventing and combating trafficking[9]. In the same time that prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands, seeing over 120 prostitutes murdered, 1 has been killed in Sweden (by a domestic partner) whilst the Dutch Government have found  that somewhere between 50-90% of prostitutes in the Netherlands are involved in the trade involuntarily (ie. trafficked)[10].

If demand for prostitution falls, the whole structure of exploitation begins to break down: in Sweden, thousands of women have exited the trade with more men and women realising the positive impact the approach has brought to improving gender inequality and protecting the vulnerable[11]. It should perhaps come as no surprise that 3 of the 4 countries with the highest ratings for gender equality worldwide have adopted the law[12]: Iceland (1st), Finland (3rd) and Sweden (4th), and why the approach has been adopted in Northern Ireland, seen success in Ipswich and now been picked up by France.

If this article has struck anything with you, I would encourage you to get in touch with your MP or MSP to attend SPACE’s ‘Shifting the Burden’ event at Westminster on 13th July or to have a look at some of the great resources available from End Prostitution Now and End Demand UK. ‘The Red Umbrella’ and ‘Laura Lee’ are very active for the decriminalisation lobby, so if you want to research both sides of the argument, that’s a good place to start.

No matter where you fall, this is a real issue about protecting vulnerable individuals. We all have a part to play.

[1] ‘Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution’, Home Office, 2004
[2] M. Farley, J Lynne & A.J.Cotton, ‘Prostitution in Vancouver: violence and colonoisation of first nations women’ Transcultural psychiatry , 42 (2) (2005): 242-271.
D.E.Roe-Sepowitz ‘Juvenile entry into prostitution: the role of emotional abuse’ Violence against Women, 18 (5) (2012): 562-579
[3] Hester, M. & Westmarland, N. (2004) Tackling Street Prostitution: Towards an Holistic Approach, Home Office: London
[4] Hester, M. & Westmarland, N. (2004) Tackling Street Prostitution: Towards an Holistic Approach, Home Office: London
[5] Farley, M. (2003). Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4, 2003, pp.33-74
[6] Farley et al, ‘Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries’
[7] (1) English summary of the Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services (1999-2008), Swedish Ministry of Justice, 2010. See also: Max Waltman, “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law,” 33 Michigan Journal of International Law 133, 133-57 (2011), pp. 146-148.
[8] Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services, Ministry of Justice, Government Offices of Sweden, 2 July 2010
[9] ‘Sex Buyer Laws Win Council Of Europe Support’, STOP Traffick! 1 April 2014.
[10] 18 myths on prostitution’, briefing, European Women’s lobby, 2014.
[11] (4) European Women’s Lobby, 2014
[12] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2012