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New prostitution proposals will place sex workers at risk

November 24th, 2008

Dr Petra

The new recommendations against prostitution have been set out by Jacqui Smith have been strongly criticised by those working in healthcare, advocacy and sex work.

The recommendations are not as stringent as had been predicted (as at one time Ms Smith was advocating a complete ban on the purchasing of sex). In her current recommendations Ms Smith is advocating that those who have had sex with a trafficked prostitute will feel the full force of the law. Although set out as a means of ‘rescuing’ sex workers little has been said about their fate once identified as a trafficked victim, although many civil rights groups are already suggesting they will be deported and the new recommendations are more about managing immigration than human rights.

The report (see link above) is based around a selection of evidence that has not really drawn on the wide and balanced empirical evidence base on sex work. Instead reports like the problematic Poppy Project’s Big Brothel are used to support government recommendations.

The main recommendations proposed include:

1. The Government should consider introducing a specific strict liability offence of paying
for sex with someone who is controlled for another person’s gain, in order to protect vulnerable individuals, for example those who have been trafficked or exploited by any other means.

This is suitably vague as to not allow any real protection. We already have laws against pimping, trafficking, rape and child abuse which we could impose. How ‘control for gain’ will be measured and implemented is unclear and already many police officers have expressed concern over how this may be enforced.

2. The Government should consider running a marketing campaign aimed specifically at
sex buyers to raise awareness about trafficking for sexual exploitation.

I’d like to know what empirical evidence there is that lets the government know this is a good idea. Certainly awareness campaigns can be effective, but there is little evidence suggesting telling men they might be having sex with a trafficked woman would work. There’s no real information in the report about why the government considers this to be a good idea (outside of them assuming it would be) or what the cost, impact or evaluation of such a scheme might be.

3. The Government should consider amending the offences of kerb-crawling and
persistent soliciting (s.1 and s.2 of the Sexual Offences Act 1985) to remove the requirement to prove that a person has acted persistently, thus allowing prosecution for a first offence.

This could be highly dangerous for prostitutes (male, female, Trans and child) who work on the streets. If a punter can be arrested and prosecuted for a first offence then they are going to be more anxious to get away from any red light area. This is going to mean prostitutes are going to have less time to identify who is getting into what vehicle (or leaving with whichever person) and won’t have the time to size up the situation and see if they could be going with someone who is dangerous. For a report that’s supposedly protecting sex workers this recommendation stands at odds with the evidence on what keeps people safe and highlights a worrying lack of understanding of how the most vulnerable prostitutes work.

4. The Government should consider re-running a national anti-kerb crawling campaign,
which should support forces nationally in their efforts to reduce street-based prostitution.

In many red light areas in the UK neighbourhood campaigns to remove sex workers resulted in attacks and abuse on prostitutes. This placed sex workers at risk but did not remove prostitution – it simply relocated it to another area and made sex workers more vulnerable. These recommendations are clearly aimed at cutting off sex work at source, but have not been shown to be effective in other locations/countries.

5. The Government should consider introducing closure powers for premises linked to
sexual exploitation, in order to allow the police and partner agencies to restrict access to such
premises for up to 3 months.

Within the recommendations, and report, it’s clear the assumption is punters can be simply dissuaded by closing locations, making it harder to access prostitutes, and increasing prosecution. It does not address the many reasons people seek sex workers or the reasons why prostitutes sell sex. It casts all sex workers as female victims and all punters as male abusers. There is no real idea suggested about what will happen to those sex workers who will be affected if said proposals are acted upon. Many will face fines they need to pay off or criminal convictions that will prevent them getting other jobs they might like. Does the government plan an amnesty on fines or convictions to help sex workers or do they simply want to reduce their income during a recession?

6. To support these proposed legislative changes, Government should work with all relevant bodies, including the police, criminal justice agencies and the voluntary sector to develop comprehensive guidance on enforcement and best-practice partnership work.

Note here the lack of mention of consultation with sex workers. There’s also no mention of discussing any of the proposals with academics researching the area or health and social care staff working in this area. A deliberate oversight? We don’t know.

A number of papers have managed to cover this story with balance and have addressed some of the problems Ms Smith’s proposals raise. In particular The Independent has led with a thorough overview while the Telegraph have printed an excellent critique by Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon (whose opinions I trust on this issue). The Guardian featured a predictably un-critical interview with Ms Smith but at least redeemed themselves with some incisive letters about the proposals. This blog also tackled the issue with humour and insight.

It’s fairly obvious these recommandations have not fully taken into account the evidence base on this topic, and have relied far more on rhetoric and methodologically flawed research to support policy recommendations that do very little to protect sex workers.

Say these recommendations are made law. Prostitutes are going to be made poorer and placed in situations where they have to work in increasinly risky situations to survive. Punters who may well be able to identify and speak out for trafficked sex workers will definitely be too afraid to do so through risk of prosecution. And encouraging greater policing of street sex work is going to drive it further underground while increasing the workload of an already overstretched policeforce.

I cannot understand why these proposals have been put forward if our politicians supposedly care about sex workers. If they consider the trafficking issue to be such a problem (which independent evidence disputes) why are they not focusing on traffickers? And why prostitutes? Why aren’t they planning on tackling all those who are trafficked to Britain to work on our farms, in our factories, in our hotels or in private accommodation as maids or cleaners?

I believe many working in healthcare, academia, outreach and sex work are going to vigorously challenge the proposals.

Let’s be clear. Nobody wants to promote trafficking or abuse. But as already mentioned we have laws in place to tackle such abuses. I want those involved in prostitution to be enabled to exit if they so wish, and support those who feel they want to continue as a sex worker. I find it offensive that anyone who criticises these proposals is immediately cast as a trafficking supporter or does not care about sex workers. If anyone is against prostitutes it’s the government as these proposals offer very little protection or help. If they are made law sex workers will be more at risk – particularly the most vulnerable and those who the report says it’s protecting.

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