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Questions you should be asking about politicians and prostitution

December 28th, 2007

Dr Petra

We’ve all seen the hype over the past few weeks with Harriet Harman arguing in favour of criminalising men who buy sex. Her views have received mixed reactions. The right wing press mostly backed her, the rest of the media sneered, and some claimed she only took this stand to distract from scandals over Labour party donations.

Harman’s comments hinge upon her idea that we should follow Sweden’s model of tackling prostitution. Where buying sex has been criminalised and it’s claimed that this reduces associated crime and takes the pressure off prostitutes by putting the blame onto clients.

There has been a lot of talk about the wonders of Sweden’s model, and yet there is little independent evidence that it works. Swedish officials and anti-prostitution groups offer an ‘it works because we do it and we say it works’ answer, which is far from adequate. Independent views on the Swedish model suggests that while prostitution has become less visible prostitutes are more at risk than ever, sex work hasn’t gone away and support for prostitutes remains lower than promised. Moreover there may be specific social, political, historical and geographical reasons the Swedish model seems to work which would mean such an approach wouldn’t work elsewhere.

So when Harman wants to copy the Swedish model it’s worrying that she already appears to accept it works when this is not necessarily the accepted view by professionals working in this area. Moreover there are other countries that offer alternative measures of managing prostitution such as New Zealand, Austria, Vienna or Spain who could equally be copied and yet Ms Harman has ignored these completely. Surely if you’re going to investigate a model of managing sex work you should consider a variety of international approaches, not just pick one that you think might fit with winning over your electorate?

Moreover she’s been citing evidence for using the Swedish approach as a means of reducing trafficking of sex workers, which she sees as key to the prostitution problem. This is a commonly held view and one that’s repeated by many anti-prostitution organisations, but it doesn’t necessarily represent an accurate view of prostitution.

All this is peculiar since the Home Office had already run a half hearted ‘consultation’ on prostitution a few years ago and argued they would consider revising the position of brothels. That would mean two or three women could work together in a flat or house without legal repercussions. However, despite mentioning this could be the case the government has done nothing about this since, and now seems to be backtracking with a view to a far more oppressive Swedish stance.

This remains a very difficult area to discuss. The media likes nothing better than a nice juicy hooker story, but often won’t ask critical questions about the misuse of evidence and policy. Politicians don’t want to be seen to encourage anything remotely controversial and our current party likes to raise issues then delay doing anything about them by hiding behind policy discussions. Which is why we’ve got both politicians and the press using discussions about ‘sex slavery’ and other emotive terms – that conveniently distract us from the real issues about prostitution we need to discuss.

The public tend to swing between feeling sorry for abused sex workers, to hating all whores or using anti-trafficking legislation as a mask for racism and misogyny. And there is a very strong and vocal presence of pressure groups who completely disagree with any form of prostitution (to the point that they won’t allow for the term ‘sex work’ to be used). To them all prostitution is abuse and all who buy sex are abusers. There is no room for debate and if you question any means of managing prostitution that don’t involve an outright ban you are also portrayed as an abuser.

Yet outside of this there are many practitioners, researchers, educators and most importantly sex workers and clients who have opinions about what’s going on within our current legal discussions on prostitution. Many of us have now raised our concerns via the media with letters to The Guardian – and The Independent as the excerpt below from 22 Dec 2007 shows:

Sex workers need no moral crusades
Sir: We constitute a large proportion of academics and researchers writing on issues that affect the UK sex industry.
Following the anniversary of the Ipswich murders and Harriet Harman’s breathtaking pre-emption of the Criminal Justice and Immigration (CJ&I) Bill Committee, we urge the Government to promote new ways of working that are safer for sex workers and will encourage sex workers to come forward and give evidence where any violence has occurred. We support the removal of clauses 104-106 from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, and are against any move to criminalise clients of sex workers.
Academic research demonstrates that enforced treatment/ rehabilitation or criminalisation of sex workers (or their clients) is ineffectual at best, and more often dangerous. The CJ&I’s provisions do not take account of the views of those working in the sex industry, whose voices should be a central part of any debate.
Real political concern to support sex workers is being diverted and proper debate about the current proposals is being stifled by some fundamentalist and some radical feminist organisations interested in pursuing a moral crusade against purchasing sex akin to the crusade against the “white slave trade” in late Victorian society. Now, as then, using the criminal law to such an end will only result in more, not less, harm done to sex workers.
Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon Birkbeck, University of London, Professor Sophie Day, Goldsmiths, University of London, Professor Phil Hubbard, Loughborough University, Dr N T Jeal, Wales College of Medicine, Professor Graham Hart, Professor Graham Scambler, University College London, Professor Don Kulick, New York University, Professor Joyce Outshoorn, Leiden University, Netherlands, Dr Helen Ward, Imperial College NHS Trust, Professor Jeffrey Weekes, London South Bank University, And 13 others

So we are currently faced with misinformed politicians being driven by rhetoric rather than responsible evidence. We are not asking the right questions about prostitution but instead have been caught up in debates of blame, scaremongering and bad science.

We need to ask questions about why our politicians are favouring one political model (Sweden) and not others? Why are they dragging their heels over previous promises to make sex workers safer? Why are they employing experts to inform their policies and practices who have known links to anti-prostitution organisations and make no secret of their anti-prostitution agendas? Why does our media focus only on a prostitution is good/prostitution is bad debate rather than tackling wider and more complex issues?

More than this we need to bring back this discussion as a matter of urgency since the fate of prostitution in the UK is going to be decided early in January 2008. If it continues to go down the Sweden-is-fantastic line we are going to see the lives of prostitutes made more difficult and dangerous.

We need to act now. It may not be popular or an easy view to take, but we have to challenge the inflated claims over women trafficked into prostitution, we need to acknowledge not all prostitutes are women. We have to accept that abuse and exploitation is part of prostitution – but it is not the whole story. And above all we need to make any legal changes in the interests of prostitutes. Which currently is not happening at all.

Make your voice heard. Ask your MP to consider the evidence about what works in relation to managing prostitution. Get them to look at the experiences of other countries and the body of evidence from health and social science that explains what sex workers want and need. Remind them and you not to go with scary messages but to look beyond the hype to see what agendas may be driving these – and question whether these are truly in the interests of prostitutes.

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