What, if anything, should be done about prostitution?

What, if anything, should be done about prostitution?

by Liam Kerr
article from Monday 22, January, 2018

THE ISSUE OF PROSTITUTION, and what to do about it was debated in Holyrood in December. I grew up in Leith in the 80’s and 90’s, which brought home the effects of prostitution, on both individuals and communities. The sight of women being propositioned by, principally, men looking to buy sex, is neither healthy nor cohesive for any community.

I can quickly accept the “prostitution is violence against women” proposition and acknowledge the Scottish Government’s “Equally Safe… strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls” which states that violence against women includes commercial sexual exploitation, within the definition of which fall prostitution and trafficking.

Research from 2010 into prostitution in Glasgow found that 21 of the 33 women interviewed reported violence in the transaction. Another study shows that, on average, prostitutes are 16 times more exposed to rape and 12 times more likely to commit suicide. A further study in Glasgow found that 68 per cent of female prostitutes surveyed suffered from PTSD.

I also see merit in the argument that prostitution is inherently about abuse; reducing women to a transaction or commodity is degrading and is both a cause and a consequence of inequality.

However, perhaps that may be a reflection on an ‘orthodox’ prostitution transaction. Is there a civil liberties concern that individuals should be free to engage in consensual sexual activity, providing this does not harm or exploit others? Of course, the law should intervene where any sexual activity involves an element of coercion, or where it affects children but what about in a free transaction? Should society really be proscribing transactions between consenting adults with equal positions of power, or even where the ‘seller’ is in a stronger position?

The International Union of Sex Workers suggests prostitution is a choice and actually empowers women. Criminalisation "treats our consent… as less valid than that of other women… Neither having sex nor getting paid [for it] is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful".

And what of the individual who is not looking to perpetrate violence or gender domination but simply seeks “companionship”? This doesn’t make it right, or civilised but perhaps it deals with a societal problem/need.

The question then becomes what to do about it; noting that the “solution” necessarily flows from one’s view on the nature and existence of a “problem” (as above).

Two models are often suggested: firstly, the “New Zealand” model, where voluntary and unforced agreements between consenting adults to sell and buy sexual services, including street-based and brothel work, is decriminalised. Prostitutes have workers’ rights, guaranteed through employment and human rights legislation. Prostitution that is conducted through coercion, that is not consensual, or involves someone under the age of 18, remains illegal.

The argument goes that decriminalisation stops prostitutes fearing arrest (negative experiences can be reported without putting themselves at risk of facing a criminal record), allows them to work indoors in a safe environment (evidence suggests violence against prostitutes decreased following decriminalisation) and hold their employer to account.

However, in 2008, the New Zealand Law Commission reported there is a still a reluctance amongst prostitutes to report violence. There are also claims that while frameworks for regulation exist, very few brothel inspections (of establishments that can be opened by completing a form of a mere three pages) take place.

In 2012 the NZ Government said it was unconvinced that decriminalisation has solved, or even reduced, underage girls prostituting and that commercial sexual exploitation of those under 18 has remained steady, and perhaps even increased.

Finally, following a study analysing 150 countries worldwide, the LSE reported “on average, countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking flows”.

In October, I met former prostitute Sabrinna Valisce. Whilst living in New Zealand, she reported seeing the exploitation of prostitutes living in run-down areas where prostitution is extremely common. She talked particularly of the trafficking of women and girls into the country for the prostitution industry and suggested Germany is seeing similar problems in response to its decriminalisation.

Having supported decriminalisation, Valisce now campaigns in support of the “Nordic model”: essentially tackling demand for prostitution by criminalising the purchase of, but decriminalising the sale of, sex, whilst providing support to help prostitutes make a successful exit from prostitution.

Sweden adopted this model in 1999 (and apparently enjoys 80 per cent public support for its approach), whilst Norway and Iceland followed in 2009. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France and Canada have implemented similar approaches.

Arguably focussing on the buyer recognises the vulnerability of women and girls trapped in commercial sexual exploitation. Whether trafficked or not, it is argued many have not made a completely free choice to enter prostitution.

The charity, CARE, argues there is a deterrent effect on men purchasing sexual services with a Swedish survey suggesting between 1996 and 2008, the number of men admitting that they had bought someone for sex reduced from 13.6 per cent to 8 per cent. In 2010, the Swedish Chancellor of Justice found that the number of women “being exploited” in prostitution had reduced by half and concluded “…that prostitution would also have increased in Sweden if we had not had a ban on the purchase of sexual services. Criminalisation has therefore helped to combat prostitution.”

Furthermore, in 2009, the National Rapporteur, Kajsa Wahlberg, said “It has been discovered through wiretapping and surveillance that traffickers consider Sweden a bad market. These criminals are businessmen and calculate profits. Victims of human trafficking confirm that the traffickers talk about Sweden as a poor market.”

The counter-argument is that this model may push prostitution “underground”. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform argues that targeting clients makes street prostitutes “more likely to take risks with new or unknown clients,”, “displaces sex workers into darker and less populated areas where they are more vulnerable to violence” and less likely “to take sufficient time to screen potential clients”. Under the Nordic model, two prostitutes sharing a flat for safety can both be prosecuted for ‘brothel-keeping’.

Evidence from organisations including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the WHO suggests that this approach can increase violence against women. This is supported by a 2004 report into the Swedish model which found there were fewer clients, but a larger proportion were dangerous; there was less time to assess clients; prices for sexual services had fallen and women were posing as prostitutes to rob clients (who would fear reporting the robbery to the police for fear of a criminal record).

It is a complex and nuanced debate… but necessary. In England and Wales, it is an offence to purchase sex from someone if it is known that the person is being controlled by another. With laws in place either side of the border in Ireland, arguably Scotland now has the most relaxed laws in the UK, potentially leading to increased attention from human traffickers and those adept at exploiting a situation.

Above all, we must never forget that whatever conclusion or model is preferred, this affects real people and real lives and that surely must be the key driver of whatever solution is proposed.

Liam Kerr is a Conservative MSP for the North East of Scotland and shadow Justice Secretary

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