Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Prostitution and sex slavery

I can foresee at least four consequences if it becomes illegal to pay for sex in Britain.

Some men, and it will be mainly men, who have paid-for sex with trafficked women who are effective sex slaves, and even those who seek out such women deliberately, enjoying the added, for them, thrill that comes from horrific abuse, will be arrested and convicted.

To take the opposite extreme, some men, and women, who through disability, deformity, shyness, social ineptness or for some other reason find it hard to form conventional sexual relationships, yet cannot silence the baying of their hormones and their need for physical, sexual contact, will be arrested and convicted.

Prostitution will shift from visible to invisible channels. This will not benefit trafficked women and children.

And fourthly, something that is implicit in the first three consequences, prostitution will continue.

It is noticeable that among those campaigning most strenuously for such a change to the law are religious organisations. While this is not a disqualification, there are plainly reasons why they might object to prostitution that have nothing to do with the welfare of the participant, and this is also true of politicians like Harriet Harman, who is behind this proposed change in legislation. It would be easy to accuse Harman of feminist dogma, but that would be inaccurate. Many of the objections to these proposals come from feminists. Most come from sex workers themselves.

It is difficult, though, to find out the facts behind the campaigns. Leading the charge to spread the criminalisation of demand internationally is a woman called Gunilla Ekberg. Here (pdf) is a report about her work, which is highly critical and accuses her of gross distortion of the facts.

To some extent, the facts are irrelevant. The vision page at the religious organisation CHASTE - a revealing name in itself - says:

CHASTE has a vision where the bodies of women, children and men are no longer for sale, no longer traded for the exploitative use of pay as you go sex. ...

CHASTE has a vision where people’s bodies are respected in loving relationships not enslavement based on money, commercialisation and inhumanity.
I have deleted a sentence or two about trafficking and slavery because these are, in this section, window dressing. CHASTE wants all sexual activity to be confined to 'loving relationships'. I can't say I particularly disagree, but nor can I say that all my sexual activity has been thus confined. Legislating for particular types of human relationships is not going to be successful. And CHASTE is not alone in this approach. The US State Department asserts that:
prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and fuels trafficking in persons, a form of modern-day slavery.
There appears to be no evidence at all for the latter claim.

In fact, and in general, prohibition has an unsuccessful track record. It is illegal to sell and consume drugs, but the last quarter century has seen an increase in illegal drug consumption. Attacking demand has not, in this case, been successful (though it has to be added that the law enforcement efforts have concentrated on supply). But the more draconian the laws have become, the more adulterated the products and the greater the involvement of organised international crime. So will it be with prostitution.

The proposed legislation in Britain (and similar laws are being proposed in other countries, such as Italy) is based on a similar law that came into effect in Sweden in 1999. Here is one account of its consequences, from Petra Östergren, a social anthropologist from Stockholm:
Due to the law against procurement, sexworkers are forced to lie in order to rent premises, or alternatively they have to pay exorbitant rent. Either way, they constantly worry about being discovered. They also report often having to move (when discovered) and being treated badly by landlords and ’'rent pimps’'. Some women prefer to make contact with their customers on the street. Other sexworkers find this too humiliating.

Most of the women I have spoken to wish to be able to work together with others. This is to ensure safety and to support each other. They find it unfair that they cannot do this and feel scared when they have to work alone.

This law also makes it difficult for sexworkers to cohabit with a partner since it is illegal to receive any of a sexworker's income. It is hard for a sexworker to have a family at all since sexworkers are considered to be unfit parents and therefore can lose custody of their children if it emerges that they sell sex.
Most importantly:
As a result of the new legislation, the sexworkers say it is now harder for them to assess the clients. The clients are more stressed and scared and negotiation outdoors must be done in a more rapid manner. The likelihood of ending up with a dangerous client is thereby greater.

Due to the law, sexworkers feel hunted by the police, social workers, media and sometimes even anti-prostitution activists on the streets.

The more vulnerable sexworkers seem to be the ones most negatively affected by the law. Women working on the streets in some bigger cities claim that there is now a greater percentage of 'perverted' customers and that the ’'nice and kind’' customers have disappeared. A 'perverted' customer is someone who demands more violent forms of sex, sex with feces and urine and who is more prone to humiliate, degrade and violate the sexworker. He also more often refuses to use condoms.
The National Police Board has also found the law an obstacle to prosecuting profiteers who exploit the sexual labour of others. Earlier legal cases against such men could sometimes be supported by the testimonies of sex-buyers. But these men are no longer willing to assist, since they themselves are now guilty of committing a crime.
Reading these sources, it is by no means clear that the Swedish laws have reduced prostitution at all in Sweden. They have certainly increased sexual tourism, whereby Swedes, both prostitutes and clients, pop across a border and trade in sex. They have reduced, but not by more than 25%, street prostitution but have made this much more dangerous for the prostitutes. Prostitution and soliciting have also been displaced onto the internet and into private brothels. In neither case, especially the latter, have prostitutes benefited. In neither case is it possible, any longer, to have any idea what the numbers of people involved might be; street prostitutes are visible and can be counted.

There is significant dissent from the Swedish view. Here is a page of relevant links.

It is also difficult to assess what proportion of trafficked people are involved in the coerced sex industry. Trawling through conflicting surveys, it seems it could be as low as 20%, but any figures must be approached with scepticism. How do you know what proportion of an unknown total are the unknown number of people in an underground industry?

People trafficking has grown enormously in the past quarter century. Most of this does not involve the provision of sexual services. The growth has not been caused by prostitution laws or any changes therein. The problem will not be solved by tampering with an area of law that does not cause it. It will not be solved by moralistic legislation; indeed no problem ever has been so cured, though many have been so caused.

On balance, it seems overwhelmingly likely that this proposed legislation would, if brought into effect, create many more victims than it saves. And this seems to have been the Swedish experience.

UPDATE: I resisted the temptation to criticise the Tory blogger Elee Seymour, who is providing PR services to CHASTE (she has fully disclosed this) and has posted several times in support of this absurd and harmful proposal to criminalise demand. But The Devil's Kitchen has done so, and he's right:
But since you ask, were my sister or daughter in prostitution, I would rather that it was in a safe, licensed brothel where she could have regular check-ups, than out of the street with all the risks of assault, drugs and murder that go with it; coupled, of course, with the trepidation of going to a doctor with a medical problem for fear that the doctor will turn her in to the police.
Ideas like those of Seymour kill women. It's as simple as that.

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