The European Parliament voted this week in favour of a report I've produced recommending the Swedish method of tackling prostitution. The 'Swedish Model', first introduced there in 1999, is the system whereby selling sex is legal but buying is prohibited. It focuses on reducing the demand, making it the purchaser of sex - invariably the man - who is criminalised.
This is a fairly new means of dealing with the 'oldest profession', and it has worked well; street prostitution in Sweden has halved, and men there are now less likely to contemplate buying sex. It has since been adopted in Iceland and Norway, and before long France will join them. The outcome of this week's vote is not, at this stage, legally binding - it is still up to domestic governments to decide their own prostitution policies. But it sends a strong signal to domestic governments.
The main alternative to the Swedish Model is total legalisation, currently practised in Holland and Germany. Although many who support this option are men - such as those behind France's infamous 'Hands off my whore' campaign - there are also some former prostitutes who advocate the Dutch Model. They say my proposals will mean a loss of livelihood for women in the sex trade.
Over the past few months I've debated this issue with them at length, looking at it from many angles. Which system works best in practice? Whose statistics can you trust? How widespread is trafficking? It's a conversation which could go on indefinitely.
At its nub, though, there's one question we keep coming back to: Are prostitutes where they are through choice?
My view on this is clear. I simply do not believe that any more than an eccentric few go into prostitution through genuine preference. Prostitutes tend to enter the job young and to come from deprived backgrounds. Many have histories of abuse and addiction. Moreover, they're increasingly likely to be from poorer EU countries - economically vulnerable and new to the UK. It's not 'just another job'.
The English Collective of Prostitutes, one of the groups who have contested my report most fiercely, seem to agree with me that prostitution is a last resort. "Every time there's a benefit cut, it forces women on to the game," they admit. Yet in response they argue that, in the age of austerity, selling your body is just what women "have to do to survive". This is not only terrifyingly laissez-faire, but it also represents, if anything, a lack of choice; an admission that women don't choose to become prostitutes but do so because there's no alternative.
The 'freedom of choice' argument is always a seductive one, but it's not the right way of tackling this issue. As a delegation of over 70 researchers and academic argued last week - writing in open letter in support of my report - "the layers of disadvantage experienced by women mean that so-called 'free' choices are actually decisions made in conditions of already existing inequality and discrimination." They conclude that "Choices made in conditions of being unequal cannot be considered 'free'."
To avoid a race to the bottom we must lift standards up and provide opportunities for those women who are struggling - not tell them that selling their bodies is the only option. For that reason I'm absolutely delighted at the adoption of the report this week. I hope it will form part of the sea-change taking place across Europe, as more and more domestic governments begin to agree that we cannot just accept sexual exploitation as a fact of life.
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