At a recent End Violence Against Women hustings, Tory Kit Malthouse said that we needed a sensible national debate about prostitution law. It was one point on which I agreed with him during the debate. (I certainly very strongly disagree with his claim that London needs fewer women's organisations!)
The fact, of which many people are unaware, is that prostitution is not illegal in the UK. But many of the acts around prostitution, in particular soliciting and 'brothelkeeping', are illegal.
The term brothel in most people's mind probably suggests an establishment with a boss who takes most of the profits, has employees, something quite large. But in legal terms, two women (or men) working together out of a flat, and sometimes even one woman working with a receptionist, counts as a 'brothel' and is therefore illegal.
Basically, working indoors can only be legal if you work alone. But there's an obvious problem with that - prostitution can be very dangerous. Working in an environment where there is someone else within call is likely to prevent incidents, or ensure rescue if they occur.
But now, with the Olympics coming to London, we've seen a wave of raids on indoor premises in east London, as well as increased targeting of sex workers. In Tower Hamlets, 48 arrests have been made since January, and 80 brothels have been shut in Newham in 18 months.
That's provoked grave concerns among organisations that work for the welfare of sex workers in the area, that women are being pushed out of brothels into less formal arrangements or on to the streets. And workers still in place - as always at risk of violent crime, both robberies and assaults - are even more reluctant to report attacks on them to police for fear of subsequent arrest, a fact that their potential attackers well know.
Additionally, arrested workers are being given bail conditions that push them out of the area - making it more likely they'll work in places they don't know and have no safety systems.
The claim, now, is that this isn't linked to the Olympics. But there's been much talk about how there's likely to be a rise in trafficking associated with the Games, despite the fact that this claim has been comprehensively debunked. And the Met Police launched a specific drive against vice-related crime in the five Olympic boroughs ahead of the Olympics.
X:talk, a group of sex workers, has called for a moratorium on arrests leading up to the Olympics (though they stress any traffickers certainly still should be arrested).
They've got a very strong case. There's no doubt this crackdown is putting workers in danger - there's a risk that it could result in deaths of vulnerable women and men. This surely isn't an Olympic legacy we want for London.
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