Image: iStock.com/Stefano Tinti
The Home Affairs Committee is currently open for submissions to its inquiry on prostitution until 18th February and the words and attitudes of sex buyers, as collated by experts must inform any overhaul of the law:
"Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that 'real' women would not put up with."
Dean Kirby's article in last week's Independent reported Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff's plans to propose "managed red-light districts" in the capital. While allowing prostitution to take place between appointed hours, ensuring no penalty for the purchase or sale of sex, the intention is to make those selling sex feel safer. The scheme would follow the model recently set up in Leeds: where a prostituted woman, Daria Pionko, was murdered by a sex buyer two days before Christmas 2015.
All campaigners agree that the safety of those who sell sex, and the need to ensure that no-one does so in coercive and exploitative conditions is a massive concern. To this end, an element of Mr Boff's plans is sound: to decriminalise those who sell sex in managed districts between appointed times. This would enable them to report all crimes that they experience without fear of prosecution. However, without additional provisions addressing the far-reaching harms within prostitution, the establishment of managed districts would serve as a half-hearted good-will gesture at best, and a dangerously incomplete strategy at worst. Beyond taking away the fear of prosecution, the "managed" district does little to solve the very real dangers that come with being prostituted. Being unafraid to report an assault still means an assault, or in Ms Pionko's case a murder, has taken place. The reasons why the murder rates of women in prostitution are 12 times higher than those for the average woman remain unaddressed.
An effective strategy prioritising the safety of those in prostitution requires a more robust approach. Decriminalising the sale of sex should be applied retrospectively, ensuring that records are clear should their backgrounds be checked for employment, accommodation or financial purposes. This must be combined with investment in exiting routes for those who wish to get out of prostitution. Support, advice and therapeutic services to manage common practical and health worries, need to be available to all (those who sell sex experience PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders at levels similar to those who have been in armed combat). With specialist services closing due to funding cuts, those in prostitution are increasingly vulnerable. Eaves for Women, who conducted the research referred to, was forced to close as recently as October 2015.
It is also essential to acknowledge that "managed" districts do nothing to address the unprecedented levels of violence those working indoors, either in brothels or as escorts, experience - where 96% of buyers pay for sex. 71% of women in or exiting prostitution experience violence, mostly from sex buyers, and 32% enter prostitution before the age of 18. A managed district merely provides an environment that facilitates exploitation.
There are numerous routes into prostitution, and through volunteering since 2012 with a charity that supports these women, I have learned how one accident of fate could lead any of us into this situation. It is extremely difficult to make generalisations, but if any can be made, they are these: demand drives prostitution, and if nobody purchased sex, prostitution would be eradicated. So to reduce prostitution, we must look to the buyers.
Despite some of the buyers' perceptions that during prostitution women may be feeling "miserable", "scared", "relief that I'm not going to kill her", "empty", "disconnected", they were not deterred by this. And although 51% witnessed those they paid for being controlled, or 'pimped' which is a crime under current law, less than 5% reported their suspicions to the police. However, when asked if having their name and picture made public, a criminal record, a fine, or being added to the sex offenders register would deter them from buying sex, 80-85% confirmed it would.
Indeed where a Sex Buyer Law has been enforced in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, countries renowned for their exemplary equality laws, this strategy has proven to reduce prostitution. Meanwhile the results of decriminalisation are verging on well-publicised apocalyptic levels of abuse in New Zealand, Nevada in the US, The Netherlands and Germany.
We have the answers. Let's use them.