On 29 September 2016, myself and an academic colleague paid over £400 of our own money to attend an event about prostitution organised by the so-called Public Policy Exchange (PPE) at the Strand Palace Hotel. We were overwhelmingly outnumbered by those working in the so-called Harm Reduction sector, which perpetuates prostitution while purporting to ameliorate some of its worst harms (a bit).
The clue that the conclusion was foregone was in the event’s title ‘Decriminalisation of Prostitution – preparing for change’. The event was announced shortly after the publication of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s interim report on prostitution. You know, the report of the inquiry chaired by Keith Vaz, who has since been revealed as a prostitution buyer. Unsurprisingly in the light of that knowledge, it favoured a system of full decriminalisation, including of pimps, punters and brothel keepers, like they have in New Zealand. Nordic Model Now! got in touch with PPE and pointed out the many flaws in the interim report.
But for some reason PPE assumed that full decriminalisation is going to happen, even though a national and international debate is going on and two neighbouring countries (Northern Ireland and France) have gone in completely the opposite direction and introduced the Nordic Model. This human rights-based approach decriminalises those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.
Whatever you do, avoid a balanced debate!
An ‘exchange’ implies an interchange of views which differ from one another. Nothing like this happened at this event except very briefly when my colleague and I managed to ask a question. Had we not got involved, there would have been complete unanimity except for the last speaker – who was there at our insistence. The other speakers all make their living indirectly from prostitution and entirely accept its existence as an institution. Despite sorrowfully listing the acknowledged harms of the industry, not one of them questioned a man’s right to buy women for sexual kicks.
It is useful to compare this attitude using a different social issue: if this had been a debate about slavery, they would have been working to reduce the length of slave voyages and the size or weight of shackles. In the case of slavery, history was fortunately not on the side of the Harm Reducers and nor should it be with prostitution.
Harm Reduction is Harm Perpetuation
I don’t doubt that most of the people in the room sincerely felt that their work was of value. But I am equally certain that they work hard to deny and blot out the vast mass of evidence and analysis that points to the Nordic Model as the way to go. Like many human beings with bills to pay, they look first to their monthly pay packet and perhaps afterwards at their principles and loyalties.
Harm Reduction is laudable at first sight. However, when you look a little deeper it starts to look more like harm perpetuation. It uses up resources which could be used for exit programmes and education programmes to prevent women from running the risks of prostitution. By appearing to make things better, harm reduction tacitly accepts the continuation of an inherently and inevitably harmful practice: the STIs, the overuse of antibiotics, the murders, the rapes, the violence, the objectification, the acting out of child sexual abuse, the mental health problems, the parenting problems, the drug and alcohol addictions, any one of which would be sufficient reason to seriously question its legitimacy.
For example, the £108,000 given to Ugly Mugs by Lynne Featherstone as Equalities Minister is used to employ people to weed out violent and abusive punters. Survivors tell us that most, if not all, punters treat them badly and expect compliance to their every sexual whim – so where do you draw the line?
Maybe it is a line not worth drawing and we should instead be aiming for abolition.
Harm Reducers repeatedly stick Elastoplast over gaping war wounds, congratulate themselves on being ‘down with the sex workers’ and helping people while hoping that the war will never end.
Pretend the Nordic Model does not exist
Back in July when this event was first publicised, Nordic Model Now! contacted the Public Policy Exchange to express concern that the event presented only one option for prostitution policy and to protest at the totally one-sided panel. We offered names of several people who could speak on the other side of the debate, in favour of the Nordic Model and abolition.
Nothing happened. So in early September, I contacted the organiser and provided the names of another ten speakers (published authors, senior academics, survivors of the industry, a senior policeman who had implemented a highly praised version of the Nordic Model, and successful campaigners). In one of our phone chats, the organiser stated she didn’t have contact details for these people, even though most are available through a simple Google search. After pressure and at the eleventh hour, PPE invited Heather Harvey, of the Nia Project, to speak (unpaid). So one pro-Nordic-Model speaker followed seven in favour of full decriminalisation.
At the end of the afternoon Heather showed a short video that featured a woman who had spent her whole life in prostitution and was asked at Nia whether she wanted out of it. The pain, surprise and realisation in her voice when she said, ‘No-one has ever asked me that before,’ touched every heart in the room and won Heather a massive round of applause, although there was no actual discussion about how to help women exit prostitution.
Don’t exchange any views, if we all agree everyone will believe us
In defiance of the name Public Policy Exchange, there was no debate at this event except where my colleague and I squeezed in a quick question, and then no follow-up was allowed. I asked a Leeds local authority rep, Louise Hackett, about the ‘Leeds Toleration Zone’, and whether she had considered the work done in Hounslow or Ipswich before putting forward her policy. No, she said, she had not heard about those projects.
She had just asked the local academics, people like Kate Brown, who have made a career out of uncritical projects on prostitution, usually funded generously by, for example, the Wellcome Trust. Just as the bankers asked the economics professors which policies to adopt, and the sports coaches asked the doctors which drugs would work best without being detected, Leeds reached out for the nearest friendly academic and rushed ahead. In defiance of the evidence. Is this how public money should be spent?
The Unholy Alliance
There is a revolving door between government and business, where men (and occasionally women) leave one and go straight into a role in the other, creating a community of interest which can be seen to harm the independence of decision-makers.
In the Prostitution Support sector there is also an unholy alliance – strong links of closed-minded harm-reductionism between academia, the police, local authorities, and harm reduction (prostitution perpetuation) organisations. For example, Ugly Mugs (harm reduction/prostitution perpetuation) train police and local authority staff. They all operate under the (false) belief that prostitution will always exist, that it is necessary and that it only needs for the worst punters to be kicked into shape and all will be fine. This totally ignores all the harms inherent in prostitution itself. They form networks and attend seminars like this one where no contradictory views are expressed and they all end the day patting each other on the back, ever more confirmed in their un-evidenced views.
Anyone outside this cosy coterie must either subscribe to the Harm Reduction Creed and join it, or, like Nordic Model Now! be ignored, frozen out, marginalised and forced to pay to attend seminars to which they should have been invited. The Harm Reducers and their allies know that they will all be out of a job if the Nordic Model is implemented, and will do all they can in their own interests to prevent it. Of course we do not know how many in these organisations, like Keith Vaz, purport to be independent in their views but are in fact run by habitual sex buyers (or even pimps) and are therefore compromised.
Public Policy Exchange? Private Profit Earner? Pimps and Punters Encouragement?
When I first encountered the Public Policy Exchange, I naively believed it did what it said on the packet – exchange views about public policy. I imagined values of independence, balance, fairness, equality, an evidence-based approach and all that we have come to expect in a good debate. I could not have been more wrong.
Wholly owned by one man, Gokhool Vashantsing, it has no stated values whatsoever. The nearest it comes is the quotation from the Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole on its website – “What you always do before you make a decision is consult. The best public policy is made when you are listening to people who are going to be impacted. Then, once a policy is determined, you call on them to help you sell it.”
Sadly the Public Policy Exchange did the exact opposite here: no survivors of prostitution were involved, and despite multiple admissions that prostitution is a horrible way of life, no suggestions of any kind were made (except by Nia) to end or limit it in any way. A tragic omission.
Without the persistent intervention of new grassroots campaigning group Nordic Model Now! PPE would have set up an event on prostitution entirely composed of organisations who raise funds or owe their existence to prostitution, with no voice given to the hundreds of ‘out’ survivors or reputable critics of the industry.
Curious, I looked PPE up at Companies House. PPE is in its sixth incarnation, each one starting when the former fails: Epidaurus, Centre for Parliamentary Studies, Centre for Parlimentary (sic) Studies (which in 2013 went bankrupt owing around a million pounds to HMRC and unsecured creditors), International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (still going and apparently run conjointly with PPE), and then Parliamentary Communications and the Public Policy Exchange.
Gokhool Vashantsing is now the only person in charge, and he classifies his business as Technical and Vocational Secondary Education. A bit far off the mark I would think. No financial information is available as PPE has a small company exemption. Given that the 30 or so people at the event on 29th September probably all paid around £200, this might be due for revision.
He also, again all by himself, owns another string of businesses: the International Centre for Electoral Psychology on whose website nothing appears to have happened since 2013, the International Centre for Electoral Affairs and the International Association of Electoral Training Organisations. He must be a busy man with all these companies to run.
A note of hope
The best thing to come out of this event for me was a tacit admission by the event chair that the so-called English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is not exactly that. The phrase used was ‘a network of women who have worked in different areas of the sex industry’ reflecting that, as always suspected, the ECP probably represents madams, maids, and pimps as well as prostituted women. Nice to see a little bit of honesty creeping in there.