Open Letter to the Home Secretary


This is the text of an open letter to the Home Secretary from Nordic Model Now! and 14 other groups and organisations and 35 individuals in response to the UK government response to the interim report of the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into Prostitution.

Correction: Ugly Mugs UK have asked us to make clear that they have nothing to do with Ugly Mugs Ireland and that any suggestion of a link is defamatory. Our apologies for any misunderstanding.

Dear Ms Rudd


As women’s human rights organisations and campaigners, we are writing to express our concern with the government’s response to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s interim report on its inquiry into prostitution. Given that the inquiry was chaired by Keith Vaz, who has been shown to have a clear conflict of interests, and it has been shown that the interim report was unacceptably biased, we are disappointed the government has dignified it with a formal response.

We question why more research is needed when study after study has shown that prostitution is damaging both to those in it and to society more generally. For example:

  • A meta study conducted by UCL found that “violence is a prominent feature in the lives of sex workers in almost all sex work settings”; “a single year of engagement in sex work is likely to have the same impact on mental health as an entire life of experiences prior to involvement in sex work”; and “Social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance into sex work and exclusion is often deepened as a result of engaging in sex work.”
  • A UN multi-country study found that men perpetrating rape of non-partners and/or violence against intimate partners are associated with prostitution buying. Studies of prostitution buyers have found they are more likely to commit rape and other aggressive sexual acts. In addition, the contempt they have for women is borne out by survivor testimony and research on punter forums.

This was the type of evidence that was written off as “moral values” and “emotive reactions” by an inquiry that was chaired by a man who himself buys sexual access to vulnerable young people. A man who The Times reported on Saturday 10 September had said “Someone will need to break him tonight” about one of the young men he had bought.

We believe it is time to stop facilitating the brutal prostitution system and act to stop it – by making it clear to men that prostitution buying has no place in a modern egalitarian society and will not be tolerated; providing long-term sustainable funding for services that provide those in prostitution with a genuine route out; and addressing the social exclusion that has been manufactured by the government’s austerity policies.

However, if you decide to commission a research study into the prevalence and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, we ask for reassurance that it will be conducted in an unbiased way, informed by a gender mainstreaming approach and the relevant human rights treaties (particularly CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol), and, unlike the Vaz report, will not be influenced by those with vested interests in the perpetuation of the sex trade.

It is well documented that many people who style themselves as “sex workers” have not experienced prostitution as such. Some are phone operators or similar and some are even pimps or brothel keepers. For example, Melissa Farley identified 12 high-profile people who publicly identify as “sex workers,” who promote decriminalized pimping and are associated with “sex worker” unions, collectives or advocacy groups, who have in fact sold others in prostitution. Clearly such people have a conflict of interests. All of these factors undermine the value of evidence from online surveys and similar where people self-identify as “sex workers.”

Another problem is that pimps and traffickers control the most marginalised women in prostitution, which reduces their ability to speak frankly. Many have faced beatings for attempting to speak in the past or have heard of others who have suffered this.

For these reasons, we believe that online surveys are of little or no value in providing a clear picture of the reality and views of the majority of those in prostitution. In-depth structured interviews conducted in a safe location by trained researchers would provide a more realistic view of their reality and opinions. We recommend that the Farley et al. study of 854 prostituted persons in nine countries is used as a model for this type of research, and that organisations that provide support and exit services to women in prostitution, such as NiaSWWOP, and Women@TheWell, are involved.

Further problems arise because many researchers, academics and other so-called experts on the sex trade have carved out a niche defending and legitimising the prostitution industry. And some organisations that purport to represent those in prostitution are in fact lobby groups or have close relationships with those who profit from the sex industry. For example, Ugly Mugs, Ireland has close connections with pimps and others who profiteer from the sex trade. In the Nordic Model Now! response to the interim report we noted that these were the people and organisations that were quoted in the section of the interim report on the Sex Buyer Law and not the very many individuals, groups and organisations whose sole interests are in the welfare of women and girls and their human rights.

Prostitution can never be completely hidden because the punters have to be able to find those in prostitution. Much of this now takes place online – in punter forums and escort sites and similar. We believe that any research into the prevalence of prostitution must therefore include analysis of such sites, using the latest cybertechnologies and expertise and with a gender analysis. This data on prevalence could be supplemented with the expert judgement of key actors, like the police and agencies providing support and services to those in prostitution.

Examining the nature of prostitution in the UK must also include qualitative analysis of punter attitudes and how these attitudes affect their intimate and other relationships with women and children in the general population and the effects of this on sex equality. For example, does prostitution buying reinforce attitudes that lead to violence against women and children and the lower value placed on women’s contributions to society? Punter forums are a potent source of this kind of qualitative information.

Prostitution is deeply gendered – almost all punters are male and the majority of those who are prostituted and/or sexually exploited commercially are female or minors. Many of those who are prostituted are disadvantaged in other ways, such as entrenched poverty and/or being from minority ethnic groups or with insecure immigration status. To get a true picture of the nature and prevalence of prostitution, all data must therefore be disaggregated by sex, age, ethnic group, immigration status, etc.

The research should focus on gathering a picture of the reality and prevalence of prostitution rather than gathering opinions on the legislative approach that people want to see implemented. We do not make decisions about any other policy based primarily on the opinions of those working in a particular industry. For example, we do not base decisions about whether fracking should go ahead primarily on the opinions of workers in the fracking industry. Governments are expected to base such decisions on an unbiased evaluation of what is in the best interests of society overall. Of course, those who lose their income because an industry is closed down must be given help to exit, retrain, etc. The Nordic Model approach to prostitution, which we advocate, specifically includes this provision.

Prostitution affects everyone in society and the decision about how to deal with it must not be left to those in it, those who profit from it, or those who use it. As Australian barrister and human rights and refugee advocate, Julian Burnside AO QC, recently stated, “Prostitution affects all women because it affects the way men regard women”.

For the above mentioned reasons, we call on the government to ensure that:

  1. The research shall use a gender mainstreaming approach and the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking set out in the Palermo Protocol.
  2. Online surveys of self selecting “sex workers” shall not be used.
  3. The research shall not be focused on gathering opinions on different legislative approaches.
  4. The research shall be focused on understanding the reality of the majority of those in prostitution and not those who have made a niche for themselves promoting it as an empowering career for young women.
  5. The research shall include qualitative face to face interviews conducted by trained researchers in a safe location with women in prostitution with the assistance of organisations like Nia and SWWOP.
  6. The research shall include qualitative research on punters’ attitudes.
  7. Research on the prevalence of prostitution shall include analysis of online punter forums, escort sites and similar, using the latest cybertechnology, supplemented with the expert judgement of key actors like the police and agencies that provide support and services to those in prostitution.
  8. All data shall be disaggregated by sex, age, ethnic grouping.

We disagree with the conviction stated in the government’s response that the focus should be on reducing the harm that “can be associated with prostitution” because we do not believe it can ever be made safe and it will always cause damage to individuals and society. However, we are shocked that page 3 of the response states that “our policy on prostitution must also seek to reduce the harm caused by trafficking for sexual exploitation.” This seems to suggest that instead of seeking to eliminate the heinous human rights violation of sex trafficking, you think that we should simply attempt to make it a little less awful. This is like responding to the Atlantic slave trade with regulations to increase the space allocated to slaves on the ships or to loosen their shackles.

We look forward to your detailed response.

Yours sincerely

  1. Nordic Model Now!
  2. A Call to Men UK
  3. Campaign Against Sex Robots
  4. Chelt Fems
  5. European Network of Migrant Women
  6. FiLia
  7. Labour and Greens for the Nordic Model
  8. London Feminist Network
  9. Not Buying It!
  10. Object
  11. Older Feminist Network
  12. Rooms of our Own
  13. Scary Little Girls
  14. Siren Press
  15. Anti-Porn London

And 35 additional individuals

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