The problem with “safety in numbers”

The law in England and Wales prohibits brothel keeping; a brothel being defined as premises that two or more persons use for the purposes of prostitution. Many people call for this law to be changed so that small groups of prostituted women can operate together; the argument being that this would provide “safety in numbers.” They often cite the fact that female estate agents and police officers work in pairs, and call for the New Zealand approach that allows up to four women to operate from the same premises.

“These laws push sex workers into working alone, making us vulnerable to violence.” [Activist from SWARM, quoted in the Swindon Advertiser, 6 July 2017]

“When Suzy Lamplugh vanished in 1986, female estate agents started doing house-viewings in pairs: if sex workers try this same safety strategy, we risk arrest.” [“Molly Smith” in Prospect Magazine, November 2016]

At first sight, these arguments might appear persuasive. However, when you look more deeply, it becomes clear that things are not as straightforward as they might at first seem.

The problem with leases

Residential leases invariably contain a clause prohibiting the use of the premises for majority business purposes. It is difficult to circumvent this rule when the business involves a significant footfall to and from the property, as would happen if two or more prostituted women were to operate from it.

However, business premises are usually more expensive than residential ones and come with higher running costs, particularly business rates. Research shows that women in the sex industry tend to be itinerant, move in and out of the industry, and have higher levels of addiction and mental health problems than the general population.

This means that in reality renting and maintaining a business premises is unlikely to be within the reach of the majority of independent prostituted women. So in practice, it would generally only be possible for a group of them to operate from a business premises if someone put up the money for the purchase or lease.

Typically this would be done by someone for profit, meaning they would be profiting from the prostitution of the women operating from the premises – which is abhorrent when we consider the damage it causes. Moreover, it would contravene Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a UN treaty that the UK has ratified and is bound by.

Experience in Germany and New Zealand shows that it is mainly aspirational pimps with financial clout and experience in related industries, such as casinos and strip clubs, who muscle in and take financial advantage of any liberalisation of the prostitution law.

In practice in these countries, independent prostituted women who want to avoid the larger brothels, where they are subjected to higher levels of control, competition and numbers of punters, usually continue to operate alone or in small informal groups from residential properties, with high levels of anxiety that they’ll be caught out by their landlord.

Two women, two punters, and one gets violent. What then?

But suppose two prostituted women were able to operate out of the same premises. Would this really guarantee their safety? Let’s look at the reality. On average, women are five inches shorter than men and have a lower ratio of muscle to body weight. In prostitution women are typically naked or partially undressed, and wear high-heeled footwear that restricts free movement.

Suppose both women have a punter, one of whom becomes aggressive. Even if the other woman hears, what is she supposed to do?  Run into the other woman’s room and insist he desist? Then what? She grabs her phone and calls the police – but they take five, ten or more minutes to arrive. (When prostitution is liberalised, the policing of it is generally deprioritised, meaning the police are likely to take even longer to respond to a call for help.)

What are the women to do in the meantime?

Chances are the other punter will want to make a hasty escape so he isn’t interviewed by the police, and his wife and workplace don’t get to hear about it.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. When the situation is legal, punters are even more uninhibited in their reviews of prostituted women on review websites, such as UK Punting. So women tend not to make a fuss, in case they suffer reprisals or online campaigns against them by individual or groups of punters.

This is really not comparable to estate agents or police officers working in pairs.

As we have explained elsewhere, violence is inherent to prostitution and nothing can bring it to a level of safety comparable with other jobs.

The statistics in Germany bear this out: of the 124 murders and attempted murders from January 2000 to July 2017 that were known and recorded on the Sex Industry Kills website at the time of writing, 50% took place in legal “prostitution apartments,” where women operate in small groups. Working with other women in an apartment did not keep these women safe.

The pimps who cannot keep away

In her testimony about her years in prostitution, Cathy explained that when a pimp realised she was operating independently, he would threaten and pressure her to let him become her pimp. He’d want 50% of her earnings – in return for protecting her from other pimps. A classic protection racket.

There is no reason to think that two or more women operating together from the same premises would be immune from pimps circling, trying to exploit their prostitution.

In New Zealand, up to four women can operate together in what are called Small Owner Operated Brothels (SOOBs), but in practice many are run by pimps and SOOBs have been recognised as providing a cover for organised crime. Because they are now legal in New Zealand, the police have little oversight. It is likely that similar problems would occur in the UK if this approach were to be implemented here.

What about the neighbours?

SOOBs were decriminalised (along with the rest of the sex trade) in New Zealand in 2003. Local authorities have no control over where they are sited – so residents have no say about them opening up in their local area. Media reports suggest a boom in SOOBs has caused many problems for local residents. For example:

  • Punters mistakenly knocking on the wrong doors at all hours of the day or night.
  • Screams and other disturbing noises causing distress to residents in adjacent properties.
  • SOOBs opening up next to schools and community centres.
  • An increase in girls and young women, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, being groomed into prostitution.
  • An increase in men harassing girls and young women in the street.
  • An increase in rape and domestic violence in the general population.

Freedom

“Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” – R. H. Tawney

A central tenet of social democracy is that freedom is not possible without equality. In other words, social inequality is a barrier to freedom, and true freedom resides in the community rather than the individual. So, for example, the community restricts driving speed, depending on the type of road and locality, in order that others, particularly the very old and very young, have the freedom to move around in safety.

Just as the freedom of the majority to move around in safety supersedes the individual “freedom” to drive fast and dangerously, so the freedom of all women and girls to not be subjected to sexual violence and commercial sexual exploitation supersedes the “freedom” of men to engage in prostitution-buying and sexual violence. This is recognised in international human rights law.

Legalising small groups of prostituted women operating from the same premises would serve to legitimise prostitution and put the “right” of men to buy sexual access and the “right” of prostituted women to operate in groups above the rights of all women and girls to not be commercially sexually exploited, and to be free from sexual violence, and of communities to dignity and safety for their most vulnerable members.

There is no absolute human right to do exactly as you please, to operate any kind of business anywhere you want. The Nordic Model does not endorse prostitution in group settings because, as we have seen, they inherently favour pimps and profiteers, and do not eliminate the harms and violence intrinsic to prostitution.

What the Nordic Model does do is decriminalise prostituted persons and provide them with services to help them rebuild their lives outside of prostitution, while cracking down on pimps and punters.

We believe that the Nordic Model, combined with measures to address the inequality, poverty and lack of opportunities that drive many into prostitution, is a humane and equalities-based solution to the competing demands of different groups.

What’s actually happened in Sweden?

For information about what has actually happened in Sweden, see Myth: Police pursue prostituted women for sharing flats in Sweden.

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