Invisible men in London and Telford

Last week the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, unveiled his new violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy. While we welcome some of its provisions, we are dismayed by others – in particular the removal of the commitment in the previous mayor’s VAWG strategy to address the demand side of prostitution and to focus law enforcement on those who pay for sex rather than the women involved.

The new strategy doesn’t even mention the men who pay for sex – even though it’s their money that is the key driver of the heinous crimes of sex trafficking, child sexual exploitation (CSE) and the pimping of women in prostitution. The previous commitment to clamping down on those who control women in prostitution has also gone.

The new strategy aims to remove street prostitution but doesn’t mention tackling the brothels that operate (illegally but mostly condoned) in every London borough. It recognises the harms of prostitution to those in it and the communities in which it operates, and some of the factors that lead to women ending up in it. However, it uses the euphemistic “sex work” terminology, which gives the erroneous impression that prostitution is regular work like waitressing. So it’s not surprising the new strategy doesn’t challenge the legitimacy of the system of prostitution itself, or recognise that it’s incompatible with individual women’s human rights and the rights of all women to equality with men.

If men did not buy sex, there would be no prostitution, CSE or sex trafficking. So how come there’s no mention of these men?

Is it because the previous strategy was met with fury from many men who believe it’s their right to buy sex? We heard that some men even burned an effigy of one of the women in the mayor’s office who’d worked on the strategy.

The lobby for men’s so-called right to buy women and children in prostitution has some similarities with the gun lobby in the United States. From the UK, it’s easy to see the irrationality of the US response to their frequent mass shootings and their inability to tackle the easy access to guns or to confront the perpetrators’ maleness and whiteness.

We are less able to see the irrationality of the response to male violence closer to home, or to break the taboo on naming and articulating its reality.

A recent article showed how although there is irrefutable evidence that white men, singly and in groups, groom and exploit the prostitution of girls and young women, the mainstream media has succeeded in implanting the racial stereotype in the national psyche that this is something that only Asian men do. They exclusively describe Asian and Muslim offenders as ‘grooming gangs,’ while calling white offenders ‘paedophiles.’ This suggests that Asian offenders are a unique type of threat and their crimes are a product of their culture, whereas the white men are mentally ill and not representative of society at large. This is not only appalling racism but it also serves to confuse people about the awful truth.

While it is important to look at specific communities to learn how the abusive dynamic manifests, unduly highlighting one community allows men from other groups to fly under the radar. Consequently, as a society we fail to even attempt to understand what factors in the mainstream culture make these crimes so widespread, and why the majority remain undetected and the victims unsupported or even blamed.[*]

In all of the media reports we have seen of the harrowing CSE revelations in Telford, only one mentioned the huge sums of money that the traffickers make:

“One of the abusers earned thousands a night for years trafficking girls around the country for sex with hundreds of men” [Emphasis added]

The hundreds of men, who paid to sexually abuse the girls and whose money motivated the traffickers, are allowed to disappear from public view and scrutiny.

The prostitution of children has been renamed in the UK to “child sexual exploitation” (CSE). This makes it clear that the child is not to blame, but unfortunately it obscures the men who pay to abuse the children, and the vast profits that motivate the pimps.

The majority of CSE fulfils the UN definition of sex trafficking and it is unfortunate that CSE is not usually named as such, like it is in the US. This would also make it clear the child is not to blame, while making it easier for people to understand the different actors involved, including the buyers. It would also help clarify that the prostitution of children and adults is inextricably linked and that anything that legitimises and normalises one, inevitably leads to an increase in the other.

How can we understand prostitution, CSE and sex trafficking if we refuse to look at the men who drive it and the culture that creates this behaviour and gives it impunity?

According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year to March 2017. That represents about one in every 20 adult women.[†] In one year. This is a stunningly huge proportion. Statistics for the prevalence of rape and sexual harassment in schools and elsewhere are equally shocking.

This paints a picture of a society, a culture, in crisis and decay – in which male violence is practically ubiquitous but unspeakable. Women and girls are not believed and are failed again and again, while the male perpetrators have virtual impunity, particularly when they are white. And public bodies, like the London Mayor’s office hesitate to hold men to account even for buying children to sexually abuse.

We do not believe that this will change while prostitution is considered acceptable and violent porn is freely available to all, including children. Here are some excerpts from Not Buying It’s submission to the Women and Equalities committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment:

“At least 90% of mainstream porn now shows violence against women – women being sexually assaulted, often by gangs of men using them in violent sex, hitting and choking them, while they cry and scream in pain. […]

Porn [has] all the elements of effective teaching – images, privacy, anonymity, role models but most potent of all, sexual arousal. Because porn viewing is rewarded by orgasm this results in it being almost indelibly embedded in the viewers’ brains. […]

Porn gives viewers permission to engage in the behaviour they see.”

This is an emergency. We must face the reality of what is happening. We must insist the government keeps its promise to implement robust age restrictions on all online porn as a matter of urgency. We must insist that the buying of sex is outlawed as a first step in creating healthier social norms.

For sure, some men will complain and may even burn our effigies. But we need to face them down. It is time for perpetrators to be held to account for the damage they cause. It is time for a new culture where men give up their archaic right to sexually use and abuse women and children.

Do we really want to see more reports of schoolgirls being made pregnant multiple times by men who pay to rape them for the profit of another man?

[*] I am grateful to Julie Howorth, a counsellor with 7 year’s experience working for Rape Crisis Centres, for this insight.

[†] The population of England and Wales is 58,381,300, of whom approximately 10,275,108 are under 15 years of age. The female population is approximately 51%, making approximately 24,534,158 women of 15 and older. 1.2 million is 5% (rounded) of this total.

Anna Fisher

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