Minimizing the harms of prostitution

This is the text of a short talk our chair, Anna Fisher, gave at a Public Policy Exchange event, called “The Future of Sex Work in the UK: Working in Partnership to Support Sex Workers and Minimise Harm,” on Wednesday 19 September 2018.


We’re here to look at ways to minimise the harms of prostitution and support those in it. Prostitution doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s part of a structural problem, like plastic in the oceans.

We won’t succeed in reducing the harms of plastic unless we address the whole system and change our behaviour and attitudes.

I’m not comparing women in the sex trade to plastic, by the way.

I’m comparing one systemic problem that reaches right into the heart of all of our lives with another – worsening inequality – particularly between the sexes.

Inequality is not inevitable – it’s the result of deliberate policies that target the least well off.

The Women’s Budget Group estimates that 86% of the savings from the government’s austerity measures since 2010 have been borne by women, with single mums, and black and Asian women worst affected.

Sex inequality is not just economic though. We’re witnessing epidemic levels of male violence.

  • 1.2 million female victims of domestic violence in one year.
  • 2 women killed every week by a male partner or ex.
  • Boys subjecting girls in schools to unheard of levels of sexual violence and harassment.

This enforces female subordination and upholds men’s individual and collective dominance. It’s a form of mass bullying that is effectively sanctioned by society.

There’s evidence this rise in male violence is connected with the unprecedented availability of porn, and the misogynistic violence with which it’s infused. Most children are exposed to this from the age of about 11.

Porn conditions viewers to see violence against women and girls as sexually arousing, to consider it normal, and that women and girls deserve it or even “ask for it.”

This powerful painting is by Suzzan Blac, a survivor of prostitution and pornography. In her art she explores the trauma of women caught up in the sex trade and makes a potent cultural commentary.

Porn now permeates mainstream culture, grooming girls to think what’s important is how they look, pleasing men and attracting male attention. It grooms boys, in the words of Cordelia Anderson, to become “users, takers, and pornography makers.”

Studies of men who buy sex find they enjoy the lack of emotional involvement, and see the women they use as objects.

They are nearly eight times more likely than other men to say they’d rape if they could get away with it. Asked why he bought sex, one man said he liked “to beat women up.”

It follows that anything that increases prostitution will lead to more male violence against women and girls. And this in turn will deepen the inequality between the sexes.

When you decriminalise the sex trade, prostitution always increases.

At the end of 2014, part of Holbeck in Leeds was designated a “managed area” or zone in which prostitution was effectively decriminalised during certain hours. It should not surprise us that the number of rapes reported to the police in the area increased almost three fold in the first year and remain much higher than before its introduction.

These are rapes in the entire community, so the explanation that women involved in prostitution are now more likely to report incidents, does not fully explain the rise. Especially when we consider that charging remains at the pre-zone levels, and local men are being found not guilty of rape after claiming they thought the victim was a prostitute.

When we consider the actual reality of prostitution, it’s not hard to see why it makes men more prone to violence and be less empathetic.

Andrea Dworkin, who was herself in prostitution, describes it like this:

“Prostitution is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another.”

The man must not think about her delicate tissues, how painful it is, the dissociation she must employ to endure it, and what this does to her over time. He thinks only about his right, his entitlement, getting his money’s worth. And if you suggest otherwise, he gets angry. And she has to pretend she’s happy with it.

This is not work. Not labour. It’s abuse.

We have a feature on our website where women can enter their experiences of the sex trade anonymously. The stories are moving and powerful. The details vary but the themes are the same – including the long-term consequences, which no one had warned them about. One woman summed it up like this:

“You simply cannot forget years and years of swallowing down your consent, of swallowing down what is, at best, disgust, irritation and boredom during sex and, at worst, anger, humiliation and terror.

After you’ve lived through that, it’s fundamentally impossible to have anything near a happy, healthy and ‘normal’ life.”

She goes on to explain how, as a result, her life is a constant everyday battle.

Nothing can make prostitution safe for the women and girls caught up in it.

This is backed up by an evaluation of the Holbeck “managed area” which found that the women didn’t feel it had improved their safety.

A study by Changing Lives of women involved in prostitution found that none of them enjoyed it and they described it as horrible, disgusting, horrific, degrading, and similar.

Because so many men are willing to pay for this, there’s easy money to be made. For example, Phillip Stubbs was found guilty of two counts of brothel keeping at Bristol Crown Court. When the police raided his home they discovered more than 100 cars – including Mercedes, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis – in a temperature controlled basement. He’d made a fortune from exploiting the prostitution of women in two brothels.

He got a suspended sentence and community service, suggesting society doesn’t take it very seriously. Likewise the fact that most brothels operate in plain sight of the police and there are relatively few prosecutions.

When you think of how much money can be made, it’s little wonder sex industry lobbyists push so hard for full decriminalisation.

So to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report. We welcome the recommendation to decriminalise soliciting and delete criminal records for it.

But we have concerns about other aspects of the report. It downplays the evidence of the harms of prostitution, such as I’ve touched on here today. It wrote off such concerns as “moral values” while claiming a “neutral” position that was very clearly lacking.

It didn’t consider the UK’s binding obligations under international human rights law.

When I first read the report, I was so struck by its appalling bias, I became convinced it had been written by a punter. So I wasn’t surprised when a short while later, Keith Vaz, the chair of the inquiry, was exposed buying sexual use of two young migrant men.

One of the aims of the inquiry was to consider whether buying sex should be criminalised. So Vaz had a clear conflict of interests which broke parliamentary rules.

That he hasn’t been held to account and the report hasn’t been rejected is proof that we live in a male dominated society, in which it’s a struggle to get laws and policy in place that do not reinforce that male domination.

This won’t change unless we address women’s poverty, men’s demand for prostitution, and third parties who exploit and profit from it.

When the state sanctions prostitution as work, it institutionalises male domination and female suffering.

Women are turning to prostitution out of financial desperation. But when the state sanctions that, prostitution is institutionalised as welfare and motivation to address women’s poverty and fix the broken benefits system is lost.

When the state sanctions prostitution, it implicitly frames it as harmless and therefore funding for exit services inevitably dries up.

Women should not be penalised for their own prostitution, but we have binding obligations to address men’s demand and crack down on profiteers under human rights treaties, including CEDAW and the Palermo Trafficking Protocol.

Prostitution is part of the structural inequality between the sexes. That inequality won’t improve while men have impunity to build up their egos and sense of entitlement by buying sexual access and flattery from women and girls.

Prostitution is a symptom of a systemic problem and it requires a systemic solution.

The best way to minimise the harms of prostitution is to:

  • Decriminalise selling sex, and wipe criminal records for such.
  • Provide high-quality support for those involved, including genuine routes out.
  • Address women’s poverty and inequality.
  • Make buying sex a criminal offence – to change social attitudes and reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.
  • Crack down on profiteers of all descriptions.

This approach is called the Nordic Model.

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