It’s fantasy that a fully decriminalised sex trade protects women

By Ellen Grogan

Legally sanctioned brothels only benefit the pimps, says nurse and campaigner Ellen Grogan. The RCN’s May congress in Liverpool will vote on a motion calling on the college to lobby politicians to decriminalise prostitution. Here, campaigner on the issue Ellen Grogan argues against a fully decriminalised sex trade.

The RCN (Royal College of Nursing) is at risk of being hoodwinked into supporting the full decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex trade, on the false premise that it makes the industry safer for the women and girls (and sometimes men) involved.

The reality is that nothing can make prostitution safe, and full decriminalisation gives free rein to sex-buying, pimping and brothel-keeping.

Legal pimping doesn’t keep women safe

Known murders of prostituted women in four European countries, as at 10 January 2019

Most people agree that the actions of the women should be decriminalised because their entry into prostitution is seldom a free choice between viable options. But to make the leap from there to believing that decriminalising pimps and brothel-keepers will make sex workers safer is a fantasy, not borne out in practice.

The murder rates of prostituted women and girls are high where the sex trade is legalised or decriminalised; in practice, the two approaches have similar results.

In contrast, since its introduction of the Nordic Model, which decriminalised street-based sex workers and criminalised buyers and aims to reduce prostitution, Sweden has seen only one such murder in 20 years. And that was committed by the woman’s ex-partner, not a sex buyer.

The New Zealand experience

To understand what full decriminalisation means in practice, we need to look at New Zealand. Before full decriminalisation there in 2003, soliciting was illegal, along with pimping and brothel-keeping, and police violence and corruption were common. Despite these constraints, the women were able to negotiate their own deals with punters and maintain clear boundaries.

After the law changed, brothels introduced ‘all-inclusives’ and prices fell. Men started expecting more, including anal sex, kissing and no condoms. Where previously the men paid for the act, direct to the woman, now they pay the brothel by the hour or half-hour, and expect whatever they want as many times as possible in that time. Women seldom report pimp and punter violence to the police.

Local authorities have some control over where the larger brothels are sited but not the smaller ones, so there’s not much you can do if one opens up next door. There has been an expansion in the number of small brothels, many run by pimps. These are excluded from the official brothel data, giving a distorted view of the reality. Many New Zealanders who previously advocated full decriminalisation now see it as a disaster.

Look at Germany and learn

New Zealand has a tiny population and is isolated in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. If we had such a system here, we could expect to see something more like what has happened in Germany. There, the Länder or ‘states’ have considerable freedom in how they implement the federal law. Berlin chose a decriminalised approach similar to New Zealand’s and it’s there that outcomes have been worst.

Artemis, one of the largest brothels in Germany

It is home to Artemis, one of the largest brothels in Germany, which has four floors and can accommodate up to 600 punters simultaneously. This is what we could expect to see in our cities under full decriminalisation – pimps and brothel-owners would rake in the money while being seen as legitimate business people.

Because it would now be officially sanctioned, there would be a huge increase in men buying sex, with an upsurge in sex trafficking to cater for the extra demand. More women would be drawn into the system and more would get hurt.

The risks are not limited to the obvious things such as pregnancy, infectious diseases and parasites. A German study of 1,000 women in prostitution found that most have chronic lower abdominal pain caused by inflammation and mechanical trauma. Most show signs of premature ageing (a symptom of persistent stress), have injuries caused by the overuse of their orifices and injuries deliberately inflicted by clients.

Effects on sex workers’ mental health

Artwork by Suzzan Blac, survivor of prostitution

Prostitution also has a profoundly negative effect on women’s mental health. Most can only endure multiple strangers groping and sexually penetrating them by ‘splitting off’ from their conscious selves or taking alcohol or drugs. This leads to addictions and long-term psychological difficulties.

Rather than full decriminalisation, the Nordic Model is the equality and human rights-based approach. It decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides services to help them exit if they wish, and makes prostitution-buying a criminal offence, while imposing tough penalties on pimps and brothel-keepers.

This is what the RCN should be advocating.

Further information

Ellen Grogan is a staff nurse in elderly medicine at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London and co-founder of Nordic Model Now! which campaigns for the Nordic Model to be implemented throughout the UK

This article first appeared in the Nursing Standard.

Leave a Reply