Prostitution: What are the problems and how do we solve them?

This is a presentation given at a public event in London on 17 September 2019.  Although some of the material is new, there is some overlap with other presentations that we have published. You can download the PowerPoint file and full script from The Short Nordic Model Now! Slideshow.

It’s generally accepted that prostitution legislation and policy in the UK is confusing, contradictory and out of date – and that it’s time for reform. But before we can understand what the solution to a problem should look like, we need a full understanding of that problem. So I’m going to start by looking briefly at what prostitution means and how it affects the women and men involved, along with wider society.

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 disabled, black and Asian women worst affected.

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

  • 1.3 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 unprecedented 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’s effectively sanctioned by society.

Why hasn’t this tidal wave of male violence against women and girls been declared a national emergency?

Good question.

There’s evidence the 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 that what’s important is how they look, pleasing men and attracting male attention. It grooms boys 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.

In one study they were found to be 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.”

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

So it’s not surprising that buying sex makes men more prone to violence. It feeds his sense of entitlement. It reduces his empathy for women. It normalises one-sided sex – so he learns to ignore the signals of his sexual partners. This means he’s more likely to rape and abuse women and children. As a result, there’s more male violence in the general community and more sexual harassment in the street and everywhere.

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

So who are the punters?

They’re men of all ages, races, religions, and backgrounds. They’re rich and they’re poor. No one knows exactly how many men do it. Estimates vary from about 10% to about 80% of the adult male population.

To give a flavour of their attitudes we’ll look at a couple of quotes from punter forums where men enter reviews of the women they buy.

“She was just like a piece of meat… I thought I’ve paid so I better fuck her hard! I decided to put the legs on my shoulders and I was pumping hard!”

Notice how he refers to her legs as if they’re disembodied.

Here’s another one:

“When I asked about anal I was told, not available on first meeting! Well I ain’t starting a relationship with you, love. I just want to fuck you up the arse!”

Research is clear: when the sex trade is made legal – whether by decriminalising or legalising it – prostitution increases. This is not surprising because it sends out a loud message: There’s nothing wrong with buying ‘sex.’

So more men buy ‘sex’; more pimps want to cash in on all that easy money; more brothels get set up; they need more ‘girls’ to fill the brothels – but women who actually have other options seldom choose prostitution; so the sex traffickers move in to fill the gap.

One of the arguments for decriminalising the sex trade is to bring it under Health & Safety regulations. But in any other occupation where there’s a risk of exposure to body fluids, you have to wear masks, gloves, goggles, and protective clothing, like the health workers in the picture.

Condoms slip and break, and punters refuse to wear them. And they don’t protect from saliva, sweat and other body fluids. Or from injuries and inflammation caused by friction, and prolonged and heavy pounding. Or from the psychological damage or deliberate physical violence.

Accepting prostitution as normal work means accepting that normal Health & Safety standards do not apply to it. This would set a terrible precedent for all workers.

A German study based on medical examinations of 1,000 women in prostitution found that:

  • Most suffer from chronic lower abdominal pain caused by inflammation and mechanical trauma.
  • Most show signs of premature ageing, a symptom of persistent stress.
  • Most had injuries caused by the overuse of their delicate sexual organs and orifices.
  • Most had injuries deliberately inflicted by punters.

Financial or other pressures meant that most of the women had to continue in prostitution even when they were in severe physical pain.

So let’s look at that category of ‘injuries deliberately inflicted by punters.’

In a nine-country study, women reported experiencing a staggering amount of physical violence from punters. Nearly two thirds had been threatened with a weapon, nearly three quarters had been physically assaulted, and more than half had been raped (which, in this context, means unwanted sex for which they weren’t paid). Of those who’d been raped, nearly 60% had been raped six or more times.

Other studies have found similar results and the testimony of survivors tells the same story.

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.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops in response to traumatic or life-threatening experiences, such as war, sexual assault, or accidents.

Symptoms can be physically and emotionally crippling and are sometimes delayed for months or even years. And they’re usually worse when the trauma is inflicted deliberately or repeated over time.

In one study, 68% of women in prostitution met the criteria for PTSD. This is a similar prevalence to that seen in combat veterans.

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

Another theme in the women’s stories is telling themselves it was a choice and hiding the truth about what it was really like from everyone – as a coping mechanism. One woman explained it like this:

“You lie to yourself to ease the pain, keeping a smile on your face while wishing he’d just hurry up and finish. I was a sales woman… why would I ever be honest about hating my job? You just wouldn’t cos it’s bad for business and you’d have to face reality then wouldn’t you?”

Most women enter prostitution as a result of childhood abuse, poverty and misfortune, grooming, coercion, and/or betrayal, rather than as a free choice between a number of viable options.

In study after study, most women say they want to leave prostitution but have no other options for survival. In one study, 89% of the women interviewed said this.

Most of the time, women continue because of an absence of viable alternatives. Common factors that make it hard to leave include: having no training or qualifications, and nothing to put on your CV, being dependent on drugs or alcohol, being coerced by a ‘boyfriend’ or pimp, having debts, and a criminal record.

Much women’s work requires a criminal record check. A criminal record therefore rules out many potential alternatives. This is why we’re not just campaigning for the decriminalisation of those in prostitution, but also for the removal of their criminal records for soliciting, and for high quality services that provide a genuine route out. And an end to the structural inequality that leaves so many women in dire poverty.

Let’s be clear. The majority of women in prostitution don’t make a lot of money. As South African survivor activist, Mickey Meji says, “Prostitution is not a way out of poverty. Most women enter it poor and those that manage to get out, end up even poorer, but now scarred emotionally, physically and mentally.”

But for pimps, it’s a different story. Because so many men are willing to pay for prostitution, 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 luxury cars in a temperature controlled basement. He’d made a fortune from exploiting the prostitution of women in two brothels.

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

This is a multi-storey brothel in Berlin. This is what the pimps want. Industrial scale brothels that can cater to hundreds of men simultaneously. This is what we’d be likely to see in every English city if the sex trade were to be fully decriminalised here.

And instead of being seen as seedy criminals, the pimps who run these palaces of male entitlement and female suffering would immediately become respectable business men.

Sex trade lobbyists have redefined prostitution as ‘sex work’ and prostitutes as ‘sex workers,’ and pushed to get these terms into mainstream use. Many people innocently think these terms are more respectful. But they imply that prostitution is innocuous and is work like any other type of work, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Separating ‘voluntary’ from ‘forced’ prostitution is a similar tactic, which implies that only ‘forced’ prostitution is a problem – when all prostitution is damaging and is seldom – if ever – a real, free, choice for women out of multiple viable options.

Another example is the redefinition of the problem as ‘stigma.’ This suggests that there’s nothing wrong with prostitution itself, and the problem is simply people’s attitudes to it.

We hear from women who’ve been involved in the sex trade that this idea that prostitution is just a job like any other made them think there was something wrong with her if she didn’t like it. We see it as a subtle form of victim blaming and it makes it even harder for women to get out.

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

This image has been circulating on social media to support the claim that ‘sex work’ is work.

But perhaps it does more to refute that claim because doesn’t it show what really happens when prostitution is considered as a normal job? Male entitlement and female subordination become official…

… And so does female as second class, lesser, other – or slut, skank, cunt, meat hole, slapper…

And so the tidal wave of violence against women and girls is, after all, all they deserve. And of course it’s not a national emergency.

Women are turning to prostitution out of financial desperation in ever greater numbers – because of economic policies that have impacted women far more than men.

When the government condones women having to turn to prostitution to survive, prostitution becomes the welfare system, and motivation is lost for striving for real, positive solutions to women’s poverty and fixing the broken benefits system.

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 prostitution’s harms to both the individual and society is:

  1. To repeal all the laws that target prostituted individuals, and to clear their criminal records for the same, while introducing ring-fenced funding for high quality non-judgemental services, including genuine routes out and viable alternatives.
  2. Effective laws against pimping, sex trafficking and brothel keeping, with full funding and prioritisation of their enforcement and prosecution.
  3. To make purchasing sex a criminal offence, with the key aims of changing attitudes and reducing the demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking.

This approach is called the Nordic Model. It was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and since then several other countries have adopted it.

Here is a check list that compares the provisions of the Nordic Model with those of the full decriminalisation of the sex trade like they have in New Zealand – which a well funded lobby is pushing for here in the UK.

The first thing to note is that both models decriminalise the women and others involved in prostitution. But only the Nordic Model makes ring-fenced provisions for services for those trapped in prostitution, including genuine routes out. Regardless what people say, such services do not materialise under full decriminalisation. Why would they when prostitution is defined as just another job that doesn’t need any special measures?

Unlike the Nordic Model, full decriminalisation also decriminalises pimps, punters and brothels. Large brothels come under planning regulations but small brothels are unregulated. So if one opens up next door, there’s not much you can do to get it closed down, even if the punters accidentally knock on your door at all hours of the day and night.

Because the lobby for full decriminalisation is so strong in this country, we’ll take a brief look at what it means in practice. First off, it legitimises and normalises prostitution, which invariably leads to an increase in the number of punters, and of women and girls drawn into it, and of profits for pimps. This leads to more sex trafficking.

Power tends to move further from the women to the pimps and punters, so prices drop, and unprotected and dangerous behaviours increase.

The status of all women is diminished, and there’s typically an increase in rape and male violence against women and children in the general population.

But perhaps most troubling of all, when prostitution is legal as it would be under full decriminalisation – men’s so-called ‘right’ to buy sexual access to women and girls is enshrined in law.

And the corollary that women and girls are sexual commodities is also enshrined in the law. Which means that women are treated as second class – their word counts for less than a man’s, for example in a rape trial, they get paid less, and so on.

Here is a photo that shows us what that looks like in practice. A brothel in Germany next door to a McDonalds. Notice the larger than life-sized photos of semi-naked women – with surgically modified breasts – in pornified poses. No one can avoid seeing them.

Consider what this means for girls growing up, seeing such images. And what about boys? How would it affect them?

Is equality between the sexes possible in such an environment? Is the idea of equality even possible?

Now to the results of the Nordic Model. Independent evaluations in Sweden have found that there’s been a significant decrease in the amount of prostitution taking place – during a period it was rapidly increasing in most other European countries.

There’s no evidence it’s gone ‘underground’ as the sex trade lobby claims. After all, prostitution relies on punters being able to find the women.

Sweden is now seen as a hostile destination by international sex traffickers. And women are not under official pressure to turn to prostitution under the duress of poverty.

And in spite of initial resistance, the law now has widespread public support.

As an insight into how the various approaches work out in practice, here are figures for recorded murders of prostituted women in four EU countries, three of which (Germany, Spain and the Netherlands) have some form of legalised or decriminalised prostitution, and one, Sweden, has the Nordic Model.

91 murders in Germany compared with only one in Sweden.

It is notable that approximately 50% of those 91 known murders in Germany took place in apartments where women worked together in small groups.

Working with other women didn’t keep those women safe.

While the Nordic Model doesn’t make prostitution safe – because nothing can – it does reduce the amount of prostitution that takes place, and therefore the number of new women being drawn into it; and it provides genuine routes out for those already involved. The murder statistics provide strong evidence that this approach works.

Each country that has introduced Nordic Model style legislation has done it a little differently and with different degrees of success. It has been most successful in Sweden, where it was introduced as part of a raft of measures to address male violence against women and where there has been the greatest political will to implement all that’s necessary to make it work in practice.

Because, as with any law, it’s not enough to simply pass the legislation. It needs to be enforced. For example, people always used to park their cars in bus lanes in London. But when Ken Livingstone became mayor, he decided to get London moving again and to rigorously enforce the law. For a while, everyone complained about the £80 penalty notice they’d just received for driving in a bus lane. But most people only did this once and now the bus lanes in London are generally clear.

A law alone does not bring about change. It needs to be enforced and enforced consistently. And that takes political will. In Ireland, for example, in the first two years after buying sex became a crime, few, if any, punters were arrested.

The Nordic Model will only be successful if there is political will to enforce it and implement all the things that are required for its success. It needs to be enforced and implemented consistently across the country and not left to the localism agenda. It needs to be prioritised and the services for the women must be fully funded on a permanent basis. The police, the CPS and frontline staff of all descriptions need to be trained. We need public information campaigns and education in schools.

And alongside all of that, we need real measures to address women’s poverty and inequality and a guaranteed minimum income for all.

There’s plenty of evidence that all these things would pay for themselves in the long run and lead to healthier and happier communities.

So how do we create the political will that will bring about a Nordic Model style law and all the things that are needed to make it successful?

To answer, not this exact question, but a similar one, researchers analysed policies in 70 countries to try and find out why some countries adopted effective measures to address violence against women, while others didn’t.

What they found was that the single most important and consistent factor driving good policies for women was feminist activism. They found that feminist activism plays a more important role than any other factor.

So women, we need to get angry! We need to raise awareness of why prostitution is not work, why it’s not the answer to women’s poverty, how it is not a ‘private matter’ – not least because it makes men more violent and is corroding our social fabric.

We need to make it clear that we refuse to live in a world where men have their so-called right to buy sexual access to women and girls enshrined in law.

We must make it clear that women are human beings and we will not rest until our full human rights are enshrined in law and implemented in policy.

Those of us who’ve had luckier lives must remember that our safety, our status, our wellbeing, is inextricably tied to that of the woman being abused on the streets and in brothels in every town and city in this country. If it isn’t exactly the same men who are abusing her as who are paying us less at work and harassing our daughters in the street, they certainly look very similar.

If we abandon her, we cannot complain if no one takes our human rights seriously; if our unequal pay and rape and harassment and domestic abuse get swept under the carpet. Because prostitution is the cornerstone of the patriarchal system that all these things are symptoms of.

Prostitution is both a cause and a consequence of inequality between the sexes. That is why we need a solution that puts equality between the sexes and the well-being of the most vulnerable at its heart. The Nordic Model is the only such approach to prostitution that has so far been devised.

Download the presentation

The Short Nordic Model Now! Slideshow

One thought on “Prostitution: What are the problems and how do we solve them?

  1. Thank you for yet another brilliant overview of the harms of the sex trade. It is indefensible by any basic human rights standards and a sickening abuse of female sexuality.

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