Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill: The Debate

Introduction

Dame Diana Johnson MP recently introduced into the British Parliament a Sexual Exploitation Bill. If passed, this would introduce a Nordic Model approach to prostitution law and policy in England and Wales. It is described as follows:

“A Bill to criminalise paying for sex; to decriminalise selling sex; to create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation; to make associated provision about sexual exploitation online; to make provision for support services for victims of sexual exploitation; and for connected purposes.”

The Bill was introduced as a Private Members’ Bill under the Ten Minute Rule. The Parliament website explains that “Ten Minute Rule bills are often an opportunity for Members to voice an opinion on a subject or aspect of existing legislation, rather than a serious attempt to get a bill passed.”

Whatever happens, the Bill provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the Nordic Model approach and to show that it has considerable public support. We are therefore encouraging all our UK supporters to write to their MPs to ask them to support the Bill.

In the debate on its first reading on 9 December 2020, Dame Diana Johnson spoke powerfully for the Bill and Ms Lyn Brown, the Labour MP for West Ham, argued against it.

This article delves into some of the assertions that Lyn Brown made (and others often claim) and shows that many are oversimplifications and/or are not backed up by robust evidence.

Women working in an asbestos factory in 1918
Women working in an asbestos factory in 1918

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is seldom more true than when dealing with dangerous industries that make vast profits.

Consider the asbestos industry. Fears had been raised about the impact of asbestos fibres on human health by 1906, and by 1950 it was beyond doubt that asbestos causes fatal lung diseases, and a slow and painful early death. Yet it wasn’t until 1999 that a full ban came into force in the UK.

We need to ask why, in a modern democratic state that prides itself on its scientific rigour, it took so many decades for the use of this dangerous and unnecessary material to be banned.

The key to understanding this is that it was extremely lucrative. Fortunes were made from asbestos while most of the people whose lives were blighted by it were poor working class men and women, whose poverty and voicelessness were increased by the chronic ill health and painful early demise asbestos caused.

In other words, it was a very uneven playing field. The bosses were able to make their voices heard, to grease the hands of the journalists, academics and politicians, and their propaganda made an easy story: asbestos was a miracle substance that made life safer for everyone.

Who would want to interrupt this happy, uplifting narrative to hear about working class women and men suffering chronic ill health and a slow and distressing early death, and the resulting destitution and suffering of their families?

When the damage that asbestos causes could no longer be denied, the bosses came up with ever more creative tactics. They said that indeed there are some dangerous forms of asbestos but that wasn’t what was used in the industry. They set up lobbying organisations with names that implied neutrality, such as the Asbestos Research Council. They vilified and harassed scientists who published inconvenient results, and they funded scientists to claim there were no risks, or only very small and occasional ones that could easily be mitigated.

This made it very difficult for people to see and understand the truth of what was going on and as a result the widespread use of asbestos continued.

It’s important to understand these dynamics and tactics because we see them repeated again and again. Similar tactics were used by the tobacco lobby and are still used in various other lucrative fields today, including by those who lobby for the sex industry.

Just like the asbestos and tobacco industries, there are huge profits to be made in the sex industry – often with very little risk. For example, Dame Diana Johnson mentioned in her speech a British man who had made £1.6 million in one year from his brothels.

Of course, he and all the other pimps and brothel owners want to be seen as legitimate business men and not as seedy criminals who leech off the suffering of the most vulnerable women and girls. Of course, they don’t want to languish in prison on long sentences. Of course, they are going to be ruthless in fighting for their own interests. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they use many of the tactics so beloved by the old asbestos barons.

And of course men who get off on prostitution, porn and lap dancing and similar consider it their god-given “right” and fight any attempt to curtail their “freedom.” It’s not surprising therefore that many men are so eager to repeat the sex trade lobbyists’ distortions and sweet talk. And sadly many women still defer to the men who surround them and intuit when something disturbs their equilibrium. And so they too repeat the sex trade lobbyists’ propaganda because they have yet to untangle what’s really in their own interest from the web of misinformation and lies.

The sex trade lobby’s dominance of academia

The sex trade lobby has been so successful at dominating the mainstream narrative that in many institutions it is difficult for academics to get or retain jobs, funding, or even recognition, if they diverge from the prevailing view that ‘sex work’ is empowering for women and a normal kind of work, in which the only problems are how it’s policed and people’s negative attitudes towards it (‘stigma’) rather than any intrinsic problems it may have.

We have analysed a number of studies of prostitution in the UK and have found a breath-taking lack of intellectual honesty and rigour, alongside headline claims that are not backed up by the evidence – for example, recent studies by Huddersfield University into the Holbeck red-light zone, by Queen’s University Belfast into the implementation of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland, and by Amnesty International into the Nordic Model in Norway.

We therefore need to retain a degree of scepticism when we hear those who advocate for the sex trade claiming that academic studies have proved that full decriminalisation is the best approach and that the Nordic Model (which would have the pimps languishing in jail and the sex buyers exposed) is the worst.

France

In her speech, Lyn Brown MP quoted statistics from a study by the French NGO, Medecins du Monde, to suggest that since the Nordic Model was introduced in France in 2016, “sex workers” have been exposed to more violence, have worse relationships with the police, and are less likely to use condoms; the implication being that the Nordic Model is the cause of all these things.

Another French NGO, Amicale du Nid, wrote a response to the Medecins du Monde study, which shows that, like the Holbeck, Northern Ireland and Norway studies mentioned above, it makes many alarmist claims that are contradicted by the data.

Furthermore, the interviews and surveys were all completed before the end of February 2018, less than two years after the Nordic Model law was passed – which for the introduction of an approach that is so different from what went before, is hardly any time at all.

France is a large country with a population of 66 million and 18 administrative regions, each divided into numerous departments. The implementation of much of the approach is devolved to the local and regional administrations and there has been considerable variation in how thoroughly they have undertaken this, if at all.

This was confirmed by the 2019 official assessment, which found that implementation was less successful where there was a lack of support for the approach from key high-level officials, including prosecutors and préfets.

It seems that in some French regions there has been little or no commitment to prosecuting sex buyers and investing in services for women involved in prostitution – meaning that in practice the Nordic Model is not in operation in those parts of France.

Yes, the Medecins du Monde study found that “sex workers” are exposed to violence, but there was no evidence to suggest that this had significantly increased or was a result of the Nordic Model. In fact, the official assessment did not find evidence of any increase in such violence.

Violence is intrinsic to prostitution regardless of the policy and legislation that is in force – and this is why we believe that the only ethical approach is to work to reduce the amount of prostitution that happens and the numbers of new women and girls being drawn into it, while providing routes out and genuine alternatives for those already caught up in it. This is the what the Nordic Model approach aims to achieve.

For a full critique of the claims in the Medecins du Monde study, please see the Amicale du Nid response.

The Nordic Model drives prostitution “underground” and other claims

Lyn Brown repeated several other claims we often hear from those who advocate for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. For example, not only that the Nordic Model increases violence against women involved in prostitution, but that it also makes them poorer, it fails to improve relationships with the police, and it drives prostitution “underground.”

Sweden was the first country to introduce the Nordic Model approach and it has had the time and political will to iron out many of the implementation problems that are still seen in France and elsewhere.

I therefore caught up with Lea, a representative of #intedinhora, a Swedish organisation of people with experience of prostitution, and put these claims to her. She was keen to correct them.

She said that the price of prostitution in Sweden is much higher than in European countries where the sex trade is condoned. “This makes the johns furious,” she said. “You can often see them talking in online forums about how the ‘hookers’ here in Sweden are ‘spoiled’ and how they wish it were more like Germany where prices are less than half what they are in Sweden. This means that we don’t have to see as many johns to survive and can say no when we’re uncomfortable.”

She countered the claim that the Nordic Model pushes prostitution underground by asking whether there is anywhere in the world where johns want to have sex in the open.

She said, “The law makes little difference in this regard because they don’t want their wife, girlfriend or employer to find out and anyway most people want to have sex in private. The fact that the meeting in some countries takes place in public areas doesn’t mean that the selling part is safer. Women get killed every year in those small cubicles in the red-light district in Amsterdam. And in Sweden we haven’t yet had one reported murder of a person in prostitution by a john since the sex buyer law was established in 1999.”

New Zealand

In the debate, Lyn Brown spoke positively about the approach to prostitution in New Zealand (NZ):

“I think we have to create policies so that women have the power to create the lives they want. In New Zealand, an emphasis has been put on reducing harm and ensuring that sex workers have access to their rights and to justice. These reforms enable sex workers to work together without fear of prosecution and thereby in greater safety. Coercion of people into sex work or to provide a share of the money received is, of course, illegal in New Zealand, and because sex work is treated as a normal form of work and taxed, all normal laws apply. In my view, the evidence from New Zealand is positive, with trust in the police improved, increased reporting of offences, better safety and health for sex workers, and, most importantly, an increased ability for sex workers to refuse clients.”

This is something we hear over and over again. But are things in New Zealand really that rosy? What does the evidence say?

New Zealand changed its law in 2003 to decriminalise all aspects of the sex industry, when the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed. The intention behind the Act was to improve things for the women involved, and there is little doubt that this was what motivated many of those who voted for it, and there were provisions for the impact of the law and the numbers of women involved to be monitored over time.

New academic research [*] by Helen Johnson and Tony Pitt into the operation of the PRA found that the benefits of the approach have been hugely exaggerated and its downsides have been “ignored, denied, and hidden.”

There has been only one official study of the operation of the PRA, which was undertaken thirteen years ago, in 2008. Like the Medecins du Monde study in France, its key conclusions were not fully supported by the data.

The 2008 study found evidence, for example, of a significant black market, and no evidence that women were more likely to report violence. Even though the PRA enshrines women’s right to say no to individual clients and acts, they found that women were still coerced into taking clients and engaging in dangerous or unpleasant practices against their will – often by the brothel operators themselves. The report made a number of recommendations that, 12 years later, have still not been implemented.

Since 2008 there have been no further official reviews of the operation of the PRA, and in response to a freedom of information request, the NZ Ministry of Justice said there were no plans for any more.

Johnson and Pitt also found that there has been no serious attempt to track the numbers of women involved in the industry. The number reported in the 2008 study (2,332) is still frequently cited, but NZPC reported engaging with 7,416 people involved in prostitution in the first half of 2019 alone – which means that the numbers involved have at least trebled since 2008 and probably risen by significantly more.

The PRA requires regular inspections of brothels. However, Johnson and Pitt found that not a single brothel inspection was carried out in any of the three major cities (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) up until 2015 and it’s unlikely there have been any since because there is no public funding for this. Only 11 brothel inspections were carried out in the rest of New Zealand in the 10 years prior to 2015.

The PRA gives women the right to turn down clients and particular acts, but in practice coercion is rife, not least by the pimps and brothel operators, and women generally simply move to another brothel when it becomes intolerable. Johnson and Pitt say “There have only been two prosecutions under the law against coercion into sex acts since 2009, despite repeated reports that it happens in high numbers.”

The NZ Government relies almost entirely on NZPC (Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective) for issues related to prostitution. NZPC has a contract to gather data on complaints, referrals and concerns raised by women in prostitution. Johnson and Pitt found that they have not carried out these and other duties under the contract and the NZ Government does not monitor their performance under it.

NZPC is a lobby group that dominates the conversation about prostitution in New Zealand. They receive more than a million dollars in government funding annually. Even though helping women to exit the industry was one of the aims of the PRA and 85% of those interviewed in the 2008 study said they wanted to leave prostitution, NZPC provides no services to help women exit the industry – and there is no other publicly funded exit provision in New Zealand. And yet, NZPC provides substantial help to brothel operators and to anyone who is considering setting up a brothel.

NZPC denies that there is significant gang involvement in prostitution in New Zealand and that the exploitation of children in prostitution and sex trafficking are real problems – even though the media and the US TIP report have uncovered significant and very troubling evidence of all these things.

It is therefore extremely disturbing that NZPC have been able to capture the international imagination so effectively – and as Johnson and Pitt say, to continue:

“misrepresenting the impact of the law, regularly speaking at large influential international conferences expounding the success of the NZ decriminalization system using misleading information, such as implying that health and safety inspections are occurring when they are not, and excluding the fact that there is no support for exit, as well as the fact that there is no evidence that the PRA has reduced coercion, violence and abuse.”

Johnson and Pitt conclude:

“In this context, it is hard to justify any claims made with regards to the ‘success’ of the law because the situation is that the impact of the law has simply not been monitored. A hands-off approach to the sex industry has meant that there is no robust research or monitoring of the industry, including any associated exploitation and abuse. In effect, the absence of any evidence gathering has been interpreted to mean that there is in fact no evidence of harm to gather. This simply does not follow.”

Finally…

There are no fortunes to be made by those who advocate for the women and children whose lives have been ruined by prostitution and other aspects of the sex industry, just as there were no fortunes to be made by those who advocated for those whose lives were ruined by asbestos. There’s no glamour in it either. And it comes with a lot of flak.

We are regularly portrayed as anti-sex harridans who hate men, and receive massive funding from the “far right” – even though Nordic Model Now! is a grassroots organisation entirely run by unpaid volunteers and we publish annual financial statements that clearly show that we run on a shoestring and our only source of funding is donations (mostly small) from individual supporters.

We are accused of causing increased suffering to women and children exploited in the sex industry. For example, “Jason Domino” a gay male porn actor, who advocates for full decriminalisation, recently tweeted this:

. @ExodusCry & @nordicmodelnow stand for more human trafficking & child exploitation. Them saying otherwise doesn’t negate them standing for changes where indestructible workpaths happen yet more underground, making those wanting to leave (or underage) HARDER to discover & help!

This is like the asbestos barons saying that those who advocated for the women and men whose lives were blighted by asbestos wanted to make them poorer and sicker and deprive them of work. It’s so nonsensical it’s hard to know where to start unpicking it.

But by trashing their opponents, sex industry lobbyists are assured that fewer people will see through their propaganda.

Most people resist seeing that every day thousands of ‘ordinary’ men in this country pay to sexually use and abuse vulnerable women and children, causing them lifelong damage.

It’s easier to think that women involved in prostitution are plucky creatures with a high sex drive who are just trying to support their families and are providing a needed service to poor lonely men, many of whom are too disabled to find a partner – than to look the awful reality in the face.

Many individuals, businesses and corporations are directly or indirectly profiting from the sexual exploitation of women and girls in the sex industry and refuse to understand that they are really little different from the asbestos industry owners and investors who profited from people’s suffering, ill health and early deaths. They don’t want to see the reality of the suffering they are feeding off and they don’t want you to see it either. Just like the asbestos barons didn’t want people to understand the truth.

Pimps and their agents have managed to infiltrate national and international organisations at the highest level and to set the agenda.

Take, for example, Amnesty International, which has a policy of lobbying for full decriminalisation. It is widely recognised that the original proposal, from which their policy developed, was written by Douglas Fox, founder and business partner of Christony Companions – then one of the UK’s largest escort agencies – i.e. a pimp with a powerful vested personal and financial interest in the decriminalisation of pimps and punters and a thriving sex industry. It’s notable that Douglas Fox was also an activist in the International Union of Sex Workers – whose neutral sounding name has echoes of the asbestos barons’ Asbestos Research Council.

UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, which advocate for full decriminalisation à la New Zealand, were developed by an advisory group that was co-chaired by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) under the leadership of Alejandra Gil, a pimp, who has since been jailed for 15 years for sex trafficking. Feminist author and activist, Kat Banyard, has rightly described this as a human rights scandal. And yet Lyn Brown had no hesitation in using the WHO’s opposition to the Nordic Model to lend weight to her argument in the debate.

Lyn Brown also used the Royal College of Nursing (RCN)’s support for full decriminalisation of the sex trade to back up her argument. But RCN’s policy was passed after a one-sided “debate” that lasted for only about 30 minutes and was based on a misleading and confusing motion. It is questionable whether it would have passed had it set out clearly and in detail exactly what it was calling for.

This is not how good policy is developed and we urge Lyn Brown to do further research and speak to women who have exited the industry and have gained the safety and distance to be able to reflect on and understand the dynamics involved. We would also be more than happy to meet with her and any other politician.

Anna Fisher

Take action

If you live in the UK, we encourage you to write to your MP asking them to support women and vote for Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill. We’ve made it really easy – we’ve even made a tool that only takes two minutes.

Further reading


[*] Johnson, H; Pitt, T. (2020). Review of the Decriminalisation Model in New Zealand. SASE. Available at http://www.sase.org.uk/resources (Accessed: 5 Jan 2021).

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