Since 2009, it has been illegal in England and Wales to buy sex from someone who’s been forced, coerced, or deceived into it, regardless whether you are aware of this or not.

The offence is defined in Section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and, confusingly, is implemented as Section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The maximum sentence is a level 3 fine (currently £1,000).

In the first full year after its introduction (2010-2011), the police made use of the new offence and prosecuted 40 men, the majority of whom were convicted. However, the numbers of prosecutions fell rapidly over the next few years and are now negligible, as shown in the following chart (figures from the CPS Violence Against Women and Girls report 2017).

Prosecutions under Section 53A Sexual Offences Act 2003

The way the law is framed means that the prosecution has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the woman had been forced, coerced or deceived by a named person. In the murky world of prostitution this is not easy and it invariably requires considerable police work to bring a successful prosecution. But the maximum penalty is only a relatively small fine and the police do not invest many resources into investigating offences that carry such a low penalty. So there is a fundamental contradiction within the law that makes its ineffectiveness inevitable.

How many women involved in prostitution are coerced anyway?

The last time there was a systematic attempt to gauge the number of people in prostitution in the UK was in 2004, in the then government’s Paying the Price study. They came up with a figure of 80,000. That was 13 years ago and the numbers have almost certainly increased since then.

A few years later, in 2010, the police conducted a study to establish the prevalence of sex trafficking. Even though they used a restrictive definition of trafficking compared to the international one and only considered migrant women involved in indoor prostitution in England, they estimated that 2,600 were trafficked (and therefore would fulfil the forced, coerced or deceived criteria). A further 9,600 were deemed “vulnerable,” which means there is a high chance they would also fulfil the criteria. This makes a total of 12,200 women altogether.

This figure does not include British women, children, those in outdoor prostitution, or men, nor those who are coerced into prostitution by economic desperation and hardship, by addiction to drugs, or more subtle means, such as grooming, nor anyone in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

But suppose we take the very conservative figure that there are 10,000 prostituted women in England and Wales who fulfil the criteria of being subject to some form of force, threat or coercion, and suppose each of these women has 200 punters a year (almost definitely an underestimate, but some punters will visit more than one woman).

10,000 * 200 = 2,000,000

This makes a total of two million potential offenders every year. But shockingly only 61 have been prosecuted over the course of seven years.

The ineffectiveness of this law is a strong argument for the Nordic Model

The introduction of this law was an important milestone because it legally recognises that buying sex from someone who’s been forced, coerced or deceived is wrong.

That it has been ineffective is a very strong argument for a law that creates a criminal offence of purchasing or attempting to purchase sex, regardless whether the person has been forced, coerced or deceived.

Such a law would make the offence much easier to police because it would only be necessary to prove that the punter had paid or attempted to pay. It would therefore be possible to properly enforce and that would act as a real deterrent and change men’s behaviour. This in turn would reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking and would therefore go some way to fulfilling our binding obligations (currently unmet) under international human rights treaties.

It would also make sense because most women and girls enter prostitution through lack of available options due to their position within the intersecting structural hierarchies of sex, age, race, economic class, immigration status and caste. Moreover research shows that prostitution is invariably damaging to the individuals caught up in it (regardless of the circumstances of their entry) and to society as a whole, and that it deepens the inequality between the sexes.

We believe that any change in the law to make purchasing sex a criminal offence, should be introduced alongside laws that decriminalise the selling of sex and ring-fenced funding for a nationwide network of high-quality services that provide all those in prostitution with a genuine route out and alternative ways of making a living, along with effective laws against pimping and trafficking. This approach is known as the Nordic Model.

So how did such an ineffective law get passed?

Over the last decades, women have succeeded in entering many key institutions. And indeed in the 2017 UK election 208 women MPs were elected, which is more than ever before, but still less than one third of the total number of MPs. As women work their way up the institutional hierarchies, they are invariably increasingly outnumbered by men – meaning they are isolated – and everywhere they are judged more harshly than their male colleagues.

So women are not present on equal terms with men but are under various degrees of psychological siege and in practice men continue to control all the great bastions of power (politics, culture, economy, media, banking, the curriculum in schools and universities, etc.) and use their control of these institutions (whether consciously or unconsciously) to maintain male interests and collective power; to erase knowledge that helps women understand the truth and resist; and to present women who argue for structural changes that would benefit women and children as “man-haters” or unhinged in some way. Of course Not All Men Are Like That, but this is how it works on an institutional level and this is the context in which laws are made.

The responses to the #metoo movement have made it clear how most men simply do not have a clue about the reality of women’s and girls’ lives and the scale and near ubiquity of male harassment and violence.

We should not be surprised therefore that getting effective legislation against prostitution buying is a struggle; or that once legislation is passed, getting the authorities to act on it is even harder.

However, we encourage women to not despair. There is evidence that feminist activism does make a difference. We need to work together to keep raising awareness of the harms of prostitution and how it underpins men’s belief that they are entitled to disrespect women and children’s boundaries, and how it therefore contributes to the epidemic of sexual harassment and child sexual abuse. We call on everyone, male and female, to join us in our campaign.

Natasha Mulvihill’s research into how gender and power are implicated in the making of policy

Natasha Mulvihill researched the passage of Clause 14 of the Policing and Crime Bill 2009 through the parliamentary process until it became law. Her aim was to explore how gender relations and power inequality influenced the process. What she found confirms our analysis set out above.

She showed that the clause was significantly narrowed in its passage through the parliamentary process and that policy makers failed to grapple with the way that prostitution is embedded in relations of gender inequality (and other inequalities) and that it is inherently exploitative.

In an article about the research she said:

“Politicians’ preoccupation with the individual context of the seller and their choice/lack of choice neglects the wider context of gender relations (as well as relations of economic status, immigrant status, ethnicity, education level, and so on). Defining exploitation in terms of identifiable victims and perpetrators obscures the way in which exploitation is an outcome of unequal social relations. The failure of policymakers to wrestle with this in the development of policy both reflects and reinforces gender hierarchies.

In summary, the narrowing of Clause 13/14 through the policy process served only to redefine the boundaries of acceptable male sex purchase while leaving the practice of prostitution broadly intact. This is not to claim that policymakers intentionally act to maintain masculine interests: rather it is the cumulative outcome of countless individual and collective assumptions. This is what can make the operation of structural power devilishly difficult to pin down – and to challenge.”

Further reading