‘Prostitution is violence against women’, Labour Left Review, Nov, ’07

Prostitution Is Violence Against Women
Labour Left Review, November 2007

Tonight on our streets up to 5000 young people will be for sale in prostitution, to fulfil a demand that too many want us to accept as inevitable.

In Britain today there are an estimated 80,000 people involved in prostitution. According to research for ‘Paying The Price’ (2004) the majority of those in street prostitution have spent time in Local Authority care. Almost half report being survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Many people enter prostitution under 18 years old, globally the average age is just 14. Not only are a great number affected by early experiences of violence and abuse, but many then face disproportionate levels of violence, particularly sexual violence, once involved in prostitution. It is not surprising then that most women want out, with surveys finding that around 90% would leave prostitution if they could (Farley et al, 1998). But routes out are limited, and for all too many, the only exit is brutal and final. Canadian studies have reported that women in prostitution face a risk of homicide 40% higher than average. It is estimated that around 90 prostituted women have been murdered in the UK in the last 12 years alone (Bindel, 13/12/06). These women of course are only the ones we know about, it is likely this ‘industry’ has built up a catalogue of even more deaths: the missing, the suicides, the overdoses – buried by the brutal truth that a woman dead is not news in our society.

The only inevitability of prostitution is that it will continue as long as demand exists. This simple fact is being obscured as the debate is cynically moved from human rights to workers rights and the institution of prostitution is presented as a job like any other. How dare we assume that some people are so expendable in body and soul.

Everywhere that prostitution has been legalised/brothelised there has been a dramatic increase in both the legal and illegal sectors. In Australia, one year after legalisation, the illegal ‘sex industry’ had more than doubled (Sullivan & Jeffreys, CATW). In Amsterdam, children’s charities reported a 300% rise in child prostitution following legalisation (ChildRight). It is common business sense that traffickers and pimps will target countries where it will be easier for them to operate, where they can advertise freely and run no risk of criminalisation. And correspondingly, that countries which have outlawed the buying and selling of other human beings will be less attractive. This is the case in Sweden, where in 1999 a law was passed which decriminalised all those involved in prostitution and instead criminalized the buyers. At the same time the Government directed large sums of money into providing exit services, housing, education, legal advice, welfare and health care etc. This law is being credited with a reduction in child prostitution and trafficking and a decrease of over a third in the number of pimps operating brothels.

In the UK prostitution is not currently illegal, though many activities associated with it are, such as loitering and soliciting. While society balks at the idea of criminalising men’s ‘natural needs’ we seem to have no problem punishing the women who meet this demand. Research shows that those involved in prostitution are often (though not always) some of the most vulnerable in our society, children, survivors of rape and abuse, immigrant women, women of colour, those fleeing domestic violence, mothers struggling to provide for their babies. Our society values women so little we consider it acceptable to provide them with the choice of poverty or prostitution and then treat them like criminals when they take the latter. This ultimatum is not and can never be, a real choice.

In stark contrast to those involved in prostitution, the men who choose to buy them do have choices. Surveys of kerb crawlers in the UK have found that the average punter is in his mid 30’s, in full time employment and likely to be married (Hester & Westmarland, 2004). Men as a group benefit from a persistent gender pay gap, and greater economic power and freedom. Through prostitution some men choose to exploit this power and freedom by commodifying those people with less power in society and in so doing deny the possibility of freedom for all members of that group. If a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, then ours is clearly lacking.

Those on the Left who believe in rights for women and children, rather than men’s right to buy them, should lobby our Government to follow the Swedish example. It is a failure of our society that any one of our citizens is forced by circumstance into prostitution. We have failed to provide basic human rights to food, shelter, education, independence and opportunity to those people who are most deserving. Nobody should have to pay for these with their body. These are real human rights issues; men’s ‘right’ to buy sex is not.

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Hester & Westmarland, ‘Tackling Street Prostitution: Towards an Holistic Approach’, Home Office Research Study 279, (2004)
Sullivan & Jeffreys, ‘Legalising Prostitution Is Not The Answer: The example of Victoria, Australia’, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), http://www.catwinternational.org
‘Paying The Price’, Home Office, 2004
Bindel J, ‘Streets Apart’, ‘The Guardian’, 15/05/04
Special Committee on Pornography & Prostitution, 1985, Pornography & Prostitution in Canada
Farley M et al, ‘Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, (1998), Feminism & Psychology 8
‘Prostitution & Trafficking in Women’, Regeringskansliet, (Swedish) Ministry of Industry, Employment & Communications, July 2004

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