QotD: “Let’s criminalise the men buying sex, and spare the women they exploit”

“You know when you buy something and it doesn’t work properly, the first thing you will do is pick it up and shake it. The same principle applies to prostitution. If your mouth isn’t open wide enough or your throat isn’t deep enough. So you are always at risk of being raped or abused if the buyer feels he is not getting what he paid for.”

Mia de Faoite spent six years in prostitution. During those years she was raped numerous times, including a vicious gang rape, and physical assaults were a common occurrence. She is one of many survivors and activists working to smash the myth of the happy hooker, the smiling professional escort offering “sex work” to grateful, respectful men. It’s a powerful image that is promoted relentlessly by the vastly wealthy sex industry to normalise prostitution. But an important report published on Monday makes clear that this violence and coercion is not an unintended and manageable consequence of an otherwise empowering profession. It is the whole modus operandi.

Behind Closed Doors, an inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on prostitution and the global sex trade, shows the real scale and story of sexual exploitation of women across the UK. It shows that organised crime groups dominate the off-street sex trade; that the women exploited in British brothels are mainly foreign national women; and that traffickers and other third-party exploiters are moving vulnerable women around “pop-up” brothels in residential properties in a bid to avoid police detection and maintain control over the women – while obtaining as much money as possible from sex buyers. And it shows that all of this is facilitated by commercial websites, where women are advertised to potential “buyers”, so that the one in 10 men who purchase sex can “click and collect” from their iPhone.

The Women’s Equality party is currently the only UK political party that wants to end demand by criminalising the purchase of sex and to help women leave the industry by decriminalising the selling of sex. The WEP is very pleased therefore to see these recommendations at the top of this APPG report, and we pledge to work with MPs from all parties to make this a reality.

The APPG report also makes other important points that I, as leader of the WEP, have argued time and time again: the sex trade is overwhelmingly driven by men for men, and the vast majority of women do not work in it of their free will. In 2017 there were 1,185 referrals of potential victims of sexual exploitation to the national referral mechanism; 94% were female. Those women, the report says, have often experienced childhood and adult trauma including abuse and known homelessness, and have learning disabilities. Those women are not choosing this as a job. The report found organised crime groups recruit those women using coercive control – deception, debt bondage, sexual and physical violence, threats, surveillance and isolation. The same tactics stop women from telling anyone what is happening to them.

As Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall, Lancashire police, said: “From what we can evidence there nearly always appears to be a man or some sort of control involved. The females we encounter very rarely pay for their own advertisements. They also don’t pay for their own flights into the UK. There is clear organisation from what have seen on our large covert operations.”

Prostitution hurts us all. Every one of us. It happens because women are not equal to men. Because women are more likely to be poor as a result of the structures that deny us equal opportunities, which include a cycle of violence encompassing prostitution. Not one woman can be free and equal to men so long as any woman is sold by and to them. As long as we normalise the idea that “some” women can be ordered and thrown about like a product from Amazon, then all women live in a world where the threat of violence keeps us in our place.

The APPG’s report is a heartbreaking wake-up call. It cites a conversation between two traffickers discussing how they plan to sexually exploit the girlfriend of one of these men. It features the words of a woman trafficked from eastern Europe to be abused by men in the UK. And it quotes a police offer whose team was told by a sex buyer that some of the women in a brothel he had visited appeared visibly frightened – but that he had paid for sex anyway.

Why do men pay for sex? “Society says they can and the law says they can,” says Mia. “You must ask yourself, what are they buying? It’s power. It’s a very powerful thing to have control of somebody’s body in that way. It’s a power fix and they know it.”

The WEP believes we must change the law with immediate effect so that women never risk being prosecuted for selling sex. The WEP wants a national conversation about the realities of the sex trade and the inseparable link between prostitution, trafficking and coercion. The WEP wants to establish and fund support for survivors of the sex industry, including exit services for women involved in it. The WEP wants to criminalise the purchase of sex, in order to curb demand. And the WEP wishes to ensure that trafficked women have a legal right to remain in the UK and access to tailored support services. Because the WEP wants a world that is equal. Because an equal world is better for everybody.

Sophie Walker

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