Category Archives: Trafficking still not a myth

QotD: “Vulgar and Unsightly”

I’ll spare you specific examples: we all know the kind of material under discussion in The Aesthetics of Degradation, a searching meditation on the brand of hardcore pornography whose erotic currency consists primarily in implausibly lurid spectacles of control and domination. “The array of humiliations evinced in pornography over the past two decades,” writes Adrian Nathan West, “seem less the result of individual perversions than the kind of systematic refinement commonly associated with competitive marketing and research and envelopment in hierarchically organized positivist societies.” At what point, then, does pornography cease to be eroticism and change into something else, something qualitatively different? We are in a discursive terrain of semantic ambiguity; a starting premise of West’s analysis is that extremely degrading pornography tends to marginalize sexual desire as such, “substituting predominately sensual fantasies of doing-with for predominately visual fantasies of doing-to [… with] a heightened emphasis on humiliation, violence, and visual impingements on female bodily integrity.” Taxonomically speaking, it might be more appropriate to place it in the category of sadistic entertainments occupied by snuff movies and the like, rather than the realm of erotica. This formulation invites a number of possible objections with regard to freedom and consent, each of which West examines in turn.

“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.

West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.

West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.

[…]

The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.

Vulgar and Unsightly: Adrian Nathan West’s J’accuse Against Extremely Degrading Pornography

Houman Barekat, LA Review of Books, 2016

QotD: “Pornhub: Judge rules Visa can be sued in abuse claim”

An abuse survivor can sue Visa over videos of her posted to Pornhub, a US court has ruled.

Serena Fleites was 13 in 2014 when, it is alleged, a boyfriend pressured her into making an explicit video which he posted to Pornhub.

Ms Fleites alleges that Visa, by processing revenue from ads, conspired with Pornhub’s parent firm MindGeek to make money from videos of her abuse.

Visa had sought to be removed from the case.

Ms Fleites’ story has featured in the New York Times article The Children of Pornhub – an article which prompted MindGeek to delete millions of videos and make significant changes to its policies and practice.

Her allegations are summarised in the pre-trial ruling of the Central District Court of California.

The initial explicit video, posted to Pornhub without her knowledge or consent, had 400,000 views by the time she discovered it, Ms Fleites says.

She alleges that after becoming aware of the video, she contacted Mindgeek pretending to be her mother “to inform it that the video qualified as child pornography”. A few weeks later it was removed

But the video was downloaded by users and re-uploaded several times, with one of the re-uploads viewed 2.7 million times, she argues.

MindGeek earned advertisement revenue from these re-uploads, it is alleged.

Ms Fleites says her life had “spiralled out of control” – there were several failed suicide attempts and family relationships deteriorated – then while living at a friend’s house, an older man introduced her to heroin.

To fund her addiction, while still a child, she created further explicit videos at this man’s behest, some of which were uploaded to Pornhub.

“While MindGeek profited from the child porn featuring Plaintiff, Plaintiff was intermittently homeless or living in her car, addicted to heroin, depressed and suicidal, and without the support of her family,” Judge Cormac J. Carney’s summary of her allegations says.

MindGeek told the BBC that at this point in the case, the court has not yet ruled on the truth of the allegations, and is required to assume all of the plaintiff’s allegations are true and accurate.

“When the court can actually consider the facts, we are confident the plaintiff’s claims will be dismissed for lack of merit,” the company said.

The Judge ruled that, at the current stage of proceedings, “the Court can infer a strong possibility that Visa’s network was involved in at least some advertisement transactions relating directly to Plaintiff’s videos”.

But Visa argued that the “allegation that Visa recognized MindGeek as an authorized merchant and processed payment to its websites does not suggest that Visa agreed to participate in sex trafficking of any kind”.

It also argued, according to the judge’s account of its position, that a commercial relationship alone does not establish a conspiracy.

But Judge Carney said that, again at this stage of proceedings, “the Court can comfortably infer that Visa intended to help MindGeek monetize child porn from the very fact that Visa continued to provide MindGeek the means to do so and knew MindGeek was indeed doing so.

“Put yet another way, Visa is not alleged to have simply created an incentive to commit a crime, it is alleged to have knowingly provided the tool used to complete a crime”.

A spokesperson for Visa told the BBC that it condemned sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse material.

“This pre-trial ruling is disappointing and mischaracterizes Visa’s role and its policies and practices. Visa will not tolerate the use of our network for illegal activity. We continue to believe that Visa is an improper defendant in this case.”

Last month MindGeek’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer resigned.

The senior departures followed further negative press in an article in the magazine the New Yorker, examining among other things the company’s moderation policies.

Mindgeek told the BBC that it has:

  • zero tolerance for the posting of illegal content on its platforms
  • banned uploads from anyone who has not submitted government-issued ID that passes third-party verification
  • eliminated the ability to download free content
  • integrated several technological platform and content moderation tools
  • instituted digital fingerprinting of all videos found to be in violation of our Non-Consensual Content and CSAM Policies to help protect against removed videos being reposted
  • expanded its moderation workforce and processes

The company also said that any insinuation that it does not take the elimination of illegal material seriously is “categorically false”.

(Source)

QotD: “Infiltrate after-hours economy to bring predators out of the shadows”

In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.

The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.

A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?

Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.

He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.

The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.

The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.

Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.

“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”

And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.

Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.

They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.

Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.

It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.

The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.

David Collins

QotD: “Telford child sex abuse went on for generations, inquiry finds”

Obvious evidence of child sex crimes in Telford was ignored for generations leading to more than 1,000 girls being abused, an inquiry has found.

Agencies blamed children for the abuse they suffered, not the perpetrators, and exploitation was not investigated because of “nervousness about race”.

The inquiry was set up after the Sunday Mirror revealed gangs had been abusing girls in the town since the 1980s.

Chairman Tom Crowther QC said the abuse had thrived unchecked for decades.

His report makes 47 recommendations for improvement by agencies involved. West Mercia Police has apologised “unequivocally” for past events as has Telford & Wrekin Council.

The report found agencies dismissed reports of child exploitation as “child prostitution”.

Mr Crowther said: “The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.

“Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.

“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.

“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed. They have asked, over the years: how was this allowed to happen?”

Other key report findings include:

  • Teachers and social workers being discouraged from reporting abuse
  • Offenders becoming “emboldened” by the absence of police action, with abuse continuing for years without concerted response
  • Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race, that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame “racial tensions”
  • Even after an investigation leading to seven men being jailed for child sex crimes West Mercia Police and Telford & Wrekin Council scaled down their specialist teams “to virtual zero” in order to save money

The investigation was known as Operation Chalice and saw two Telford brothers among those jailed. A court heard the brothers sexually abused, trafficked and prostituted, or tried to prostitute, four teenagers between March 2008 and December 2009.

The report found the most common way children were exploited was through a “boyfriend” model, where a child would meet a man, who would persuade them to become his girlfriend.

Perpetrators, it said, sought out “vulnerable” children and would begin giving them lifts, buying them food, alcohol or cigarettes which led to the children becoming involved in sexual activity with the men as a “favour” as payment for the gifts.

Most of those responsible for the abuse did not use contraception and “pregnancies were expected to be (and in many cases were) terminated.” Some of those abused went on to bear the perpetrator’s children.

In several cases, victims received death threats against them or their families if they tried to end the abuse.

The report references the case of Lucy Lowe, 16, who died along with her 17-year-old sister and mother in a house fire started by Azhar Ali Mehmood, 26, the father of her daughter. She had become pregnant at 14 to Mehmood.

The report continued to say children were often abused in nightclubs and takeaways with witnesses also describing a “rape house” in Wellington, Telford, to which young people were taken.

Within schools, it said, there was a “reluctance” to report concerning activity without “concrete proof” which was an “overly cautious approach”, while “obvious” indicators like absences and changes in behaviour went unremarked by school staff.

The report said, in the most recent figures from the first six months of 2020, police received 172 referrals related to child exploitation.

The “dreadful, life altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere,” the report said.

It also outlines recent police evidence of “an unacceptable, and quite frankly offensive attitude”, towards child abuse victims, with “disparaging language being used”.

In his statement, Mr Crowther said he looked back as far as 1989 to draw his conclusions, but had heard from victims exploited as long ago as the 1970s.

“I saw references to exploitation being ‘generational’; having come to be regarded as ‘normal’ by perpetrators and inevitable by victims and survivors some of whose parents had been through similar experiences,” he said.

He urged agencies to accept the recommendations made in the report and hoped the report “goes some way” to giving a voice to the survivors.

Mr Crowther recommended the formation of a joint review team to publish an annual report on child abuse in Telford.

Following the inquiry’s publication, survivor Joanne Phillips, who gave evidence said: “Victims were being identified as child prostitutes. Once you have been convicted that label will never leave you.

“Prosecutions are damaging to your life.

“Some children went to prison for not paying the fines. Convictions should be completely expunged.

“Today I feel incredibly proud of the girls in Telford….I cannot express enough how proud I am for seeing this through and their resilience and bravery.”

Lucy Allan, the MP for Telford, who has been campaigning on the issue since 2016, said: “Today is a very important day for victims and survivors of CSE, not just in Telford but right across the country because this report is damning, it is devastating.

“There are clear patterns that existed well before this report was commissioned that people knew about CSE, we had had high profile court cases in Telford and we should have taken learnings from that and we quite clearly didn’t.

“The saddest thing is that victims and survivors, their voices weren’t heard, they weren’t taken seriously and that should never have happened.”

The report’s recommendations should be adopted by local authorities around the country, she said.

Telford and Wrekin Council has said it “apologises wholeheartedly” to the victims.

“Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people.

“The independent inquiry acknowledges we have made significant improvements in recent years.”

It said it was working to provide support for victims and it was already carrying out many of the inquiry’s recommendations.

Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, of West Mercia Police, said he would like to say sorry to the survivors and all those affected in Telford.

“While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down. It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the content of the report and the recommendations that have been made,” he said.

He said the force now has teams dedicated to preventing and tackling child exploitation and works better together with organisations to safeguard children.

West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion, said victims and survivors had been let down.

“I cannot say with absolute certainty, just because lessons have been learnt, that it will never happen again.

“However, my drive as PCC remains resolute to ensure the system, that is there to keep people safe, continues building on the progress that has been made.”

Shropshire Council, which neighbours Telford & Wrekin said these crimes are “happening right across the country”.

It said awareness of the crime is now “far greater” and it has “safeguards” in place to help people living in the area.

(Source)

QotD: “The tide is finally turning in Italy”

I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome called Prostitution: Is Italy ready for the Nordic model?. The event was the first of its kind to be held in the Italian senate and it has caused some controversy.

A new bill drafted by senator Alessandra Maiorino was launched at the event, which, if approved by parliament, would criminalise the buying of sex and decriminalise those in prostitution. Known as the Nordic model, this approach to tackling the harms of the sex trade was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted by a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel.

Outside the venue, a small protest group representing sex workers and allies accused the organisers of “talking about our lives and bodies without even inviting us to the discussion table”, despite the fact that the views of pro-legalisation individuals are in the evidence that is included in the bill. Perhaps more significantly, the voices of those women who have survived the sex trade and since left it are loud and clear in this debate.

The tide is turning in Italy about the sex trade. Maiorino, a parliamentarian in the Five Star Movement party, has garnered cross-party support, with speakers at the conference representing youth, violence against women and gender equality.

Evaluation shows that this Nordic model approach has reduced the number of women in prostitution and that it challenges the culture of acceptability of men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many sex trade survivors, to introduce the law globally.

Italy has a history of legislating against the sex trade. In 1958, senator Lina Merlin introduced the Merlin law, which effectively abolished legal brothels. Before the law was introduced there were 560 state approved brothels. The law also abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex and providing support to leave. The key aim of the law was to reduce the numbers of women being forced, coerced or exploited into prostitution. It is regarded by Italian feminists as the foundation for a human rights critique of commercial sexual exploitation.

The law periodically comes under fire from those in favour of legalisation. The most recent example came in March 2019 whenit was challenged by the court of appeal in Bari in relation to a case in which businessman Giampaolo Tarantini was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution by recruiting “escorts” for the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lawyers argued that prostitution is organised differently than in 1958 and that women now have sexual freedom and therefore can freely choose to be sex workers. The appeal was rejected by the constitutional court and the Merlin law was upheld.

According to Maiorino, there is more violence, abuse and exploitation in the sex trade than in 1958. “There are increasing ways in which women can be coerced into prostitution,” she said.

In fact, as Ilaria Baldini from Resistenza Femminista, a feminist activist group, told me, prostitution across Italy was “totally normalised” and the police often ignored the criminal exploitation of women in brothels and on street, rarely targeting pimps or buyers.

In March, Roberto Saviano (whose book Gomorra exposed one of Italy’s most powerful mafia networks) wrote an article for Corriere della Sera, arguing that legalising prostitution in Italy was necessary, that prostitution was a “real profession” and that the only way that women can be protected within the sex trade is to “regulate” it.

The article caused huge controversy and the newspaper was inundated with emails from anti-sex trade feminists, demanding a right to reply. Monica Ricci Sargentini, a reporter at the newspaper, supported the call for a feminist response; as a result, she was issued with a written warning and threatened with a three-day suspension.

Despite the significant resistance from pro-legalisation activists in Italy and elsewhere, its benefits are clear. Everywhere it has been implemented, the number of women in prostitution has fallen, as has violence – including homicide – against them. Neither is it an overly punitive or “carceral” law; proposals within Maiorino’s bill for sex buyers are typically modest: for first offenders, a fine of €1,500 to €5,000 and a police caution. Those that reoffend more than once in five years can be fined up to €15,000. A prison sentence of between six months to three years can be avoided if the buyers participate in a perpetrator re-education programme.

On the other hand, legalisation is always disastrous, as I discovered during my research. Germany introduced blanket legalisation in 2002 and, as parliamentarian Leni Breymaier told delegates in Rome, it has since become one of the fastest growing destinations for traffickers of women and children.

“There should never have been the scandal of Berlusconi,” she tells me. “And nor should any Italian men be led by his example.”

Julie Bindel

QotD: “Spain to draw up laws to abolish prostitution”

Spain voted on Tuesday in favour of a proposal to draw up legislation to abolish prostitution, cracking down further on pimping and introducing tougher penalties for men buying sex in a controversial initiative that has split the women’s rights movement.

Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.

The move is part of a progressive drive by the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to extend women’s rights, and would see sex workers treated as victims to be protected rather than criminalised as they would be under any outright ban on prostitution.

A total of 232 lawmakers voted for the proposal, 38 voted against it and 69 abstained. It now faces a lengthy process during which lawmakers can suggest amendments that can be approved or rejected.

At the end of the process, lawmakers must vote again and only then will the law be sent to the Senate.

The Socialists, who rule in a minority coalition with far-left junior partner Unidas Podemos, want to introduce longer jail sentences for pimping, removing the present requirement for police to demonstrate that an exploitative relationship exists with the sex worker.

The proposal would also punish anyone using a premises for prostitution, and men buying sex, with aggravated sentences if the victim is a minor or classed as vulnerable.

The proposal has sparked intense debate in the local women’s rights movement.

Some organisations who work with trafficked and prostituted women, such as Medicos del Mundo, view it as a step in the right direction, while others like Antigona, a group of academics who are in favour of legalising prostitution, say it risks driving undocumented migrants underground and leaving them more vulnerable to trafficking networks.

Natalia, a former sex worker now employed by sex workers’ union Otras, said the current legislation “infantilises” women in the trade.

“Obviously this work has problems, and we need help to obtain rights, but not from the point of view of victimisation”.

Trabe, which provides accommodation for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, said any new laws should grant social protections to prostitutes, while Medicos del Mundo said the Socialists had to refine their proposal or risk organisations which help women being accused of facilitating prostitution.

Reuters

QotD: “Spain to criminalise paying for sex”

Amelia Tiganus is a sex-trade survivor, originally from Romania. She has been campaigning to introduce laws to criminalise demand – the men that pay for sex – for a number of years. This week saw her wish come true, when the Spanish parliament voted in favour of clamping down on pimping and introducing criminal penalties for men buying sex.

Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.

Tiganus was prostituted in Spain, where she still lives. She has long been involved in a campaign to end the sex trade, working since 2015 with Feminicidio as coordinator of its online training platform and projects for the prevention and awareness of prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence against women. She is currently documenting the number of murdered prostituted women in Spain.

Tiganus has published several articles on the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the past two years, she has given more than 100 lectures and workshops throughout Spain and Argentina. I spoke to Tiganus about being trafficked and abused in state-sanctioned brothels, and about her life and activism after escaping prostitution. Here is her story.

Julie Bindel, continue reading here

QotD: “Selling sex is highly dangerous. Treating it like a regular job only makes it worse”

Last Monday, James Martin was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for killing Stella Frew. They had argued in his van, then he accelerated away with her hanging off its side, eventually running Frew over, causing her catastrophic injuries. Martin sped away with her handbag in the van, which he later dumped.

The cause of their altercation? Martin refused to pay her for the sex act she had just performed on him. Like many women who sell sex, Frew struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was under their influence when she approached Martin. Her daughter described her for the court as the “kindest, most warm-hearted woman” who had been abused and hurt by men her whole life. The judge commented that Martin had shown barely any empathy for his victim.

And so it has always been. Prostitution is laced with mortal peril: women who sell sex are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women who don’t, according to one study. Yet these women have throughout history been cast as second-class citizens, not worthy of the same concern as other victims.

How best to prevent violence against those selling sex, the vast majority of whom are women, is a question that has long divided feminists. For some, it is about decriminalising the selling and buying of sex, which in England and Wales would mean dropping criminal offences such as kerb crawling, soliciting and running a brothel. There will always be prostitution, so the argument goes, so best to keep it out in the open. Others agree that the selling of sex should be decriminalised in all circumstances and think women should be provided with ample support to get out of prostitution, but argue that the buying of sex, an almost exclusively male activity, should always be a crime.

The full decriminalisation argument is driven by a belief that it is possible to sufficiently strengthen the agency of those who sell sex to transform it into “sex work”, like any other job. You can see what makes it an appealing frame, powered by an archetype that has evolved from the Pretty Woman male saviour narrative, to the sex-positive woman sticking two fingers up at a socially conservative society by making bags of money doing something she loves. Sex work is a choice that should be respected and we should destigmatise it by decriminalising the men who buy it and regulate it to make it safer. Women railing against this are depicted as prudes constrained by their own squeamishness about sex.

There are two reality checks that bring these theoretical arguments crashing down to earth. The first is that for every woman or man selling sex who regards it as a positive choice, and there are some, there are many more who have been trafficked or exploited and are effectively enslaved to criminal networks, working for a pittance, or for drugs to forget the trauma of being forced into selling yourself to be penetrated again and again, or for nothing at all.

In one investigation into sex trafficking, Leicestershire police reported that 86% of the women in brothels they visited were Romanian; in Northumbria, it was 75%. Numerous studies have shown just how dangerous prostitution is: a majority of women selling sex have experienced severe and repeated violence, with more than two-thirds suffering from PTSD at levels comparable to war veterans. Women who are actually or effectively being forced into selling sex have little voice in policy debates, although there are prominent survivor networks that argue for abolition.

Second, as the feminist campaigner Julie Bindel exposed in her 2017 book The Pimping of Prostitution, decriminalisation and regulation has not been the success its advocates claim. Bindel visited and interviewed women working in legal brothels in the Netherlands, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia and found exploitation to be rife, with legalisation acting to empower brothel owners. In one Las Vegas brothel, women weren’t allowed out unaccompanied or without their manager’s permission. In a German brothel, women had to service six men a day at the minimum rate just to make back the room rent. In a New Zealand brothel, women said men could simply complain to the manager and get their money back, leaving them with nothing.

Decriminalisation increases the overall extent of prostitution in a country without decreasing its harms or delivering any of the promised benefits of regulation. In New Zealand, Bindel revealed there were only 11 brothel health and safety inspections over a 12-year period. And decriminalisation makes it even harder for the police to combat trafficking; Spanish police describe how difficult it is to investigate when they enter a brothel and clearly frightened and distressed young women tell them they are working there by choice.

Decriminalisation can’t make prostitution safe because it is inherently dangerous and exploitative. How is a woman selling sex supposed to maintain safe boundaries or withdraw consent when a man physically capable of killing her is hurting her?

The men who buy sex all too often escape scrutiny. The Invisible Men project documents the nauseating way men talk online about their experience of women selling sex, very little of it printable. Research finds that men who buy sex are also more likely to abuse their partners, have a stronger preference for impersonal sex and to commit rape and other sex offences.

Correlation may not equal causation, but it’s not hard to imagine how using women for a price, even if it hurts them, further hardens already toxic attitudes towards women. These men have a vested interest in the sanitisation of their sex-buying. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is the former MP Keith Vaz, who chaired a home affairs select committee inquiry that came down against criminalising those who buy sex, and who a few months later was exposed as having offered to buy cocaine for two men selling sex.

There should be zero stigma, only help and support for those caught up in prostitution. But we legitimise the men who engage in the harmful practice of buying sex to our detriment. In the UK, it is estimated about one in 10 men have paid for sex; in Spain, where it is decriminalised, it is much higher. To accept that prostitution is always going to happen, and therefore the best we can do is regulate it, not only means tolerating the abuse of women: it is to be complicit in its expansion.

Sonia Sodha

QotD: “Sex is not a human right”

This morning the Court of Appeal handed down a long-awaited judgment in the case of Re C, a legal case fraught with tension due to the sensitive and complex nature of what lay at its heart.

In short, C, a learning-disabled man, wished to seek out the “services” of a prostituted woman to pay her for sexual access, but he lacked the mental capacity to make such arrangements for himself.

One of several legal issues at hand was the fact that, if such a care worker was permitted to make such arrangements, they may be committing an offence under s.39 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which prohibits care workers from “causing or inciting sexual activity”.

To cut a long legal story short, the Court of Appeal overturned the original ruling of the Court of Protection, and stated that in this instance C’s care workers were categorically not permitted to facilitate the purchasing of sexual access on behalf of their learning-disabled client.

Understandably, this case produced a strong emotional reaction: why should individuals with learning disabilities be prevented from having sex? Surely they too should be allowed to engage in “autonomous sexual expression” which “respects the […] humanity and dignity of all involved” as the original judgment from the Court of Protection stated.

But this is a subtle misdirection. To view this through the prism of blanket sexual autonomy is to obfuscate the reality of prostitution. For many women and children trapped within the brutal system of prostitution, agency or choice is far from their reality.

For example, in one case in the Netherlands (where prostitution is legalised), six defendants were found guilty of trafficking more than 100 women into State-regulated prostitution via a sprawling and organised network of accomplices, where women were subjected to violence including “rape and coercion into breast enlargement or abortion” which was used as a method to control them.

One study spanning five countries found that women were frequently subjected to treatment such as “… [being] urinated on, pinched in the breasts, sodomized, objects inserted in anus and vagina, bestiality … weapons used against women … being strangled with a bandana, burned … bound with extension cords, assaulted with … knives and guns, hit with shoes and a liquor bottle…”

Furthermore, even if women do try to escape this form of modern slavery, studies have reported consequences such as: “physical punishment when they made mistakes or tried to run away … they had to service men … even when they were ill or did not feel well … Their movement was highly controlled, and most were not allowed to leave the premises and were tightly guarded”.

And so we see the argument begin to shift. No longer is the purchasing of sexual access an issue in which parties of equal bargaining power are coming to an amicable contractual arrangement, exercising their shared autonomy. In the vast majority of cases, a man is exploiting the vulnerabilities of a woman who has few other choices but to acquiesce to the offer of payment.

It should be noted as well that the Court expressly acknowledged that C posed a “risk of sexual and violent deviancy”, and that there was “a serious question mark over whether he could safely be left alone with a sex worker”. Would a situation in which C was left alone with a prostituted woman be any different from one of the violent scenarios outlined above? Perhaps not.

As a result, the heart of the issue is whether any given individual has a right to purchase sexual access. This was an argument advanced by C, arguing that his Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for your private and family life) meant if criminal liability were to be incurred under s.39 SOA 2003, it would be an interference with his private life. A private life which, it is implied, includes the right to purchase sexual access to another human being. Thankfully, the Court rejected this argument.

As the judgment states, there is no sign that Article 8 includes an obligation for states to allow care workers to facilitate the purchase of sexual access for their clients (or the obligation to permit this to occur more generally without criminal sanctions). As Dr Charlotte Proudman, one of the barristers who worked on this case, told me:

I welcome the court’s decision today. It is not a human right to pay for sex. The government’s public policy approach shows that it needs to take a cautious approach to prostitution because of the exploitation that underpins the sex trade.

This judgment rightly shows that s.53A makes it difficult (if not impossible, as I would say) to prove that a woman hasn’t been coerced into prostitution particularly when we reflect on the plethora of coercive constraints that women are subjected to — sex abuse as children and in adulthood, grooming, financial control, trafficking, objectification, verbal and physical abuse, rape and it goes on.

I’ve seen many of my clients exploited in prostitution and it would be wholly wrong for the law to condone this in any way, especially to confer a right to a man to sexually exploit or buy a woman’s body. This is not a human right. It’s abuse.

Beyond the context of this case, this ruling will hopefully begin to change how we talk about prostitution and the way in which people with disabilities have been used by the pro-sex trade lobby.

As Julie Bindel outlines in her book The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, many disability-rights activists find it extraordinarily distasteful to suggest that individuals who may have either a physical or mental impairment must rely on purchasing sexual access to lead a fulfilling and rich life — “If you have a disability, you are so undesirable that you must pay to have sex with somebody.” It is quite clear why many would, and should, find this grotesquely offensive.

As for the issue of an individual’s “rights” when it comes to prostitution, the reality is beginning to come out in the wash. For too long the discourse has focused on the rights of those purchasing sexual access — but what about the rights of the women to not be subjected to degrading and violent exploitation? It is those women who must be our concern and priority, and both the law and the Government must no longer tolerate their subjugation.

Tom Farr

Desert Island Discs: Nazir Afzal

Nazir Afzal is a solicitor and the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England. Among his notable cases, he brought the Rochdale sex grooming gangs to trial in 2012.

Nazir’s parents arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 1961 and he was born in Birmingham the following year. After completing his legal training he started his career as a defence lawyer but soon realised that he preferred prosecution to defence, joining the Crown Prosecution Service in 1991.

As director of prosecutions for London he turned his attention to so-called honour-based violence and brought successful prosecutions against the perpetrators of these crimes. In 2011 as chief crown prosecutor for north-west England he began investigating sex grooming gangs in Rochdale, overturning a previous CPS decision not to bring charges against the gangs. He brought prosecutions against nine men who were convicted and jailed in 2012 for the sexual exploitation of 47 young girls.

Nazir retired from the Crown Prosecution Service in 2015. He currently chairs the Catholic Church’s new safeguarding body and advises the Welsh government on issues of gender-based violence.

BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs