Why prostitution is a problem
Don’t women choose prostitution as a lucrative occupation?
Often it is a person’s lack of choice that forces them to ‘choose’ prostitution. Research reveals that homelessness, living in care, debt and substance abuse, are all common experiences prior to entering prostitution. Many are drawn into prostitution at a young age, often under 18 years old, through grooming, or family circumstances. Studies show that high numbers of women in prostitution have experienced coercion.In a 2012 study of 114 women in prostitution in London, 50% said they had experienced coercion (through trafficking or from a partner, pimp or relative).
We recognise that some people say they have chosen prostitution, but for the majority the experience is marked by a lack of choice. When seen as a whole prostitution clearly contributes to social injustice. Therefore, CARE advocates legislation that will deliver justice for the vulnerable majority.
Can prostitution be made safe?
Prostitution is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. One research study has reported that 61% of the women in prostitution surveyed had experienced violence from buyers of sexual services, similar reports have been recorded in other studies.
Involvement in prostitution often has seriously detrimental effects on a person’s mental health including depression, anxiety disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Drug and alcohol misuse is a problem for some and chaotic lifestyles make it difficult for people to leave prostitution without support.
Hasn’t prostitution always existed?
It is true that prostitution has been evident in societies down the ages. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept things as they are. We may not be able to end prostitution entirely, just as we have not managed to stop all violence and murder. However, we can and should try to reduce it and the harm it causes. While CARE does not believe that there are any easy legislative solutions that will bring about the end of prostitution, we do believe that there is an approach that offers both greater justice for those concerned and real scope for limiting the extent of prostitution in our society.
What is the solution?
In recent years two predominant, but very different, legislative approaches to prostitution have emerged across the world
1) Legalisation or decriminalisation
Legalisation of the sex industry is suggested by some as a way of making prostitution safer for the women engaged in it. However, in countries that have led the way on legalisation violence, exploitation and organised crime are still major problems.
Academics who have compared different prostitution regimes have written “not only can none of the legalisation or decriminalisation regimes examined here provide strong evidence that the law and policy has delivered the promised rights and material benefits to women who sell sex, several admit failure in this respect.”
Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands in 2000 to regulate the sex industry and bring the associated criminal activity under control. However, there is clear evidence that organised crime and illegal prostitution continues with some academics suggesting it may be more difficult to police human trafficking in the legal sector. According to a police study between 50% and 90% of all those involved in prostitution in Amsterdam have been coerced into it, even in legal establishments. In another survey with people in prostitution 22% of participants reported being assaulted in the course of their prostitution activities. There has also been a marked deterioration in the emotional wellbeing of those involved in prostitution.
A German psychologist has said about the situation there “Since the law [legalising prostitution] destroyed any questioning of the harm in men buying women for sex, the acts are becoming increasingly dangerous, violent and degrading. Buyers pick from a long list of sexual acts, most of which could easily be defined as torture [...] These acts cause extremely deep, enduring and traumatizing harm to the women.”
New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003. However, more than ten years later there are reports of continued violent attacks, increased street prostitution and the exploitation and trafficking of teenagers and migrant women. Surveys have also shown that many workers in brothels continue to feel unable to refuse clients and are reluctant to report violence and adverse incidents to the police. In 2012, the Prime Minister of New Zealand acknowledged that the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act had failed to meet its aims in respect of reducing underage prostitution.
2) The Nordic approach
In 1999 the Swedish Government sought to reduce the harms of prostitution by reducing demand. It did this by making it a criminal offence to purchase sexual services and decriminalising those who provide sexual services for payment. Neighbouring Norway adopted a similar law in 2009. Since these laws were passed reports in both Norway and Sweden have identified the following positive effects:
1. Reduced amount of on-street prostitution and lower than expected prostitution levels overall.
2. Reduced number of men saying they have purchased sexual services.
3. The Police report deterrent effects on trafficking and organised crime involvement in prostitution.
This form of law has come to be called the “Nordic” model and has also been adopted in Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016) and the Republic of Ireland (2017). This approach has also been endorsed by resolutions of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.
The current law in the UK
Criminal law is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland (where as mentioned above Northern Ireland the law changed in 2015 to follow the Nordic model). Therefore there are some differences in the specific laws on prostitution in different parts of the UK.
The approach in England, Wales and Scotland does not fit either of the predominant models described above. It has traditionally focussed on removing prostitution from public places and addressing those who organise or control prostitution. Neither paying for sexual services nor providing sexual services for payment are illegal. However, many of the activities around prostitution are prohibited including brothel-keeping, controlling prostitution (pimping) and soliciting in a public place to buy (often called “kerb-crawling”) or to sell sexual services.
In England and Wales an additional offence was introduced in the Policing and Crime Act 2009 with the aim of protecting people from exploitation. Under this law it is a criminal offence to pay for sexual services provided by someone who is subjected to force. The definition of ‘force’ includes coercion by threats and other psychological means, including exploitation of vulnerability. Unfortunately the law has proven difficult to implement as it requires proof of coercion within a tight timeframe which can be challenging to achieve.There have been only a handful of prosecutions and only two since 2013. The law also provides no protection for people who have a history of abuse and grooming which has led to their involvement in prostitution. Scotland has no legislation equivalent to this offence
What is CARE doing?
Since 2006 CARE has been working for change in relation to commercial sexual exploitation through advocacy in the UK Parliaments and Assemblies and in Europe. We are currently calling for action in the following areas:
1. Tackle demand
At its most fundamental level prostitution is driven by the demand of those, mostly men, who pay for sexual services. Tackling the demand for paid sexual services and addressing the market for prostitution is crucial to preventing the exploitation of vulnerable people.
Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have introduced laws to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, which they report to be effective in changing attitudes towards commercial sexual exploitation and reducing levels of prostitution and trafficking. More recently Canada, Northern Ireland and France have adopted this approach in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. It has also been endorsed by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
CARE is calling for a law which criminalises all purchase of sexual services without the need to prove coercion based on the successful Nordic approach. We believe that this is the only way to address effectively the demand for sexual services, which exploits the vulnerable and creates a market for trafficking.
We welcomed the adoption of this approach in Northern Ireland in 2015 and were pleased to act as the principal advisor to Lord Morrow who brought the law to the Northern Ireland Assembly. We continue to engage with politicians in the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments encouraging them to follow this same model.
This approach was recommended by a 2018 inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, which recommended the following:
- The Government should combat the demand that drives sexual exploitation by making paying for sex a criminal offence in all locations.
- The Government should review and update the law to hold prostitution procurement websites legally accountable for facilitating and profiting from sexual exploitation.
- The Government should establish a national register of landlords and issue guidance on preventing sexual exploitation for the short-term letting sector.
- All police forces, supported by national law enforcement agencies, should prioritise the development of a robust, strategic response to organised sexual exploitation.
- The Government should remove the criminal offence of soliciting in a street or public space for the purpose of ‘selling’ sex.
2. Support for exit
There is evidence that many of those in prostitution would like to stop, but they face significant barriers in doing so. In particular, they need tailored drug treatment, safe and supported housing, mental health support, financial counselling and access to education and training programmes. Unfortunately, where they do exist these vital exit projects are often under-funded. We are urging all UK governments to increase access to these services.