Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Sexual double standards are not the preserve of conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

I'm quite willing to believe that "cultural attitudes" underlay the apparent belief of members of the Asian criminal gang that young white girls, many of whom were or had been in care, were "easy meat" for their predatory sexual behaviour.

After all, such cultural attitudes are hardly confined to those with family connections in Pakistan.  They even seem to have been prevalent at the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided back in 2008 that a girl who had come forward to describe being raped would not make a credible witness.  If traditionally-minded Asians are indeed liable to believe that  children like her are of less account than their own overprotected daughters it must be asked how they came by such ideas.  Perhaps they have been reading the Daily Mail's frequent and lurid accounts of the Hogarthian decadence with which a high proportion of this nation's teenage girls supposedly conduct themselves.

A Guardian editorial yesterday helpfully explained that "the force that shaped it [the sexual abuse] was not the ethnicity of the abusers but the poor, chaotic family lives of the victims."  Thus was the blame seemlessly (and perhaps unconsciously) transferred from the perpetrators. Poor and chaotic family lives may have rendered the victims vulnerable to the blandishments of these criminal gangs but it does not explain why they were raped. The only force that shaped the abuse was the behaviour of the abusers.

And it didn't take long, last night, for the BBC's "flagship" Question Time to degenerate into a veritable orgy of slut-shaming. Peter Oborne, a Telegraph journalist who has written extensively against Islamophobia, was the worst offender.  "What does it tell us about what's happened to our society," he wondered, "that we have 12 year old girls, 13 year old girls, who are happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone?" He later elaborated that the girls had shown themselves "ready to surrender their innocence for a bag of crisps".  

The implication is clear: the problem is with young girls, well below the age of consent, who (allegedly willingly) "surrender their innocence", rather than with the men who take. "Society" is to blame for allowing this to happen. The perpetrators, presumably, just couldn't help themselves, like children in a sweetshop. And Oborne's language of "beauty" and "innocence", with its nauseating fetishisation of female purity, seemed to embody precisely those "cultural attitudes" towards women that are assumed to characterise conservative Muslim communities. 

A man in the audience who appeared to be a bishop then chipped in with the suggestion that 13 year-old girls "go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place".  He later withdrew the obvious imputation that they were "asking for it", but it's striking how naturally the thought had come to his mind. As it came to the mind of Caroline Spelman that the solution lay in giving girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) "the right values... to keep themselves safe."

It would be naive to suppose that many of the girls who found themselves at the mercy of these gangs didn't already have "issues".  A high proportion came from broken homes and had been in the care system.  It's undeniable that such children are more likely than average to become involved in crime or drugs, to become pregnant at an early age, to end up homeless or engaged in street prostitution.  But that only makes it more important not to make them complicit in their own degradation.

It's not so many years ago that it was standard practice for underage prostitutes to be regarded by the police and justice system as criminals rather than as victims.  It's only a couple of weeks ago that a rape victim was named on Twitter by fans of the footballer convicted of assaulting her.  The charge being levelled against her, effectively, was one of having "loose morals".  No-one invoked the alien "cultural norms" of football supporters to explain such attitudes, as did David Starkey in response to the Asian grooming gangs, or saw it as evidence that the education system had failed adequately to convey the "history of feminism" in these islands.  

The trial that ended this week in Liverpool was not the first, and won't be the last, to feature predominantly Pakistani-British gangs preying sexually upon mainly white girls from troubled backgrounds.  There are, no doubt, special features at work in these cases: two that spring to mind are the sexual frustration experienced by young men from strict, patriarchal families and the "biraderi" system of male mutual support which might easily be debased into one of passing around young girls for sex.  But the sexual double standards, the valuation of women based on their actual or presumed availability, the writing off of girls from difficult backgrounds as "white trash": such attitudes are far from being the preserve of those from conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

BNP members protest outside Liverpool Crown Court, 9 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.