Is Smith right on prostitution?

Moves to tackle trafficking and prostitution may be well intentioned but is there a whiff of a moral

When - on Wednesday, 19 November, Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, announced plans to tackle prostitution they included a raft of measures focusing on the men that pay for sex.

  • The introduction of a specific strict liability offence of paying for sex with someone who is controlled for another person’s gain, with a fine of £1000
  • Running a marketing campaign aimed specifically at sex buyers to raise awareness about trafficking for sexual exploitation
  • Making it possible to prosecute kerb crawlers without needing to prove that they are 'persistent'
  • Making it easier to close brothels where there is evidence of trafficking, child sexual exploitation, or causing, inciting or controlling prostitution for gain.

The rationale for these measures is to be found in a document issued by the Home Office called: Tackling the Demand for Prostitution: A Review.

There is no doubt that some of the aim of these measures is justified. Trafficking can involve tricking girls and women into believing that they are coming to Britain to be, for example, waitresses, but when they arrive they find they are detained against their will and forced to work long hours as prostitutes.

This constitutes serial rape. Moreover the victims are liable to face serious problems on returning home. They may be disowned by their own families and communities, and they or their families may face reprisals from the traffickers.

However, there is a strong suggestion of a moral crusade which links radical feminism and a conservative disapproval of prostitution at work. In a Commons answer on October 9, 2008, Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, was asked why, if there was such a problem with trafficking, there were relatively few arrests.

She answered in part: "We are concentrating on demand because it is clear that 58 per cent of the population would ban prostitution entirely and make it an offence, if they were satisfied — as I am — that it encourages trafficking. We will look closely at bringing into force deterrent legislation to try to cut demand."

The background to this is two police operations against trafficking. Pentameter 1 took place in 2006. It involved all 55 police forces, raided 515 premises, and produced 88 confirmed victims of trafficking.

Pentameter 2 - as described in the Home Office Review - took place between October 2007 and March 2008, again involved all 55 police forces, raided 822 premises and rescued 172 victims.

According to the Home Office there are about 80,000 people involved in prostitution in the UK. The police raids will presumably have targeted massage parlours offering exotic lovelies rather than English girls. The results are thus pretty disappointing.

Much of the academic work on prostitution is critical of the direction the Home Office is taking. Similar criticisms are made by the English Collective of Prostitutes. Some of the main criticisms of the assault on trafficking are: Surveys suggest that some 10 per cent of British men have paid for sex at some time.

Criminalising 10 per cent of the male population should be approached with caution.

Although there are undoubtedly violent and unpleasant clients, a major theme of reports of visits to prostitutes on websites such as Punternet is affectionate appreciation, a desire for GFE (Girl Friend Experience).

The majority of women working as independent escorts or in massage parlours appear to be British, not trafficked or coerced, and not addicted to drugs. Their motivation is essentially financial. One of the entries on the SAAFE website, which offers advice to independent escorts, counsels them to pace themselves because it is easy to get tired out because of the temptation to overwork thanks to the large amounts of money to be made.

Although trafficking people into sexual and other forms of slavery undoubtedly occurs, it should be remembered that there is also people smuggling, meaning getting illegal immigrants into Britain for a fee.

Undocumented economic migrants are terribly vulnerable to exploitation. Those working in prostitution may well simply regard it as more lucrative than agricultural work, food preparation, working in restaurants or cockle picking. Earnings from prostitution in Britain are higher than in Third World countries, so that the UK is attractive to women already working as prostitutes elsewhere for the same sorts of reasons that the UK is attractive to other people from the Third World.

A common situation seems to be something in between slavery and free labour, in which the migrant is helping to pay off the smuggling fee.

A major source of anxiety for undocumented migrants working as prostitutes is that their 'rescue' will lead to deportation. They may be reluctant to give evidence against 'traffickers' because they are trying to keep their side of a bargain with the people who got them here, rather than because of intimidation.

Clients are a potential resource against trafficking into sexual slavery, as they can be encouraged to report possible trafficking by organisations such as BlueBlindfold. If they are criminalised by a strict liability offence and the possibility of being accused of rape they are unlikely to do so.

Working in a brothel or massage parlour is generally seen as the safest way of engaging in prostitution. The major danger appears to be robbery rather than sexual violence.

Academics also tend to be critical of the Home Office encouragement of a zero tolerance approach to street prostitution as piloted in Middlesbrough.

Street prostitution has been a perennial feature of British life since at least the middle ages, when many towns had a street called Gropecunt Lane.

There is therefore a worry that such a policy will merely push street prostitution underground and make it more dangerous for the women involved.

Such an approach tends to disrupt outreach schemes which offer counselling, health advice and encouragement to quit.

Because potential clients are afraid of arrest in red light areas, prostitutes tend to work in other areas, at greater danger to themselves. This can involve a shift from light industrial areas, which are relatively empty in the evening, to residential areas.

There seems at least a possibility that anyone living with a prostitute, and hence at least partially living off her earnings, may be identified as a pimp, thus rendering any client of a street prostitute liable to a criminal record and a £1000 fine.

As with trafficking, the more clients are criminalised the less they are likely to cooperate in any attempts to apprehend men who rob, rape and murder street prostitutes.

The Home Office encouragement of women to desist from street prostitution is laudable if it involves providing services for voluntary use. However, the policy document A Co-ordinated Prostitution Strategy carries suggestions that women who fail to desist with encouragement will face more Draconian measures, notably ASBOs which can result in up to 5 years imprisonment rather than the fines which street prostitutes have faced in recent years.

Overall the concern of critics is that the increased criminalisation of an activity that is largely voluntary will cause more misery than the evils it is intended to cure.

Dr Mark Cowling is Reader in Criminology at the University of Teesside