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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

Dr Mark Cowling is Reader in Criminology at the University of Teesside. He is the author of Date Rape and Consent and Marxism and Criminological Theory: A Critique and a Toolkit.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times