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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood