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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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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.