The government is considering proposals to prosecute men for buying sex; in this they are following the model of “vice control” used in Sweden.
Government statistics suggest that 85% of women in brothels are from outside the UK and whilst the people that bring these women into Britain are often prosecuted for trafficking, the men who pay for their services escape without charge. Eight years ago in Sweden legislation was passed so that the men who paid for sex would face criminal charges instead of the women selling it.
Other proposals being debated are the “naming and shaming” of men who buy sex through kerbcrawling, something which is already illegal in Britain.
But such reactions are not going to help the vulnerable women within the sex industry; in fact, they can actively endanger them. The Guardian on 10 September quoted Cari Mitchell, of the English Collection of Prostitutes, denying the theory that the Swedish model improves the conditions of women in the sex industry: “Criminalising clients forces prostitution further underground. Women have even less time to check out men fearful of arrest. Instead, women are pushed into more isolated, less well-lit areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. Whatever anyone thinks about men paying for sex, safety should be the priority.”
There are also reports of migrant sex workers in Sweden being arrested and simply deported. Alongside these concerns, the increased pressure on sex workers in terms of time per client and ability to be selective about clients decreases their agency in terms of negotiating safe sex and communicating about problematic clients. The measures increase the risks of sex work in these and many other areas. Safe, secure, legal and unionised environments are surely the only circumstances where sex workers can truly be safe and consider all these aspects of their work.
The criminalisation of clients is not a solution to the dangers of trafficking and prostitution and shouldn’t be considered as the only alternative to prosecuting the women who sell sex. Cari Mitchell goes on to highlight what should be addressed in the debates surrounding this issue: “poverty, debt, rape and domestic violence, lack of housing, cuts in benefits, and low wages in other occupations which force women into prostitution and which the government itself found in its review of the prostitution laws”.
By Heather Shaw