Unlike France, the UK's Approach to Prostitution Reeks of Cowardice and Inertia

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By Heather Harvey | December 9, 2013 10:36 PM EST

France's new law comes after months of ardent debate on the subject of prostitution [Reuters].

On 4 December, the Lower House of the French Parliament adopted a bill under which paying for sex would become an offence. The legislation includes measures to support women exiting prostitution, and addressing internet advertisements.

The policy response to prostitution is the subject of polarised debate. While some believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, incompatible with women's dignity and inequality, others believe prostitution is a commercial, consensual sexual activity and should not be regulated. It is also widely believed that prostitution is work, like any other form of work, and should be treated as such.

Government interventions, policing and investment in prostitution will depend on their stance in the debate. They might seek to prevent entry into prostitution, provide exiting and criminalise some aspects of prostitution. They might turn a blind eye. They might develop official structures and processes.

A government's stance shapes norms and attitudes. Take seatbelts, the smoking ban and stiff penalties for drink-driving - all top-down government impositions, once unthinkable. So the passing of this bill could have far-reaching effects on French attitudes to prostitution.

In one UK study, examining the buying behaviours of men who buy sex, 49% of 103 men interviewed bought sex outside the UK, most commonly in the Netherlands. This may reflect Netherlands' relative proximity but several men explained a preference for more legalised regimes because it reduced their sense of guilt or ambivalence.  

One respondent to the study, entitled Men who Buy Sex, said: "When I got back, my whole perception of prostitution changed. I felt no

guilt. Before I saw it as something illegal and wrong - not morally wrong, but I didn't want to pay for sex"

Governments sometimes adopt legalised regimes believing that this might reduce related crime like human trafficking, reduce stigma and increase safety for women in prostitution. After all, women in prostitution are 12 times more likely to be murdered than women in the general population and some 75% of women in prostitution enter under the age 18, often fleeing abuse, neglect or destitution.

A 2012 study of a cross-section of 150 countries, however, found that legalised prostitution increased prostitution and human trafficking. It is notable too that some legalised regimes are backtracking, including the Netherlands, which closed nearly half its red light windows.

In fact, in legalised regimes it has been found that women do not want to come out of the shadows and go on a register. The beneficiaries of such measures are the men who feel legitimised in their purchase of women's bodies and the pimps, managers and governments who share the profits. Indeed some women describe this as the government becoming their "pimp".

Those who take the view that prostitution is work still maintain that criminalising the buyer makes women less safe, destroys the only livelihood some women have and merely displaces the industry.

These are genuine concerns so an approach, as here, which invests in supporting women to exit as well as criminalising buyers is important. While more research would be welcome, initial findings suggest that this Nordic approach has seen a reduction in visible prostitution and trafficking with such countries being less palatable to traffickers. While there has been a rise in online advertising for prostitution, this was found to be in line with general trends. However it is inevitable that where policy varies from borough to county to country there is a risk of displacement. This is why the European Women's Lobby argues for a Europe-wide approach.

Business, banking, finance, communications, tourism and taxation have a complex relationship with the sex industry. Havoscope estimates conservatively that prostitution accounts for revenue of US$186bn.

Rachel Moran cites Berlin brothel-keeper Tatiana Ulyanova as saying: "Why shouldn't I look for employees through the job centre when I pay my taxes just like anybody else?" Indeed UK Government departments have had to repeal adverts and issue clarifications that women on unemployment benefit will not be forced to enter the sex industry.  

So far, however, the current government has fought shy of taking a position. Their publication describes a range of often contradictory approaches to prostitution as equally viable options. There is no vision, mission, strategy or objective on policy for the future of women in, or at risk of, entering prostitution or for the direction they wish to see prostitution take.

This is a total abdication of responsibility to some of the most marginalised, women and girls in our society. It breaches the obligation to monitor and understand what is happening and why, to be accountable for the lives of some of the most vulnerable or to invest resources to address the issue.

In the meantime the buyers of prostitution keep themselves up to date with developments, having as they do, a vested interest in policy direction and are resolutely thankful for our government's inertia.

Heather Harvey is a spokeswoman for Eaves for Women, which strives to support women who are victims of violence. She has also given evidence to the Leveson inquiry on the represenation of violence against women and girls.

For more information about Eaves for Women, go to the group's website.

To contact the editor, e-mail:

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