At last – action on behalf of trafficked women in the UK

The government has finally taken action on behalf of trafficked women. Under the plan, the Home Office is planning to criminalise paying for sex with a woman “controlled for another person’s gain”. However, the move has already been undermined by cuts to the budget for human trafficking investigations and the closure of the leading unit.

Jacqui Smith came under considerable pressure this morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, but, effectively, the presenter missed the point. Whatever the views of libertarians (a position which should not be confused with liberalism), the most important action to reduce human trafficking into the UK is to reduce the demand, and the only method open to legislators is the law. Pimps and traffickers have many ways of concealing their linkage with trafficked women. In previous generations, the women themselves have been penalised, often with scant regard for the possibility that they are trafficked or otherwise coerced. Penalising clients who knowingly make use of coerced prostitutes is by far the most reasonable, effective and intelligent approach.

Radio 4 made much of the suggestion that a man might unwittingly make use of the services of a coerced woman, believing that this was not the case. However, this is not legally dissimilar to any case of people who recklessly purchase stolen goods or profit by other illegal activity without making reasonable enquiries. There is a strong body of case law and police practice to prevent the innocent from facing charges.

Objections from the English Collective of Prostitutes are similarly misguided: women who choose prostitution will not be affected by this. In fact, this is progressive legislation, because, in the past, almost all legislation regarding prostitution has focused on penalising prostitutes themselves. It is not very long ago that the same government was introducing ASBOs and CRASBOs which, frequently, resulted in prostitutes facing fines which they could only pay by returning to prostitution — a vicious cycle which could have been anticipated, but was not.

At its most simple, we have to face the question: does any man ever have the right to sex with a woman who is coerced into doing so? There are few questions where the result is so clear cut. No human being has this right. It is a fundamental violation of the very basis of human rights. In that case, we are left asking: why has this not been illegal for some time? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and a much more promising line of attack which Radio 4 might have considered pursuing. Given that there is widespread awareness of the problem of human trafficking, most men who use prostitutes must have some inkling that there is a possibility that the people they are dealing with are either traffickers or trafficked women. In that case, why have men not banded together before to drive the traffickers out of business? A lot of work was done on this question in Belgium in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the publication of the seminal ‘Ze zijn zo lief, menheer’, by Chris de Stoop. In Belgium, where prostitution is effectively legal in all its forms (and therefore a counter example to those who argue that legalising and regulating prostitution will end people trafficking), 1/3 of men are estimated to use prostitutes, and, as de Stoop demonstrated, high numbers were aware of the status of the women they were using. De Stoop explored the reasons for which men engaged in activity which, when considered in the coldest light of morning, was utterly brutal and degrading, and was not (as it is often put) ‘equivalent to a modern form of slavery’, but is, in fact, with no qualifications, slavery itself. The most commonly occurring ‘reason’ became the title for the book “because they’re so nice”.

After many, many years of campaigns, the government is finally doing something. They should be applauded. But there is much work still to do, and, if they are serious, they must now reinstate cut funds for trafficking investigation.

Whether or not the police are ever funded to enforce the new laws — a serious issue, given the recent cuts — the fact that sex with trafficked women will become illegal is a massive step forward in itself. Far too often, the most compelling argument put forward by people engaged in activities of this type is “if it was that bad, it would be against the law”. At last, it will be.

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