Red light toleration zones seem such a good idea. After all, they have them in Amsterdam, and everyone knows that the Dutch lead the way in a happy, liberal society with low teenage pregnancy and freedom for all. What’s more, any discussion about sexual politics always ends up with someone pointing out that things get worse if you drive them underground.
But myself, I couldn’t agree less. You see, I’ve lived in Holland, and I’ve worked with victims of people trafficking and the sex industry.
There is simply no way of organising the sex trade that makes it anything other than sordid. Although it’s always possible to find individual sex workers who boldly proclaim that they chose their career themselves and wouldn’t have it any other way, the broader facts speak all too clearly.
Statistically, you are far more likely to find your way into prostitution if you have been in care as a teenager, or if you have suffered child abuse. Among other studies, background to this is available in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation / NSPCC study Choice and Opportunity Project: Young women and sexual exploitation. In that study of 55 13-18 year old women, 39 had been in care or looked after by the local authority.
A very high proportion of people who are trafficked in Europe (read ‘sold as slaves’) end up in the sex trade. Street prostitution is dangerous and humiliating for those who practice it, but building based prostitution is the real power base of sex traffickers – it is simply so much easier to coerce, intimidate and imprison in those circumstances. Legalised brothels in Amsterdam, and tolerated establishments in Belgium, have merely given the traffickers a safer and more defined market. A particularly disturbing report into the trafficking of children into the UK can be found here: Children – what the professionals know
But tolerance zones for street prostitution don’t help either. The control mechanisms that pimps use don’t depend on the legality of what sex workers do. The Home Office estimates that 95% of people working on the streets are using heroin or crack. The introduction of tolerance zones will not benefit these workers.
But what are the alternatives?
The Association of Chief Police Officers vice strategy, published today, is especially to be welcomed because it favours setting up safe houses and exit schemes. This is perhaps surprising coming from police chiefs, since in local situations it is often the police who favour Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and other penalty based approaches to tackling prostitution. From a police point of view, legalising brothels and tolerance zones would get the problem off their books. Exit schemes are a much harder — but better — approach to take.
Their new strategy perhaps reflects the realisation that the current practice of fining girls for soliciting only puts them back on the streets with a need to earn more cash fast.
But there is one legislative approach which has met with some success where it has been tried. Instead of fining the girls, fine the customers. One of the subtle and insidious degradations of the UK sex trade is that while sex workers are seen as dirty, cheap, and reprehensible, their clients are often able to continue respectable lives as business men, politicians, even senior policemen. Who has the most to lose by the threat of the courts? The clients. Who do financial penalties most put off repeat offending? The clients. Who is most threatened by their names and pictures appearing in local papers after a successful conviction? The clients.
It is a reflection of the nasty double standards that persist in the UK sex industry that this approach is often rejected at the local level. It appears that key figures veto it without giving any reasons.
You don’t have to think about it for very long to work out why.