Sex & the citizens: New prostitution laws explained

New laws for the oldest profession are designed to 'punish the punter' and protect the prostitute. Ben Russell explains Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's proposals


Q. How is the law going to change?

A. Ministers have proposed new legislation that would make it a criminal offence to pay to have sex with someone who is "controlled for another person's gain".

The aim is to target men that use prostitutes who have been trafficked or who are being forced into prostitution by pimps or drug dealers.

Under the proposed law, the Home Office would create a "strict liability offence" meaning that prosecutors would not have to prove that a man knew that the prostitute they had hired was trafficked or pimped. Prosecutors would simply have to show that the prostitute was trafficked or coerced and that cash changed hands.

People convicted under the new law would face a fine of up to £1,000 and receive a criminal record – which would most likely affect their chances of getting sensitive jobs.

Ministers are also looking at strengthening the law on kerb-crawling, to allow men to be prosecuted for a first offence. At present, kerb-crawlers must act persistently before they will be hauled before the courts.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, wants to push the legislation through Parliament as soon as possible. A Bill is likely to be included in next month's Queen's Speech.

Ministers are planning to give police new powers to close brothels and are looking at a national campaign to highlight trafficking and exploitation of prostitutes as well as a fresh anti-kerb crawling campaign.

Q. Why is the Government acting now?

A. The murder of five prostitutes around Ipswich in December 2006 provided fresh impetus to efforts to crack down on prostitution.

A national strategy to tackle the trade was published two years ago to try and disrupt it, but ministers now believe more needs to be done to cut the demand for prostitutes.

Ms Smith yesterday published the results of a six-month review into prostitution laws that was designed to find ways of reducing demand among the tens of thousands of men who are thought to use prostitutes each year.

Ministers have been determined to tackle the human misery suffered by many in the sex trade and reduce the exploitation of women working on and off the street, as well as the amount of trafficking. The most recent estimates put the number of women in Britain who have been trafficked to work in prostitution at 4,000, but officials say that number has grown in recent years.

Proposals in 2004 by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett to liberalise the law on prostitution by allowing the practice within "managed areas" were quashed by Downing Street.

Q. How many people willthis affect?

A. Estimates suggest that there are about 80,000 people working as prostitutes in Britain, with 1,500 brothels in London alone. The industry is thought to be worth up to £1bn and has grown as a result of sex clubs, the internet and sex tourism. Officials believe that most prostitutes – possibly as many as nine in every 10 – are forced into the sex trade.

Q. What is the law at the moment?

A. It is not illegal to sell or pay for sex with someone over the age of 18, although there are a string of offences surrounding prostitution.

Laws outlaw running a brothel, pimping and human trafficking. There are also laws outlawing loitering and soliciting, while a law outlawing persistent kerb-crawling was introduced in 2003. It is also against the law for prostitutes to advertise their services in telephone boxes.

The Sexual Offences Act made it illegal to buy sex from anyone aged under 18 and outlawed trafficking people for sexual exploitation.

Q. Why have ministers rejected a full ban on paying for sex?

A. Critics of the Government argue that it should follow Sweden's lead and make it a crime to pay for sex at all. They argue that the proposed law is confusing and has not led to prosecutions in Finland, which has a similar system. But ministers claim that such a move would be "a step too far" in Britain, because the sex trade in Sweden was tiny compared with the scale of the problem in Britain.

The Netherlands decriminalised brothels and street prostitution in licensed areas eight years ago but ministers found the change in the law had not cut the number of people working as prostitutes and that the Dutch authorities were still worried about people being trafficked into the sex trade.

The Home Office argues that its plans will send a strong message that people paying for sex should think about the consequences of doing so.

In their own words: The workers' view

Kitty Stryker 24, professional dominatrix, London

"I come from California and believe me the UK is a way better place to work. There, everything is illegal and you can't talk to the police or get medical help. That's where it is now heading here. People go on all the time about the Swedish model and how it works so well but if you talk to the Swedish they say, 'Are you being absurd?' Any job can be dangerous. A lot of illegal female immigrants are going to be in a position of scary subservience – that is not exclusive to the sex industry. We have factory workers being sexually abused or nannies, but they can't go to the police because they are illegal. That says more about being female and illegal than it does about the sex industry. We should focus on things that do work, such as training for sex workers, being able to report to the police without fear, and keeping clients legal."

Chris 32, male sex worker, partner runs a straight escort agency in the North-East

"I have no idea where they get these figures for trafficked workers from. I have been involved in the industry for 10 years either as an independent or working through an agency and I have never met anyone who has been coerced or forced to do the work. A third work full time and about a third part time. This legislation will just drive it further underground. The police don't know how they will enforce it. How will the clients know who has been trafficked and who hasn't? The worst thing about this legislation is that the worst affected will be those who are already suffering most. People are not going to come forward to the authorities if it puts them at risk. How could an agency or a brothel inform the police they think a particular girl has been trafficked? They would be put out of business. The clients are not all dirty old men. I specialise in elderly and disabled clients – will you really want these people in court in their wheelchairs? You don't rush to be a sex worker, you have to make a decision. Some people who pick it, love it, but it is not for everybody, although that is no reason to ban it."

Victoria Andrews 25, table-dancing club owner, Southampton

"This is Britain in 2008: stigmatising what you can and cannot do is unbelievable. I was a lap dancer for six years at a big national chain and have never seen sex being sold so it would be completely wrong to reclassify a lap dancer as a sex worker. If we are reclassified or relicensed it will change perceptions about the industry and make it hard to recruit staff. I am a graduate from a middle-class background and if my parents thought I was selling sex they wouldn't talk to me again. It would be wrong to say that no one has ever asked for sex but they are always told that it's off the menu. "

Cameron 25, female escort, Newcastle

"I work from my own place for an agency and they take 30 per cent; I feel it is more secure than working independently because the clients get checked out. I can earn up to £80 an hour. I'm angry about what the Government is trying to do. This is the oldest industry going and I don't see the problem with it. I am not ashamed of what I do. It is just a job but people are judging me by what I do. I have some really good friends in the industry and I love some of the clients to bits. I get more respect from them than I do from men I meet in town who talk to you like you are worthless. I have been to university – I am not stuck in a dead end."

Toni 25, sex worker, South-East

"You are extremely vulnerable. Violent men target prostitutes because they know they won't go to the police. I was raped and tortured for four-and-a-half hours by a client but the police told me, 'You are a prostitute, you cannot be raped.' It was very hard to go back to work after that. I am just trying to keep my head and my children's heads above water – 80 per cent of us are mothers. It is just a job of work between two consenting adults. The only immoral thing is the Government telling us how to use our bodies. It is pure arrogance. The Government is using the trafficking issue to clamp down and criminalise prostitution even further."

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