This article was co-authored by Seema Malhotra, the Shadow Minister for preventing violence against women
What image is conjured in your mind when you think about prostitution? Is it the woman on a street corner or the massage parlours and strips shows in a red light district? Is it the soft lighting and glamour brought to life in the diaries of Belle Du Jour? Or is it a scared young woman locked in a room and forced to have sex against her will?
Sylvia came to our country from Uganda to get away from her abusive husband. She was told by a friend that he could find her a job in a catering company. When she arrived, however, she was driven to a house in Manchester, locked in a room, raped, beaten and forced into prostitution. Each day she would be forced to have sex with up 10 men. She managed to escape after a few months and is now building a new life.
We recently met a young mum who had managed to exit prostitution after five years. Her boyfriend, who she met after graduating, had slowly taken control of her life and forced her into prostitution. She was forced to have sex with groups of men or travel to different locations and do whatever was demanded of her. She took to drink and drugs to hide the physical and mental pain, and seven years after exiting, like so many in her situation, continues to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
The truth is there are thousands of women in our country who are living in sexual slavery. They get there by different routes – pimped by people they know, trafficked by organised gangs, many are extremely vulnerable having been abused in the past.
Delving into the world of buying and selling sex goes much further than the more common perceptions of prostitution. It reveals a complex web of abuse, control, money and power. Last year the Home Office estimated the trade in the human trafficking of women to be sexually exploited in the UK was worth at least £130m. But many women only receive a tiny slice of that – and some, like Sylvia, get nothing at all.
The physical and psychological impact of those who are sexually exploited are severe. The Home Office’s own figures suggest over half of women involved in prostitution have been victims of rape or sexual assault.
Perhaps most shockingly of all, there is growing evidence that many of those in prostitution began to be involved in this work before they were 18 – and police in London have particularly noticed an increase in under-age girls selling sex in recent years.
We can’t just ignore this.
Some argue that sex work can be a form of empowerment for women, a way to earn money in a world of low paid, temporary and insecure employment. There are some women for whom this is an active choice. The trouble is that in too many cases women are being caught in cycles of violence, coerced through trafficking, abusive relationships, addiction, and poverty. And many who stay because they don't know where to get support or don't believe other work is available to them.
We need to look at how countries elsewhere have reformed their laws to protect women, developed effective exit strategies, reduced the numbers of people trafficked for sexual exploitation, reduced violence and reduced the market for buying sex which traffickers and pimps exploit and profit from.
A growing number of countries have adopted an approach which criminalises the purchase of sex and gives women working in prostitution the support they need to find different ways of earning money. They have challenged the idea prevalent in many countries that the way to reduce prostitution and exploitation is to arrest women in prostitution, whilst ignoring the men who pimp them or pay them for sex. The early signs suggest this has had some real success.
In Sweden, where this law has been in place for 15 years, the number of prostitutes working on the streets has gone down by half and the number of people being trafficked into the country has been reduced. Some voiced concerns about whether this would drive prostitution underground and make it more dangerous for the women involved – but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The same law has now been enacted in Norway, France, Canada and, most recently Northern Ireland.
And in Ipswich, after the awful murders of prostitutes in the town, the police adopted a similar approach within the existing British law, arresting kerb crawlers, whilst helping women deal with addiction and coercion that was keeping them on the streets. But it is very hard within the current legislative framework to combat exploitation within brothels – where those trafficked into prostitution are most likely to be working. Police raids can end up with exploited women being taken into custody, rather than those who are exploiting them. Labour is pushing for a new offence of exploitation to make it easier to prosecute the criminal gangs and brothel owners.
But it’s time we looked more closely at the evidence from Ipswich and across Europe, to see what can be done to help people escape from sexual exploitation on our streets and behind closed doors in many of our communities. That is why Labour has put forward amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill to ask the Government to carry out some detailed research and consultation into changes we could make to prostitution laws in this country to keep more women safe - looking particularly at what Sweden has done.
Of course we mustn’t rush into changes without fully understanding the impact they’d have. We need to be sure this won’t push women into even more vulnerable and dangerous situations, and we need to consult for wider views. But we also cannot continue as we are, burying our heads in the sand as women in our country are trapped in sexual slavery.
For those thousands of women who are not in prostitution by choice, their voice needs to be heard and lessons learnt from the trauma of their lives.