Forget the fantasy: the facts are horrific

I have heard of one young woman who was forced to have sex with 88 men on Christmas Day
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The Independent Online

It has happened behind our backs, a product of the international criminal underworld that is the downside of globalisation. Even now, most people in this country are barely aware that it is going on, in high streets not far from where they live and work. But the global sex trade is flourishing in Britain, with vast profits going into the pockets of traffickers who are alert to every opportunity to expand an operation that has already ruined the lives of thousands of women.

It has happened behind our backs, a product of the international criminal underworld that is the downside of globalisation. Even now, most people in this country are barely aware that it is going on, in high streets not far from where they live and work. But the global sex trade is flourishing in Britain, with vast profits going into the pockets of traffickers who are alert to every opportunity to expand an operation that has already ruined the lives of thousands of women.

Most foreign sex workers in London come from Eastern Europe and South-east Asia, with a small but significant number from Africa; in some poor countries, according to campaigners against trafficking, women and girls are now their biggest export. But unlike the British prostitutes, whose welfare exercised the minds of feminists 30 years ago, many of them have been tricked into the sex trade, coming to the UK in the belief that they will have jobs in bars or restaurants. Others are trying to escape abusive fathers or partners, wrongly believing that they will earn enough in a few months to pay off their debts to the gangs who offer to get them into Britain illegally.

They are beaten and raped into submission, ending up in brothels where they serve dozens of clients every day, usually without receiving any money for work that exposes them to infections such as syphilis and HIV - and to further beatings if they try to escape.

In this new context, the old solutions to the problem of prostitution need to be radically reconsidered. Traffickers, mostly East European criminal gangs, are quick to exploit any change in the law, as they did when the EU expanded its boundaries at the beginning of May last year. Campaigners against trafficking report rising numbers of women from Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, whose nationals can now be brought to London quite legally for the price of a coach ticket. Legalising brothels, a measure many feminists have supported, might make the traffickers' lives even easier, which is why drastic solutions are now beginning to be canvassed.

First, though, it is important to make people in this country aware of the scale of the problem and the hidden impact it may already be having on their lives. Up-to-date figures are hard to come by, but a study carried out for the Home Office five years ago suggested that up to 1,420 women were being trafficked into the UK each year for sexual exploitation - almost certainly an under-estimate. NGOs believe the number has increased hugely in the intervening period.

According to a report published last year by the Poppy Project, which runs the only refuge in the UK for trafficked women, there are currently 730 flats, saunas and other establishments selling sex in London alone. Excluding Westminster, each London borough is believed to have an average of 19 sites where sex can be bought, with between four and eight women at each site. There are even websites on which punters post "reviews" of prostitutes, specifying what the women are prepared to do and how much they charge.

No one knows precisely how many sex workers in this country have been trafficked, but around 80 per cent of the 8,000 prostitutes working in London's brothels, saunas and escort agencies are thought to be foreign nationals. Even if they are working voluntarily in the sex trade, many are desperately poor, and the police have observed alarming new trends in the services they are prepared to provide.

Detective Inspector Dick Powell, head of Scotland Yard's vice squad, said last week there is now a huge demand for anal and unprotected sex. 'Ten years ago it was almost impossible to get that with a working girl," he said in an interview with Police Review, "and if you did, it would be at an astronomical price." These days, such practices have become the norm in brothels raided by the vice squad.

Young women who are being held against their will by violent gangs are not in a position to refuse to do what clients want; this enforced competition has had an effect on other women who work as prostitutes, which is one of the reasons why sex is still available in Soho for as little as £30.

The lives of trafficked women are almost unbearable to think about, as far removed from cinematic fantasy, whether Belle de Jour or Pretty Woman, as it is possible to be. They are moved from one flat to another - between London, Manchester, Birmingham and so on - usually forbidden to speak to each other, and forced to watch beatings of other women who have tried to escape.

It is not unusual to have 40 clients in a single day, and I have heard of one young woman who was forced to have sex with 88 men on Christmas day. They are denied medical treatment, both for sexually-transmitted infections and after beatings, with what DI Powell describes as "horrendous" implications for public health. For selfish reasons alone, this should sound alarm bells in a climate where many punters - some of them, no doubt, with wives and girlfriends - demand and get unprotected sex.

But there is another element to the success of the global sex trade that has hardly been addressed, and that is the extent to which it is a reaction against the emancipation of women in the West.

NGOs are aware of a widespread eroticisation of women from Eastern Europe and South-east Asia, parts of the world that are regarded as untouched by feminism. Trafficking is at the extreme end of a spectrum of behaviour that includes Russian and Thai mail-order brides, long favoured by men who regard British women as too assertive and sure of their rights. In that sense, it is a dismal commentary on the reluctance of some Western men to treat women as equals, an escape route for men whose sexual fantasies revolve around women as compliant as blow-up dolls. It offers a glimpse into a misogynist psychology that damages all women, which is why we should be having an urgent public debate about ways of disrupting this shameful traffic.

Some measures, such as improving cross-border policing, are obvious, while organisations such as Amnesty International, Unicef and Antislavery International are pressing governments to strengthen the European Convention on Trafficking. Victims need a rest and recovery period of at least three months, in which they can receive medical treatment and decide whether to give evidence against their traffickers, who may continue to pose a threat to their families back home.

Most of these measures, however, deal with supply rather than demand. If there were not thousands of men in this country willing to pay for sex with terrified 18-year-olds from Latvia and Ukraine, the trade would collapse overnight. Such men are as culpable as the gangs who bring the women to the UK, and one sure way of disrupting it would be to introduce a new criminal offence of having sex with a trafficked woman, with penalties similar to sexual assault. After all, someone who is in fear of her life cannot give meaningful consent to sex, any more than a rape victim can.

It is time to give legal recognition to the fact that trafficked woman are the victims of repeated assaults, by men who do not care about, or get a kick out of, their state of bondage.

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