Joan Smith: Don't legalise brothels - stop the trade entirely

In Sweden, men who try to buy sex face fines or a prison sentence of up to six months

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I can't say I picture the Home Office as a laid-back place where people talk a lot about world peace and free love - except in one instance. At the beginning of this year, the then Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart came up with a plan to allow two women and a maid to work together in mini-brothels, arguing that it would protect them from violence and exploitation. The idea struck many observers as bizarre, going against the spirit of the Home Office's strategy for prostitution, which was announced at the same time and ruled out "tolerance zones" in favour of helping women to escape from the sex trade.

Last weekend, Ms Mactaggart, now a backbench MP, was at it again, arguing that the murders of five young women in Suffolk demonstrate the need to implement her idea. At the same time, a former adviser to David Blunkett claimed that the Home Office's original policy document, which included tolerance zones, was blocked by No10 because officials feared a "hostile media response".

Well, all I can say is thank God for No 10, and indeed Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, who has become the first government minister to call for men to be prosecuted for paying for sex.

Prostitution is a horrible industry, run by pimps for the benefit of men who like to reify and abuse women. These days, it is closely entwined with trafficking, so that many women who work in the supposedly "safe" part of the industry - saunas, massage parlours and flats - are, in effect, sex slaves.

Ms Harman knows that, which is why she called last year for men who have sex with trafficked women to be prosecuted for rape. Now she has injected some common sense into the debate about the legal status of prostitution, citing a radical experiment in Sweden - where the government has decriminalised the sale of sex and started prosecuting men who buy it - as something the British government should look at.

Under a regime which has wide public support, men who try to buy sex face fines or a prison sentence of up to six months, while women are offered help with the problems that drove them into the sex trade. It's a long overdue inversion of the traditional legal approach to prostitution, and it's rightly exciting interest around the world. Pace, that little band of hippy-dippy types at the Home Office, suggests most women who work as prostitutes are not happy hookers, reading copies of Playboy in hot pants while waiting to service a client who looks like Richard Gere.

They are often women who were sexually abused as children, who have spent much of their lives in local authority care, who depend on Class A drugs, and whose daily experience is degradation at the hands of violent, misogynist clients; according to a Canadian study, prostitutes are 40 times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the female population. It's crazy to think the answer to this problem of systematic long-term abuse is to make it easier for men to buy women - but that's exactly what tolerance zones or legalised brothels do.

People who advocate either are making a basic mistake about the nature of prostitution, which isn't so much about sex - we live at a moment in history when consensual sex has never been so freely available - as the desire to dominate, humiliate and hurt. Studies published in 2001 and 2003 suggested that women who work as prostitutes exhibit the same incidence of traumatic brain injury - due to being beaten, kicked in the head, strangled and having their heads slammed into dashboards - as victims of torture and domestic violence.

It's hard to think of any other "occupation" where such a level of risk would be tolerated. Far from ameliorating the effects of prostitution, legalisation normalises the act of buying sex and provides irresistible opportunities for criminal gangs; it increases the size of both the legal and illegal trade, with the latter supplying underage girls and sex acts that may be off-limits in brothels. This has happened in the Netherlands, where it is estimated that 80 per cent of the country's prostitutes are trafficked, and in parts of Australia.

It's bad enough that it has taken the deaths of five women to stimulate a debate about prostitution in this country. The notion that the solution is a string of mini-brothels, untroubled by pimps and traffickers, in which cheerful "girls" minister to charming clients, belongs in the realm of bad fiction. Prostitution is a late stage in a long cycle of exploitation, in which vulnerable girls who have been abused as children end up doing it for a living.

Listen to Ms Harman, not Pretty Woman: men who willingly continue that abuse should find themselves in prison.

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