Joan Smith: Men, misogyny and the sex trade

It is apparent that paying for sex is losing much of its stigma in this country
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The Independent Online

Here it is at last, hard evidence of something I have suspected for a long time: many more men in this country are paying for sex. According to research published yesterday, the number of British men who admit using prostitutes doubled in a decade, a statistic that confirms anecdotal evidence that demand is rising.

The authors of the report, "Who Pays For Sex", published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, link the rise to increasing use of the internet to advertise sex, higher divorce rates and more sex tourism. But anyone familiar with the grim world of sex trafficking will immediately discern a more sinister connection, for there can be little doubt that rising demand in this country is a major incentive for east European gangs who prey on vulnerable girls and women.

Scarcely a week goes by without gang members appearing in court in a British city; earlier this week, four Albanian men were convicted of trafficking at Southwark Crown Court, where another member of the gang had already pleaded guilty. The trial was the result of an investigation by BBC journalists who interviewed the family of a missing 16-year-old girl in Lithuania, then helped British police to track down the men who had forced her to work as a prostitute.

The court heard that she was required to have sex with up to 10 men a day, earning around £800 for the gang, which included four brothers. They ran brothels in west London, including one in Hounslow which took between £3,000 and £18,000 a day.

The awful reality is that such exposés are becoming commonplace, offering a glimpse not just into this modern-day slave trade but an idea of how vast it is. I have nothing but praise for journalists who pursue traffickers, sometimes at considerable risk to themselves, but what we have not yet had is sufficient exposure of the third side of the triangle - demand - without which the other two could not exist.

Indeed, we are frequently presented with trafficking stories as though they are an entirely foreign phenomenon, which is a very unhelpful distortion. When it comes to making policy on sex trafficking, prosecutions of gang members are not enough; criminals from eastern Europe would not go to the trouble of transporting young women hereif there were not increasing numbers of clients in the UK willing to pay for sex with them.

Many of these men would no doubt deny any knowledge that the women they visit in flats and suburban massage parlours have been trafficked, a proposition which is not easy to maintain in the face of video footage of cowed women stumbling from brothels after police raids.

In fact, there have been occasional instances of women escaping from gangs after clients realised they were being held against their will. But most clients do not care whether women have been trafficked, or are even excited by the idea. For some time, it has been apparent that paying for sex is losing much of its stigma in this country, to a point where clients exchange information about prostitutes on websites, even posting "reviews".

Although welcome, the new research on sexual habits in this country is already out of date, for it compared studies of the sexual behaviour of around 5,000 adults in 1990 and 2000. Among the men interviewed in 2000, 4.3 per cent admitted they had paid for sex in the previous five years, compared with only 2 per cent in 1990. The proportion of men who admitted paying for sex at some point in their lives also doubled, from one in 20 in 1990 to nearly one in 10 in 2000. There is every reason to believe that the trend has continued.

Even if some of the increase is due to a greater willingness to admit to paying for sex, the authors of the report say that the findings correspond with the experience of sex workers. The lead author, Helen Ward of Imperial College, London, also highlights fears that men paying for sex might be more likely to carry sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which previous studies have shown to be rising at an alarming rate in the UK.

This cannot be unconnected with the fact that thousands of trafficked women in this country are being forced to provide unprotected sex, sometimes with dozens of men each day. Some of those men will pass on infections to their wives, girlfriends and other sex workers, making it a largely unreported but significant public health issue.

A couple of months ago, I suggested to a Home Office minister, Paul Goggins, that a campaign is urgently needed to warn women who may unknowingly be at risk of infection through this route. Yesterday's evidence of rising demand for paid sex confirms this need.

Surprisingly, the larger question of how to deal with demand remains mostly unaddressed. Men found in brothels with trafficked women during police raids are allowed to leave, without consideration of whether they should face charges, while the women - victims, in effect, of forcible detention and multiple rape - often find themselves in detention centres, prior to swift deportation. The Government's acknowledgement earlier this week that it is considering signing the new European Convention Against Human Trafficking, which gives victims the right to a recovery period and temporary residence permits if they are in danger, is belated but welcome. It is also the least we can do, I would have thought, for foreign women who have been dreadfully abused in this country and by British men.

But we will not stop sex trafficking until we look squarely at the men who are driving it, by which I mean clients as much as the traffickers. Such men are paying not for consensual sex but an opportunity to rape, since a young woman who has been beaten and held against her will cannot give meaningful consent.

Even if the police are uncertain about the prospects of securing a conviction for rape, they could follow the example of forces in some European cities by taking the names and addresses of men who use brothels and massage parlours, on the ground that they may have committed criminal offences.

In Sweden, where buying rather than selling sex is now a criminal offence, men who are discovered with prostitutes (trafficked or otherwise) can be sentenced to attend "John school", an education programme where they meet former sex workers and hear about the violence and intimidation they have suffered.

This innovative idea should be imported to the UK, both for men who are irresponsible enough to have sex with trafficked women and the convicted gang members filling up British prisons. For while trafficking is lucrative, it is not just driven by money; the trade in female flesh could not thrive without the existence of a deep-seated misogyny that denies women their rightful status as human beings.