What men should ask prostitutes

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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks ago, three men were jailed for a total of 40 years at Sheffield Crown Court for selling a teenage girl as a sex slave. The 15-year-old came to Britain from Lithuania in the summer of 2004, believing she had found a holiday job in a restaurant. Instead, she was repeatedly raped and forced to work as a prostitute in London, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester and Sheffield. She changed hands seven times, sold from one gang of traffickers to another, until she ran barefoot from a nightclub in Sheffield to a local police station. The men found guilty of trafficking her were illegal immigrants from Kosovo and Macedonia, whom the judge ordered to be deported when they complete their prison sentences.

A couple of weeks ago, three men were jailed for a total of 40 years at Sheffield Crown Court for selling a teenage girl as a sex slave. The 15-year-old came to Britain from Lithuania in the summer of 2004, believing she had found a holiday job in a restaurant. Instead, she was repeatedly raped and forced to work as a prostitute in London, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester and Sheffield. She changed hands seven times, sold from one gang of traffickers to another, until she ran barefoot from a nightclub in Sheffield to a local police station. The men found guilty of trafficking her were illegal immigrants from Kosovo and Macedonia, whom the judge ordered to be deported when they complete their prison sentences.

Dreadful though this case is, its details will be familiar to anyone who is aware of the horrors of trafficking in Britain today. The Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, mentioned it in a major speech last week - and another case in which a 17-year-old Russian woman was provided with a false Lithuanian passport and offered a job as a waitress in Spain. She was actually taken to Belgium, where she was forced to work as a prostitute and sold to an Albanian man called Dimitrov, who brought her to London. She was finally rescued with the help of a cleaner.

The involvement of so many east Europeans, whether as members of criminal gangs or their victims, provides a screen for the other essential component in trafficking: the punters. "It would be more comfortable to just focus on the traffickers and their victims," Harman said last week, "but we must focus on the men who use these girls as well." She is right: it is local demand - British men who visit anonymous flats and houses to have sex with terrified young women - that creates the trade from which traffickers get their profits. But Harman didn't stop there. She pointed out that men who have sex with trafficked women are committing criminal offences, and called on the police to charge them (and the traffickers) with rape.

It is a relief to hear one of the Government's most senior law officers come out and say this. The sex trade has become so acceptable, whether in the form of lap dancing, voluntary prostitution or trafficking, that it is no longer seen as a form of abuse. Men post "reviews" of prostitutes on websites and punters do not care whether women are in the sex trade against their will; a young woman who was blinded in one eye when she tried to escape told me she was given an eyepatch and forced to go on working, without arousing the curiosity of the men who had sex with her. Women who escape often say in interviews with police that they told punters they were not consenting to sex, according to deputy assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, who is in charge of the serious crime division of the Metropolitan Police. "The whole issue of consent does need to be tested [in court]. Technically it is rape," he says.

The idea that clients have a responsibility to establish whether a woman is working willingly as a prostitute - and are committing a criminal offence if she isn't - is a huge conceptual shift, and you might think Harman's speech would be headline news. Yet it seems barely to have been reported, even though copies were distributed in advance. I don't know why this should be, although trafficking is still to some extent a hidden problem, unlike street prostitution.

Some campaigners think that Harman has not gone nearly far enough, advocating the Swedish model, a unique experiment in which buying sex from anyone - prostitutes or trafficked women - has been outlawed for the past six years. Selling sex, on the other hand, is no longer an offence. "Gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them," according to a factsheet which has been published by the Swedish government. That may be a step too far for ministers in this country, but identifying as rapists British men who have sex with trafficked women is a good start.

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