Why the sex trade flourishes

Men my age, confused about their role, use prostitutes most

Share
Related Topics

The people who go out drinking in Soho never look up. If they did they would notice the red lights beaming from the first floors of bars and TV production houses, restaurants and clubs. They confer a rose-tinted glow on the darkest corners of Britain's sex trade, welcoming in punters with the hastily penned felt-tipped signs: "Busty, young Polish girl", "Leggy blonde just into the UK".

The second sign is posted on my street. "Just into the UK", my heart sinks when I read it because it almost certainly means there are trafficked girls working as prostitutes in Soho right now. And like the police, I don't ask questions. So I moved in two years ago and the signs are still up, the girls are still on the street, and everyone still looks down.

I don't blame them. Soho is electrifying – a Mecca for drinkers and party-goers drawn by its chic laissez-faire attitudes. It is, of course, absurd to move in and complain about the moral tone. But this is a question of degrees. In the Queen's Speech on Wednesday, the Government laid out new regulations to regulate lap-dancing clubs, forcing them to apply for "sexual encounter" licences.

For sure, the aspiration to free women from sexual slavery is noble but even the most optimistic observer might conclude that these strategies will fail. It took Peter Stringfellow precisely half-an-hour to demolish the "sexual encounter" proposals at a meeting of the Commons culture committee, pointing out that councils already have the power to prosecute clubs for putting on nude shows which they choose not to deploy.

The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has also proposed that men should pay a £1,000 fine if they use a prostitute who has been trafficked, groomed, or controlled by a pimp. How this will work I do not know. Exploitation is even less likely to self-regulate than the banking sector. So what is the Government doing?

This, like much of the Queen's Speech is message politics. Ms Smith waxes that "there will be no more excuses" (this time for men who pay for sex) and tries to set a moral tone using the only lever available to her, the law – but it's a blunt tool for the purpose. Her mistaken response stems from two misconceptions. First, that the sexualisation of society can be regulated. And second, that the law alone can change people's sexual behaviour. In both cases, the history of Soho suggests otherwise.

From the late 18th century, Soho has been the beating heart of London vice. Today, it is virtually respectable – a fact best illustrated by the semi-nude models who appeared in the windows of the lingerie store, Agent Provocateur, last week. Fifty years ago the shop could have been shut down.

And Soho's slide towards respectability mirrors society's tastes. In the past 50 years we have become increasingly sexualised, no longer prepared for our behaviour to be moderated by middle-class moral outrage. But this freedom, for all the positive effects, has a price: and the number of men who are paying it – for sex – has exploded. Nearly 10 per cent use them. Men my age, in their twenties and thirties, increasingly unsure about what is acceptable sexual behaviour, increasingly confused about their role in an age of equality, use them most.

The law, which deals with individuals one at a time, cannot regulate this culture. It cannot stop suburban prostitution. To do so, as the Peterborough force which arrested 43 people connected with the sex trade recently demonstrated, requires enforcement.

Ignore, briefly, the fact that the last person to try to enforce "moral standards" in Soho was Shirley Porter. She successfully tackled vice by marking the issue as a police priority, lobbying the then Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, and forcing the owners of premises selling sex to subscribe to detailed licences. When the gangsters inevitably failed to uphold their obligations, Porter threw them out. Between 1982 and 1983, the policy worked, securing Dame Shirley the braying support of her Tory colleagues on Westminster Council. But, as her political ambitions grew, she ignored the issue and the worst of Soho crept back.

The Home Secretary can learn from this. Rather than telling us how to live, she could provide an enforcement framework that through persistence would ameliorate the worst exploitation.

The Women's Institute understands this, which is why it has launched a campaign to name and shame newspapers who advertise sex. Their work will almost certainly achieve more than Ms Smith's proposals.

It seems the jam-makers know better than the law-makers.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Operations Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz