I'm a liberal - but I support France's decision to make paying for sex illegal

All too often the women involved in the trade have been trafficked, and live in a form of slavery

Simon Kelner
Thursday 07 April 2016 16:40
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Police are considering plans to make a part of Newport a designated area for sex workers to operate without fear of being moved on or arrested to ensure their safety
Police are considering plans to make a part of Newport a designated area for sex workers to operate without fear of being moved on or arrested to ensure their safety

Sometimes you actually do need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The news that France is to become the latest European country to make the paying for sex illegal will appear to many as a draconian measure. For a country which has traditionally had a rather relaxed approach around sexual politics, it is a surprisingly illiberal response to an issue which, for most people, does not really rank high among the problems which beset them.

The vast majority of us will never come into contact with someone who has suffered from sex trafficking. And it is not an everyday blight on our streets. It’s a social ill that, by and large, is hidden from public view.

One of the plot lines in the recent series of the magnificent BBC drama “Happy Valley” involved young Eastern European girls who, having been trafficked to Britain, were forced to live effectively as slaves and, left to work on the streets, at the mercy of dangerous men. It was a bold attempt to introduce a subject that’s rarely discussed: if you’re not one of the tiny percentage of men who pay for sexual services, you may not be aware of society’s problem with the enslavement of vulnerable young women.

You might think that any action which seeks to address this situation should be instinctively welcomed.

But it’s not quite as simple as that, and, as a liberal, I have to swallow hard to support what the French have done. I would not usually be in favour of criminalising any activity that takes place in private between consenting adults.

In Nordic countries and Northern Ireland, where paying for sex has been made illegal, there are now fewer women on the streets. It’s true that they may simply have been driven underground – with even less protection – but, at the very least, this marks a change in legal body language: it treats the sex worker as victim rather than criminal. Of course, the sex industry runs on the principles of supply and demand, and as this is indeed the world’s oldest profession, we can be fairly certain that there will always be men who want to pay for sex, and women who are prepared to sell it. What right does the state have to restrain their trade?

But while most of us haven’t been looking, a sexual revolution has been taking place. The overwhelming influence of hardcore pornography, now only a click away on your computer, has changed people’s perceptions, actions and, not least, appetites. Sex, through porn, is depersonalised and women are objectified, and both these attitudes come together in prostitution. The demand for real-life enactment of the images that bombard us from cyberspace will only get greater. Mix this in with the growing desperation of young women from poor backgrounds elsewhere in Europe to find a better life in countries such as France or Britain, and you have the perfect conditions in which sex trafficking will thrive.

Prostitution comes in many forms, but what these women are subjected to is slavery. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is why all modern, liberally-minded people should support the French initiative.

It won’t be long before Britain, too, has to wield the sledgehammer.

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