Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Our sex laws aren't working. It’s time to think again before more women’s lives are ruined

The answer isn't as simple as legalisation. New Zealand, a country with more sheep than women, decriminalised its sex trade in 2003 and trafficking is still a problem

Julie Bindel
Tuesday 16 May 2017 11:44 BST
The number of sex trafficking victims brought into London is forecast to rise by 60 per cent this year
The number of sex trafficking victims brought into London is forecast to rise by 60 per cent this year (Getty)

On reading that the Metropolitan Police anti-slavery unit is predicting that numbers of trafficking victims being brought into London will significantly rise by about 60 per cent this year, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. I have no idea how many women are trafficked into prostitution in the UK, but I do know – having researched into and campaigned against commercial sexual exploitation for decades – that many of the women are terrified to report the crime, due to threats of reprisals from the pimps, and that some are not even aware that what has happened to them is a crime.

Police are estimating that numbers might reach 1,600, but this is bound to be an undercount, at least in terms of trafficking of women and girls into the sex trade. Like all sexual crimes towards women and girls, international pimping (a more accurate way to describe sex trafficking) is a clandestine affair, with relatively few reports to police, and even fewer convictions, not just in the UK, but also around the globe.

But "trafficking deniers" claim only a minute number of women suffer this fate, and prefer to call women dragged from other countries by exploiters 'migrant sex workers'. Sanitising the language helps nobody.

The sex trade is clandestine, even when it is legalised, because in the main women don't ever want to register as 'prostitutes', and most pimps don't wish to pay tax. Ask a woman from Moldova in a brothel who appears to be unhappy, with signs that she has been coerced and forced, if she has been trafficked, and she will probably be too scared to answer.

What then can be done to address this problem?

Since the late 1990s, billions of dollars have been spent by the UN, rich philanthropists such as George Soros, and various governments around the world, and yet the problem has only got worse. One thing is for certain: legalising the sex trade does not help anyone but the traffickers, sex buyers and brothel owners. In countries such as the Netherlands, Australia, Germany and New Zealand, all with legal or decriminalised sex trades, rates of trafficking are far higher than in counties that take a firm line against the exploiters, such as those that criminalise sex buying.

I regularly hear the argument that trafficking would disappear if only the sex trade was fully legalised and "brought out into the open". New Zealand, a country with more sheep than women, decriminalised its sex trade in 2003, and as I discovered when visiting last year, nothing has improved for the women, and trafficking into the country remains a problem.

Queer Muslim sex worker on her everyday life: 'I'm a science experiment'

In Britain, what would make an immediate difference would be to introduce the Nordic model of criminalising those who pay for sex, which immediately gives the red light to traffickers who realise that their business is too risky to run in countries where sex buyers, and therefore pimps, are deterred.

Those running brothels would struggle to fill them, because as I have found during my numerous research trips to the window brothel areas in Amsterdam, few local women choose to earn money this way, so the pimps rely in the importation of desperate women.

Women trafficked into the UK are victims of a crime, as opposed to illegal immigrants. Enforcement and criminalisation of trafficked women for immigration crimes is commonplace, which deters women from reporting their abusers. UK-based women in prostitution are often trafficked internally, and need to be supported not criminalised. Taking women out of the asylum system when they're trafficked into the UK and offering real support would go some way to giving confidence to those who might report. All prostituted women (and men) should be decriminalised, not least because internal trafficking is rife. We only have to look at the young women and children targeted and prostituted in Rotherham and Rochdale to realise this is not just a problem involving international borders.

Without a vibrant sex trade in the UK, trafficking of women into it would end, in the same way that without a tolerance and normalisation of domestic violence, domestic homicide would be drastically reduced. There is no point creating ‘battery-farmed’ prostitution, such as the legal brothels in Germany, and claiming it will stop trafficking, when the figures contradicting this are there for everyone to see. To stop trafficking we need to end the sex trade. Anything else will be a monumental waste of time and money.

Julie Bindel's book on the global sex trade, 'The Pimping of Prostitution – Abolishing the Sex Work Myth', will be published in September 2017

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in