Making paying for sex illegal won’t end the abuse of women

Rhoda Grant MSP today gives evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee regarding her Private Members’ Bill which aims to make paying for sex illegal. I’ll look at the issue in more depth when I don’t feel completely floored by a nasty bug but some brief thoughts to be going on with.

I am not convinced that criminalising the process will actually help those men and women who are exploited by others and forced into prostitution with no control over what they do or how they do it. The people who do that trafficking, exploiting and abuse are the people who need to be locked up. Given that they are not usually keeping to the letter of the law in other areas of their lives, a ban on paying for sex is hardly likely to put them off.

If you are a young woman (or man)  who’s been trafficked by one of these nasty pieces of work, you are unlikely to speak a huge amount of English. I wonder if Rhoda Grant’s law would have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for you to seek help once you are trapped within that world. After all, if they were told it was illegal and they’d go to jail, even if that were not the case, if they complained…

Sweden took this step in 1999 and there are mixed reports of its success. I’m not sure how much we can compare the situations in both countries, though. What struck me was one study where they said that the number of men paying for sex had dropped from 13.6% to 8%. I wonder how accurate that was given that the first time they were confessing to a legal act, and the second time to an illegal one. That surely has to distort the figures.

I have to confess that I am pretty conflicted – in most cases, prostitution as it is currently practised is an act of violence against women (and also men) so it’s difficult not to have sympathy with what Rhoda Grant is saying. It’s an occupation you rarely participate in if you have the economic choice and those who do often have drug and mental health issues as well. Equally, in most cases, drug dealing is an exploitative act aimed at keeping customers in dependence and subjugation. Prohibition hasn’t worked in the latter area, so why would it work in the sex industry? The people who need locking up are the men (and, let’s face it, they almost always are men) who abuse and exploit the vulnerable by forcing them into prostitution.

I think we need to look at ways of getting ourselves a much healthier attitude to sex in this country. The easy availability of internet porn in which women are portrayed as mere receptacles will only make the idea that women who provide sexual services are not human even more commonly held- a view which was prevalent amongst punters even before.  I think we actually do need to educate and discuss rather than ban  – which is why I’ve always been against this talk of automatically barring certain websites and people having to opt in to access them. It might protect your child in your home, but not when they’re round at their mates. The best form of protection from damage is education and information, frankly.

Prostitution is far from being the only way in which bad men exploit and abuse vulnerable women. I’m not sure that the model of the sex industry here necessarily fits in with Sweden’s where they’ve had a history of being more open about sex. While I get what Rhoda Grant is trying to do, I’m far from convinced its implementation would actually help those trapped in a horrible, degrading humiliating, abusive, violent world.

About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem internationalist, mum, LGBT+ ally, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger. Servant to two spaniels. She/her.
This entry was posted in Feminism, Pornography, prostitution, Sex Industry, sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Making paying for sex illegal won’t end the abuse of women

  1. I spoke to Catherine Bearder about this and her view was that paying for sex should be illegal but that there should be no penalty for being a prostitute.

    She referred to Sweden where they did that and found that not only did prostitution drop but also that attitudes to women as a whole improved as the law sent a social message that paying for sex was unacceptable which in turn led to a decrease in the number of men holding social attitudes objectifying women – and this in itself led to a decrease in trafficking.

    On the other hand, countries like Amsterdam where prostitution is completely legal have seen increases in the number of men viewing women as sexual objects and in the number of sexual assaults – as well as an increase in trafficking.

    As liberals I think it's probably best to follow the evidence when deciding which policy to support and criminalising the purchase of sex, and legalising the selling of it, seems to be the best way to reduce the societal harm of prostitution.


  2. Ewan Hoyle says:

    Hi George,

    I'd be interested to read the evidence for what you say there. I'm not being arsey, it just sounds like a vital part of what needs considered. I'm against criminalising because I think it'll make things more dangerous for desperate, addicted street prostitutes. But I'm also against the kind of legal situation in the Netherlands.

    Eee, but it's tricky.


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