Not a service like any other

By Julie Bindel (THE GUARDIAN, 16/01/07):

It is a year to the day since the publication of Paying the Price, the Home Office review into prostitution - but women selling sex, and the organisations providing support for them, are still waiting for action from the government. One of the recommendations that came out of the review was the setting up of projects dedicated to assisting women out of the sex trade. Another was to tackle the demand - the punters, who keep prostitution alive. While nothing was being done, five women working in street prostitution were murdered in Ipswich.

Supporters of legalisation argue that women would be safer working in saunas and massage parlours. They also want tolerance zones, where women could work without fear of arrest. This would mean, they say, that the women would take fewer risks. But there isn't a scrap of credible evidence that women would be safer if we made the state a pimp, which is what legalisation would mean.

The former adviser to the Home Office, Katharine Raymond, recently alleged that plans to legalise prostitution were suppressed because of a fear within the department that the rightwing press would leap on it. Not so. I also worked alongside the review team, and got the firm impression that proposals to legalise were shunned because of emerging evidence from countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Australia that legalisation has been a disaster.

In these countries, legalisation of brothels and toleration of street prostitution have resulted in an increase in trafficking, no reduction in violence towards the women, an increase in demand and an increase in illegal brothels; it has not broken the links between organised crime and the sex industry. It has normalised prostitution in the minds of the citizens, so that children are growing up seeing it as just another service industry.

Of course the women, and men, involved in prostitution should not be regarded as criminals. They are the victims of pimps, punters and the brutality involved in selling sex. But we should not just leave it at that. Let us do as the Swedes have done, and criminalise the buying of sexual services. Not only have they decriminalised the selling of sex: the Swedish government has made significant resources available to help women leave prostitution. Beside this radical legislation is a public education campaign to debunk the myths and lies about prostitution - for example that it is a career choice, and an equal exchange between buyer and seller.

Drugs workers in Ipswich say that many of the women working the streets have "pimps and boyfriends" who put them under pressure to sell sex. Legalising brothels or "tolerating" street prostitution effectively legalises pimping. Supporters of such measures often cite the fact that there has not been one woman murdered in a tolerance zone, either here or abroad. But if a man wishes to harm a street worker, he will simply drive her away from the area.

In 1999, I was involved in setting up the first UK re-education programme for kerb crawlers, in Leeds. In partnership with West Yorkshire police, we piloted a scheme with the intention that police would shift their focus from the women to the men who create the demand. The police offered the men they stopped a choice - either go to court and get your name in the paper, or attend a one-day course on the realities of prostitution.

Did the men who attended the course change their minds? I doubt it. However, if men grow up being given a clear message that prostitution is the abuse of women, and a warning that they will be in court if they pay for sex, we may go some way towards eradicating demand for sexual services. That coupled with helping women to leave the industry, might see an end to prostitution, and the murder of women caught up in it. Imagine that.