Be a Voice: UK Sex Laws must change

By Blog Writer Lucinda Obank

‘Pop-up’ brothels run by criminal gangs have revealed the industrial scale exploitation of women across the UK. These findings were published in a report conducted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) titled Behind Closed Doors: Organised Sexual Exploitation in England and Wales’. The Chairman of APPG Gavin Shuker, who is also the Labour MP for Luton South, has demanded urgent government action, suggesting that the UK should follow in the steps of Sweden – the first country to adopt an ‘end demand’ approach in 1999. This involves criminalising the buying of sex but decriminalising the selling of sex based on the notion demand drives prostitution and sex trafficking. The APPG also emphasised the need for the government to prevent online advertising and profiting, as well as introducing a national register of landlords and new guidance for short term lettings where brothels are commonly set up. 

Any suggestions or alterations to sex laws undoubtedly provoke fierce contestation, but the findings outlined in the report scream for help. In what is a conspicuously confusing and divisive issue for policymakers and public alike, it is time for change. Although the route to take is disputed, the destination can be agreed upon; an environment whereby women’s rights are supported and vulnerable members are protected. 

Abolishing the entire industry and criminalising those fuelling demand is argued to be the only progressive solution available. Prostitution by nature is inherently abusive, exploitative and demeaning- thereby threatening women’s road to freedom. The argument goes if prostitution is regulated we are accepting a normalisation of sexual exploitation on an industrial scale where women are still forced to take risks – completely incompatible with visions of future equality that society claims to be correcting. 

However, it is unrealistic to assume that criminalising men purchasing sex will end prostitution. Although this would be the case in an idealised world, this assumption is overly simplistic. 

Presumed to be the world’s oldest profession, prostitution has proved itself durable and adaptable across all cultural and political systems. Whether criminalised or not, prostitution remains a thriving business. Banning a behaviour for which there will always be demand only serves to drive it further underground, increasing the risks women are exposed to and empowering the men who profit off them. 

By endorsing Shuker’s recommendations of a buy-sell rule, the very same voice which is supposed to help women is abused by pimps who monopolize them, unequally accruing the benefits that were originally intended. Consequently, with less means to profile customers, the women who depend on prostitution become more desperate, forcing them to take higher risks for their work. Criminalisation is a dangerous recommendation and any future changes must be seriously considered against its controversial opponent – regulation. 

A strictly regulated sex industry that insists on safe premises with mandatory licences, routine inspections, health and safety checks, minimum age restrictions, unions for women’s rights, and screening of business owners in zoned locations will improve the conditions within which women work and help mitigate the risks they face. Arguably, this will improve relationships with the police and thereby encourage people to report violent crime and abuse. 

Street prostitution, which is the most dangerous type of work, will be pushed indoors and through regulation, human trafficking rates can be kept in check too. This option is supported by the World Health Organisation, who believe decriminalisation will prevent HIV transmission- as well as Amnesty International who believe it’ll help improve the human rights of sex workers. 

An experiment in Holbeck, Leeds which was set up in October 2014 involves managing a legal prostitution zone which operates under specific times and in designated areas, as previous enforcement efforts made little difference to prostitution and the problems associated with it. One report claims resident complaints have fallen by a third and crimes are ten times more likely to be reported to the police .  

A regulated sex industry that is committed to the wellbeing of its workers offers the best solution to a problem where there are no perfect answers. Perhaps I am being idealistic when I envision a world one day where this hegemonic and deeply corruptive industry rooted in male power no longer exists, but in the meantime regulation offers the victims of it the most protection.  

Sources and Further Reading 

Image Dan Forest @flickr