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Imagine a world without prostitution

The feminist fix: seeing an end to the sex trade

Artillery Row

“Imagine a world without prostitution” is the first article in Julie Bindel’s new online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges.

What do we do to solve the problems inherent to prostitution? The Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, has some ideas. He recently spoke out about the abuse and enslavement that women caught up in prostitution endure, and has pledged to abolish Spain’s thriving sex trade during his speech at the end of his Socialist Party’s three-day congress.

Sanchez is seriously considering introducing a version of the “Nordic Model”: legislation that would deter the punters by the threat of criminalisation, and at the same time, decriminalise and support the women in prostitution by offering exiting programmes.

This law was first introduced in Sweden in 1999. It has two main goals: to curb the demand for prostitution and promote equality between women and men. A number of feminists had been fighting for the introduction of this law for many years because they saw prostitution as simply another form of men’s violence towards women. The unsolved murder of Catrine da Costa, a street-prostituted young woman found decapitated near the notorious street prostitution zone in Stockholm in 1984, gave a further push to the campaign to focus on sex buyers. 

When the men suspected of killing da Costa were acquitted, feminists marched through the city centres in Sweden, circulated petitions and appeared on television programmes protesting against the ill treatment of women, particularly vulnerable females such as da Costa. The case led to the change in the laws on prostitution. 

Many more men feel comfortable paying for sex

I can see why Sanchez is worried about the sex trade in Spain. Since Spain took the disastrous decision to decriminalise its sex trade in 1995, prostitution has boomed, with at least 300,000 prostituted women in the country being bought and sold. There is copious evidence to show that legalisation and its close cousin decriminalisation exacerbates rather than solving the problems inherent to prostitution. As one major study concluded, trafficking of women across borders, violence, HIV transmission and associated crimes all increase under this regime.

Decriminalisation normalises prostitution so that many more men feel comfortable paying for sex. Research suggests that up to 40 per cent of adult men in Spain have paid for sex, and a 2011 UN study found that Spain was the third biggest centre for prostitution globally, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico.

In recent decades, despite the increasing numbers of women with direct experience now coming out as sex trade survivors, the view prevails that prostitution is about “choice” and “agency” for the women involved. Any attempt to deter men from paying for sex is met with cries of “what about disabled men?”, and “but it’s harmless, and how else are women going to earn money?”

A solution to this, and one that I’ve been involved in for many years, is to develop policy and practice that enables those women who wish to leave the sex trade (the majority) to do so with dignity and support. 

But as I discovered during conducting the largest study of its kind on barriers and best practice models for assisting women to exit prostitution, many of the pro-prostitution lobbyists claim that helping women to leave the sex trade is, as described in one academic text, “an affront to human dignity”.

The war rages between feminists such as myself who seek to abolish the sex trade, and those who see prostitution as a valid choice. It is fuelled by the widely held belief that feminist abolitionists wish to “rescue” “fallen women” and “demonise” the men who pay for sex. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only solution, I would argue, is to see an end to the sex trade. Prostitution cannot ever be made safe, as history confirms; therefore it has to be eradicated.

Vaz was exposed by a tabloid newspaper as a sex buyer

Currently, a number of countries around the world, including Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel have their own version of the Nordic model in place. Evaluation shows that this approach has reduced numbers of women and prostitution, and that it challenges the culture of acceptability when it comes to men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many survivors of the sex trade, to introduce this model globally. 

I have interviewed dozens of women who have managed to escape prostitution. They speak of the pain of a dry, bruised vagina being penetrated by multiple men. The horror of having his semen or other bodily fluids anywhere near her face. His beard rubbing her cheek until she bleeds. They tell me about how their necks get sore from whipping their head away from his tongue as he tries to kiss her. About being unable to eat or drink or kiss her children, because of what she has had to do with her mouth. This is not the sanitised version of “sex work” we hear about so often.

The Nordic model was very nearly introduced in the UK following the feminist lobbying of parliament post 2010, but as momentum was gathering, the Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Keith Vaz MP, published an interim report on prostitution, which looked favourably at decriminalisation of the sex trade, rejecting the Nordic approach. Three months after the report was published, Vaz was exposed by a tabloid newspaper as a sex buyer. Our opportunity was lost then, but feminists fight on. 

At the weekend here in the UK, a new campaign relating to prostitution offences was launched. The Hope Campaign (History of Prostitution Expunged) is led by sex trade survivors, one of whom is Fiona Broadfoot. Back in 1999, Fiona and I talked about this very campaign, about the abundance of prostituted women having to disclose criminal convictions related to being prostituted, very often as children. We spoke then about the need to put the focus on the men, those who cause the problems as opposed to the women who are victims of this abuse. The Nordic model and the HOPE Campaign offer a real solution to very real problems. We can and must imagine a world without prostitution, and the way to do this is exactly as Sanchez is suggesting.

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