Photo by saiyood

Prostitution is a prison

Physical and sexual violence is endemic wherever prostitution occurs

Artillery Row

In a newly-published article in The Times, the Chief Executive of Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) Dr Marsha Scott has lent her voice and the quite-considerable weight of SWA to opposing the introduction of the “Nordic Model” of prostitution-related law reform to Scotland. To say this would be a betrayal of women in prostitution would not be hyperbole. 

Many people will be unfamiliar with the horrors wrought upon the bodies of the women and children

For those who are unfamiliar, there are typically three closely-linked approaches to prostitution law reform: legalisation, where the State introduces regulatory and legislative requirements that those within prostitution must abide by, and both the sale and purchase of sexual access are permitted; blanket decriminalisation, where the State theoretically takes a “light-touch” approach to regulation although the differences between legalisation and blanket decriminalisation are extremely vague, to put it mildly and both the sale and purchase are again permitted; and finally, the “Nordic Model” (also known as the abolitionist model), named so after its pioneering introduction in Sweden in 1999. 

In the abolitionist model, those within prostitution are decriminalised, but those who purchase sexual access are criminalised, stemming from the recognition of prostitution as a human rights abuse and a form of male violence against women and girls (MVAWG), with the ultimate goal of abolishing prostitution altogether.  

In my role as Head of Legal Advocacy for human rights charity CEASE UK (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation), I have spent considerable time engaging with survivors of sexual exploitation of which prostitution is a distinct form all of whom wish to see the end of the sprawling, hyper-capitalist, abusive global sex trade, namely through the introduction of the abolitionist model. 

With the ever-growing popularity of the euphemistic phrase “sex work”, which sanitises the reality of prostitution as well as condensing into a monolithic and ultimately meaningless description anything from risqué photos to a woman enslaved by a pimp in a brothel many people will be unfamiliar with the horrors and human rights abuses wrought upon the bodies of the women and children trapped within the sex trade. 

To understand the fight for abolition, one must grasp the true nature of prostitution. For example, studies show that over 70 per cent of women in prostitution have been raped, notwithstanding that paying somebody to access the inside of their bodies fundamentally negates the concept of “consent” as it is understood in domestic and international law; a five-country study found that acts including “being beaten, bit, burned… choked, crushed, dragged, hit with objects… punched, scratched… smacked, strangled… thrown out of a car, twisted, and hair pulled” were all commonplace; and indeed, in the State-sanctioned regime of legalisation in Nevada, conditions reminiscent of an actual prison have been described: “[There was] a grated iron door in one brothel. The women’s food was shoved through the door’s steel bars…One pimp starved a woman he considered too fat.”

Clearly, physical and sexual violence is endemic within prostitution wherever it occurs. This is, ultimately, why abolitionists wish to see an end to the exploitative sex trade: because it can never be made totally “safe”. This of course is not an uncontentious position. But is this an ideological hill on which abolitionists are willing to die at the expense of women and children, or are SWA making a grievous error in their objection to the abolitionist model?  

Dr Scott and SWA make the point that they allegedly see prostitution as a form of MVAWG, yet they are simultaneously “not in a place to stop demand”. The question that must be posed to Dr Scott and those at SWA is: if not now, when? In a subsequent response, SWA clarify that they do not wish to see prostitution treated as “work”, nor “legalised”. 

Where legalisation has been implemented, there has been an uncontainable deluge of violence, trafficking and abuse

This fence-sitting, along with the objection to the abolitionist model, is in effect a fait accompli for the introduction of decriminalisation, particularly when couched in the language of the pro-sex trade lobby including the usual loaded rhetoric of “pushing it [prostitution] deeper underground”. If you don’t wish to stop demand “at the moment”, then the tacit condoning of the continuation of prostitution doesn’t really leave you with many other choices. 

Research from Sweden highlights that since the introduction of the abolitionist model, violence has decreased, trafficking has been successfully although not wholly deterred, and the overall “market” of prostitution has decreased. In other words, it has facilitated the escape of women and children from a vast marketplace of exploitation, violence and abuse. 

Conversely, research from regions that have either decriminalised or legalised prostitution paint a different and harrowing picture. Since the introduction of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 in New Zealand, the country has become increasingly recognised for its status as a hotbed of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation; violence has not been deterred, with the majority of prostituted individuals of the opinion that “the PRA could do little about the violence that occurred”; and many simply “don’t know how to leave”. Similarly, in regions where legalisation has been implemented, there has been an uncontainable deluge of violence, trafficking and abuse. This does not sound like something that SWA should be tacitly endorsing. 

If SWA truly cares about the human rights of the women and children trapped within the global sex trade, it must take a firm and unwavering stand against its continuance and normalisation. Is the abolitionist model perfect? Absolutely not. There are many questions around how best to deal with the immigration status of those trafficked into prostitution for instance, and these must be acknowledged and reformed. 

Abolition is however the only approach that actively combats the exploitation of prostituted women and children, whilst recognising the sex trade for what it is: a harrowing and brutal proliferation of male supremacy, sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls. It is time for SWA to recognise this, and to join the fight for abolition.

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