“The pimps next door” is the twelfth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The eleventh article, on hashtag feminism, can be read here.
The hard-hitting BBC TV documentary screened on Tuesday this week about children pimped into prostitution from Romania to the UK laid bare the disgraceful epidemic of commercialised child abuse.
SOLD: Sex Slaves Next Door revealed there were nearly 6,000 recorded sex trafficking victims in England and Wales between April 2018 and December 2020. Currently, the majority of victims in London appear to be from Romania, but over the years that I have been researching the sex trade, I have encountered women and girls from every corner of the globe. Wherever there is war, civil unrest, poverty, corrupt policing and simply the normalisation of sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls, there will be prostitution. That covers just about every country in the world in one way or another. The feminist fix for the problem of turning a blind eye to the horrors of the sex trade is to call it what it is: not “sex work” which, disturbingly, was a phrase used by police and the film maker throughout the programme.
Language is important and conveys a message. In the same way that I would never refer to a woman as a “prostitute” because prostitution is what is done to her, I also wouldn’t use sanitising terms such as “sex work” which gives the impression that it is a job like any other. Similarly, referring to the punters that drive the demand as “clients”, or “customers”, is a disgrace. The men buying the Romanian girls and women brought into the country by human traffickers are nothing short of sex abusers.
We also should think about why the term “trafficking” is taken seriously when other forms of prostitution are not. Trafficking is merely a process to move prostituted people from one place to another: it’s not even necessary, as international and UK law stipulates, to have brought the human merchandise across international borders. Trafficking applies to those pimped from one street to the next, from one town to another. Since the term became international parlance, in the 1990s, it’s use has served to create a false distinction between international prostitution and everyday acts in domestic settings.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say the likes of, “trafficking is a terrible human rights abuse, but sex work is a choice, surely?” I would be able to fund the entire feminist movement for a decade.
Where I live, there are three brothels within a two mile radius
Rachel Moran, a sex trade survivor from the Republic of Ireland, author of the best selling political memoir Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution and founder of SPACE International, a sex trade survivor-led organisation with an aim to abolish the global sex trade, is opposed to the idea of presenting all prostitution as sex trafficking: “It’s a wrongheaded political strategy. I’d never get on board with that,” she says. “To begin with, it suggests that prostitution itself is not the problem. Prostitution is exactly the problem.”
As we saw in SOLD, the global sex trade is a brutal business. The program showed heart-breaking scenes in which victims spoke about being transported from villages, towns and cities in Romania and brought to brothels in the UK.
The girls, many of whom were targeted by pimps as young as ten-years-old, were coerced, deceived and sometimes kidnapped. When arriving at their destination, they were sold from streets, flats and houses to men who are extremely unlikely to ever face any sanctions for their actions.
I have met Romanian prostituted women in licensed brothels in London during research for my book on the sex trade. That’s right, licensed. Where I live, in a nice North London neighbourhood, there are three brothels (masquerading as massage parlours) within a two mile radius. It is no wonder that Romanian pimps have chosen to sell female flesh to the UK market. In the 30 years I have lived in this area, I have complained to police and the local council dozens of times about these premises, but nothing gets done.
The local authority know fine well that sex is being sold from these premises, but so long as basic health and safety requirements are met, the pimps are left alone. Why does nothing get done to tackle this problem in the UK? There have been attempts to deal with it by focusing on the pimps and punters, but these efforts are usually scuppered by academics and lobbyists that seem to think there is nothing better than selling sex for a living, so long as they don’t have to do it themselves.
In July 2016, a UK Home Affairs Committee published an interim report on prostitution, recommending the decriminalisation of the sex trade. It also made clear that the committee members, chaired by Keith Vaz MP, would not be recommending a law to criminalise punters, which a number of feminists had been lobbying for, stating that the committee was, “not yet persuaded that the sex buyer law is effective in reducing, rather than simply displacing, demand for prostitution, or in helping the police to tackle the crime and exploitation associated with the sex industry”.
After Vaz was exposed by a tabloid newspaper as a punter, having paid for sex with young, vulnerable Romanian men, the committee was disbanded, and the law remains as it was in 2016.
The key feminist fix for the problem of prostitution is to introduce a legal regime already successful in a number of countries around the world: the Abolitionist Model. Under this regime, it becomes a criminal offence to pay for sex with a prostituted person, but those selling sex are decriminalised. In order to properly tackle the prevalence of prostitution, we need to go after the demand, hard.
If we remove the sex buyers, there will be no money for organised crime
In countries that have implemented this law, such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the North and the Republic of Ireland, France, Canada and Israel, prostituted people are given real support and opportunities to turn their lives around. The stigma attached to the women during their time in the sex trade is placed firmly on the punter. This, in turn, acts as a form of public education. In countries where prostitution is legalised, such as Holland, children grow up thinking that it is a service like any other or nothing worse than buying a burger. But in Sweden, where the law has been in place since 1999, a whole generation has grown up recognising the prostitution is a human rights violation, and no man has the right to pay for sex.
The Abolitionist Model makes perfect sense. There are traffickers and pimps that want to make money. Who has the money? The punters. If we remove the sex buyers, there will be no money for organised crime.
Sex trafficking is an embarrassment to the prostitution apologists and profiteers in the same way that lung cancer is to the tobacco industry. We are making it easy for pimps to bring in girls and women across borders into the UK. They have a warm welcome awaiting them here, because our local sex industry is barely policed, and the women in the brothels are rarely helped to escape. The Romanian pimps in SOLD were well aware that they could do lucrative business with the UK by selling girls and women to local men. The feminist fix is to squeeze the demand for prostitution until it is starved of oxygen.
Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.
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