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Sex buyers beware: you are now a target

Speaking in the House of Lords

Tuesday 13th October 2009

The Archbishop of York has tabled a bid to stop women being forced into vice

Last week I tabled a question in parliament asking the government about the measures it is taking to tackle prostitution.

The Policing and Crime Bill is making its way through the House of Lords and it is important that everyone, regardless of political allegiance or background, unites to ensure the bill is passed so we can send a strong message that funding sex slavery, and the systematic abuse of women, is not acceptable in this country. That is why I feel the time is right to speak out.

What seems to have been absent from the proceedings to date is an acknowledgment about how damaging prostitution can be. There has been much discussion of "civil liberties", but little mention of how destructive sex for cash can be.

What are we doing about the civil liberties of young women? What about the civil liberties of those who have been illegally trafficked into the country to meet the sexual needs of others? What about the civil liberties of those mercilessly hooked on drugs? What about those who are being physically, mentally and emotionally abused by pimps and clients on a daily basis?

There is a myth that has been perpetuated in recent years, especially by sections within the liberal media, that many people who prostitute themselves do so not because they are oppressed or desperate for money, but because they see it as an easy way to make money through a relatively "safe" and lucrative career.

We are meant to believe that these sex workers are independent women, empowered by the hold they have over men, who sell their bodies for money but who treat it like any other job. They can walk away at any time, remain emotionally detached and, in short, nobody is hurt by this simple business transaction.

This attitude can be evidenced by the popularity of books and television shows such as Secret Diary of a Call Girl, where the heroine, Belle de Jour, a high-end call girl, has two distinct lives. "A witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it. It is her choice and she is very much in control," was how the actress playing the role of Belle described her. But we forget, this is fiction.

A recent report, which interviewed more than 200 women who had been trafficked into prostitution, found that 90% had been physically forced or intimidated into sex or doing something sexual, while 89% reported receiving intimidation, including threats of death, beatings, increased debt, harm to their children and families or threats of re-trafficking. Indeed, at least 65 female prostitutes have been murdered in the past 18 years.

More than half of UK women involved in prostitution have been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, and at least three-quarters have been physically assaulted.

Furthermore, it is reported that 68% of women in prostitution could also meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as torture victims or combat veterans undergoing treatment. If we look at London, the city where Belle de Jour reputedly plied her trade, the mortality rate for prostitutes is 12 times the national average.

Four out of the five women working in London brothels are estimated to be foreign nationals — and a large number of these women will have been illegally trafficked. It may not be sexy and glamorous to make programmes reflecting this, but it is the truth.

The average age in Europe for entry into prostitution is 14, with as many as 75% entering before their 18th birthday — and once they are on the street, a staggering 95% of women in prostitution become hooked on class A drugs.

How do we tackle this problem? Clause 13 of the Policing and Crime Bill would make it an offence of strict liability for someone to purchase, or promise payment, for sexual services from a prostitute who has been subjected to force, threats or any other form of coercion or deception. I think the government should be congratulated for taking this important stand against those who prey on exploited women caught up in prostitution. However, we need to ensure that this clause is not lost from the bill or watered down in the Lords to the extent that it becomes meaningless.

It is right that the onus should be on the purchaser. Strict liability means that it is not necessary to prove whether or not the person concerned was aware that the prostitute was being exploited.

This element of the law is important because otherwise purchasers will always be able to argue that they simply did not know about the exploitation and abuse of the individual concerned.

Prostitution is an inherently abusive and exploitative system, and those helping to fund it should be forced to acknowledge that their actions often damage those trapped in this industry. Encouraging prostitution is not a victimless crime.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times October 11, 2009

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