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Progression on prostitution laws must go further

The Home Affairs Committee report into prostitution, published in July, is to be commended for its dispassionate view on a highly emotive subject. With safety of sex workers at its heart, the report has managed to avoid many of the moral judgements and libertarian arguments often used when discussing prostitution.

The committee recommends that the Home Office immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises, while maintaining the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers. It also recommends legislation to delete previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers, given these records make it much more difficult for people to move out of prostitution into other forms of work.

In addition, the committee calls for the commission of an in-depth research study to develop a better understanding of the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, identifying that existing statistics are inaccurate and often interpreted in a partisan fashion. Further, it wants the report to be made available to parliament by June 2017, showing its determination to force change.

The debate on prostitution tends to be deeply divided and highly political. Indeed, it is a current battleground for feminists – one side sees being paid for sex as inevitably exploitative to an individual, while the other maintains it is perfectly legitimate for someone to choose to be a sex worker. Where someone enters into the profession willingly, they are expressing their freedom as an individual to choose to do this work and do not need their personal actions controlled by the state.

Until the publication of the committee’s report, there had been limited political capital to gain from changing the laws around prostitution and so little had changed to improve the situation of those working in the profession.

Abolishing the offence of soliciting, it is suggested, will protect some of the most vulnerable in society – women selling sex on the street – by removing any disincentive to them seeking help from the police if they feel themselves in danger. It will also remove the stigma of a criminal record (for a sexual offence), which prevents women from leaving the streets and taking up less dangerous and more mainstream work.

Managing a brothel is an offence. A lack of understanding of this archaic law, and fear of being deemed the manager, discourages women from working together, obviously a safer situation than working alone. It is not entirely obvious what the committee is suggesting here, but the recommendations could result in the licensing of premises, resulting in sex workers being better protected and premises subject to regulation. Greater clarity in the definitions of what constitutes ‘management’ would also help.

Interestingly, the committee considered the introduction of a ‘sex buyers law’, making it an offence to buy sexual services. Such a law has been introduced in France and Northern Ireland. The report avoids the big philosophical questions of personal freedom and again concentrates on safety. MPs did not recommend the introduction of such a law, concluding that it may displace, rather than reduce, demand for prostitution by driving it underground into darker and more dangerous areas.

As someone who advises those involved in the sex industry following an arrest or prosecution, I am heartened by this liberal and progressive report. The modest but important changes it proposes would allow women to work in greater safety and together rather than in dangerous isolation.

However, what the report does not address is the organisation of paid-for sex in the UK. Criminal law needs to be clear and consistently enforced. Organised commercial sex is obvious in every town in the UK in the form of massage parlours and escort agencies. Their owners are plainly committing the criminal offences of controlling prostitution or brothel keeping. Usually these are tiny operations and not linked to other criminal activity and, as such, the authorities often turn a blind eye. Sometimes, however, they attract the attention of the police and the full weight of the law is brought to bear – arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, and swingeing financial confiscation.

This seems wrong for a number of reasons: first, the law should be clear and enforced uniformily, not randomly; second, this is usually a victimless crime with all the parties consenting; and further, those who organise and manage sexual services are often also providing them, and are providing a safe working environment for their ‘staff’.

I would argue for further change so that offences such as controlling prostitution and managing brothels are only prosecuted where there is some element of coercion or exploitation. Now is the time for a progressive, safety-focused debate about this age-old profession.