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Correspondence with Green Party leader Caroline Lucas part 2

When Caroline Lucas replied to my original email in part 1, I was disappointed on several points:

  • I was very unhappy that she adopted the “buying and selling of human beings” as a definition of all prostitution.
  • Her appraisal of the situation in Sweden is taken directly from the version told by the Swedish government and seems ignorant of how Swedish sex workers feel about the law.
  • The general way in which sexworker-by-choice is dismissed, and the assumption that sex workers’ rights advocates are uninterested in the plight of street sexworkers or coerced/trafficked women.
  • The assumption that the difference in attitudes to sex work between men and women and the possessive attitudes of men towards their female relatives are a reason in themselves to perpetuate sex work as a special category.
  • Many of the same ideas and (mis)conceptions that seem to plague many progressive/left-wing thinkers on sex work issues.

The full text of her email ran thus:

I would like to thank you for getting in touch following the debate at Green Party conference on the issue of our current policy on prostitution.

While I fully accept the concerns that you express about the Swedish model of decriminalising supply and criminalising demand, and appreciate that these stem primarily from a desire to better protect those who work within the sex trade, I find myself disagreeing with you over the best way to achieve this aim.

Current laws firmly place the criminality of prostitution on the women. With other illegal activities such as drugs, both the supply and the demand are criminalised. These laws fail vulnerable women, especially those who have been trafficked into the UK or any woman who has been coerced or forced to some extent into prostitution. According to government statistics, 4,000 women and children have been trafficked into prostitution in the UK at any one time, but the police suggest the real figure is far higher – studies have found that at least 70% of women working in UK brothels are trafficked from places such as Africa, Asia and eastern Europe.

I agree that the overwhelming priority must be to improve access to healthcare and support services for those who work in the sex industry. But at the heart of this debate is the use of the term “consensual sex”. Consent is an incredibly complex thing. Research suggests that a very high proportion of prostitutes are drug users — 95 per cent are drug addicts according to one study, while another suggested that 87 per cent use heroin. Many have experienced abuse and extreme poverty. I have no doubt that a minority of sex workers have made a fully informed career choice to enter the industry. But the evidence suggests that these are in the minority. It does not help that media misrepresentations of commercial sex as glamorous or easy fail to show the grim realities of many. As Helen Atkins from the Poppy Project in London puts it, “for most women involved in prostitution, the reality is a cycle of violence and coercion, perpetuated by poverty and inequality.”

The Poppy Project, incidentally, has done some excellent research into brothels and sex work. They are more or less against decriminalisation, because of the brutality of conditions they have discovered in the trade. In new research on brothels in London, high risk services such as unprotected sex were available for as little as £10 in 921 venues, where there were 77 different ethnicities. Vast majority of brothel flats were in residential buildings

You might also be interested in a recent government survey, conducted by Ipsos/Mori, showed substantial disparities between men’s and women’s views of prostitution. While 61 per cent of women thought buying sex was unacceptable, only 42 per cent of men agreed with them. However, when men were asked if they would accept a female relative selling sex, 60 per cent said no. When you ask most men if they would accept, under any circumstances, their wife, daughter or sister entering into prostitution, how many men would say yes?

I have been presented with a number of examples from overseas where government policies to criminalise the purchase of sex have found some success, and Sweden is one of them. Sweden criminalised all buying of sex almost 10 years ago, after a feminist campaign prompted by the murder of a street prostitute. The law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services came into force as part of the larger Violence Against Women Act, with the parliament defining prostitution as a serious form of male violence against women and children – harmful not only to the individuals involved, but also to society at large.

When this law was introduced, there were an estimated 2,500 women in prostitution in Sweden. Today there are reported to be around 500. The number of women trafficked into Sweden is now between 200 and 500 a year – the lowest tally in Europe. Moreover, because sex workers are not themselves criminalised there is still the scope to put in place measures to protect them as best as is possible. I agree with you that any successful policy must go hand in hand with measures to address sex workers’ ability to leave sex work and am confident that the Green Party’s policies for a Citizens Income and on social welfare more generally can deliver in this respect.

Another country that has targeted punters is South Korea. Here, the move towards criminalisation began in 2002 after brothel fires in which 14 women died – it transpired that the brothel doors had been locked from the outside by pimps and were only ever opened to allow buyers entry. In 2004 the South Korean government criminalised the demand side of the sex trade. I am told that this has massively reduced the sex trade in a country where prostitution once brought in an estimated $21bn a year. Now the red light areas are largely deserted, and bed spaces in the many government-funded refuges for former prostitutes are usually full (the South Korean government has dedicated substantial resources to helping women leave the industry, something Britain has yet to do.)

Even the Dutch – long notorious for their legalised brothels – are moving towards increased regulation of prostitution. For years, the Dutch claimed that legalising brothels had been a solution to the myriad problems associated with the sex industry. Then last year, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen said that legalisation had been a failure.

In light of this evidence, I support the decriminalisation of all those involved in prostitution, the wiping of criminal records for loitering and soliciting and an end to the punishment and stigmatising of those involved in this industry. But for those who have choices and freedoms, both financial and social, and choose to exploit them by turning other human beings into objects to be bought, I think freedoms should be removed. Therefore I support the Nordic model that decriminalises all those in the industry and instead criminalises punters, therefore targeting demand and aiming to reduce the demand for people in prostitution. This must go alongside heavy investment in exit and support services for those in the industry, something I know you support too. Sweden, for example, in 2008 announced £20 million to be spent on this.

The Green Party prides itself on envisaging alternatives to the status quo, whether it be an end to unsustainable capitalism, animal testing, or flagrant human rights abuses. I for one would like to imagine an alternative world in which prostitution, the buying and selling of human beings, has no place. The process of changing our current policy is a long one and members of the Party will all have the opportunity to debate and vote on the issue, and I am keen to ensure that all arguments are fully heard. Thank you for taking the time to write to me and I hope you now have a clearer insight into the thinking behind my desire for a more progressive prostitution policy.

Because Ms Lucas had taken the time to craft a proper response and actually address some of the points I raised originally, I thought it would be worth having another go, highlighting the problems I had with her response – who knew, maybe I could still help raise a voice for those who currently, it seemed, were not being heard:

Thank you for your reply to my last email. I greatly appreciate the time and effort that you put into it and I am glad to have a political representative who takes my concerns seriously in this way.

As you say, the issues surrounding sex work are very complex and the devil is very often in the detail. There are several points on which I would like to respond:

Firstly, I am curious that you mention the Ipsos/Mori poll. I was aware of this already, and my feeling is that it hints that there is still a fundamental problem in the way that society views sex and sexuality in general (and not just sex work). Attitudes are well-known to have a strong and negative double-standard so that a sexually active man will be lauded as a “stud” while a sexually active woman can be derided as a “slut”. As I am sure you are aware, research shows that this is still a huge problem in terms of obtaining convictions in rape trials. But I do not think that policy should be chosen to reflect these social attitudes but instead to challenge and hopefully eventually educate people away from them. After all, the legalisation of gay sex in 1967 came well before there was any appreciable shift in British attitudes to homosexuality (and indeed, there is still some way to go on that issue). I am sure that, for example, if those same men who objected to the idea of their wife, daughter or sister being in sex work were asked about them choosing a career in the armed forces, that a similar result might be found. That does not mean that women should not serve in the armed forces, but that men’s possessive attitudes towards women need to be altered. I would look for the Green Party to lead the way with progressively working to de-stigmatise sex work in general, and prostitution in particular, so that harmful attitudes towards prostitutes can be much decreased in future.

My own involvement in the debate is thanks to several of my friends and acquaintances who are or have been sex workers, and some of whom are members of the International Union of Sex Workers, the English Collective of Prostitutes, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (USA) and other sex workers’ rights advocate groups. All of these groups are run by and for their members, who work in the sex industry, mostly as prostitutes or as performers in pornography. All these groups are firm in their support for full decriminalisation (as is the Sexworkers and Allies Network in Sweden – SANS). It seems that wherever sex workers are given their own voice, this is the answer that they give.

Some very useful resources for understanding how sex workers view legislation concerning their lives and livelihoods can be found at the following sources:

Harlot’s Parlour (UK-based but with comment from other countries)
Bound Not Gagged (more USA-centric)

I will reference other sources at relevant points in my reply.

But at the heart of this debate is the use of the term “consensual sex”. Consent is an incredibly complex thing. Research suggests that a very high proportion of prostitutes are drug users — 95 per cent are drug addicts according to one study, while another suggested that 87 per cent use heroin. Many have experienced abuse and extreme poverty. I have no doubt that a minority of sex workers have made a fully informed career choice to enter the industry. But the evidence suggests that these are in the minority. It does not help that media misrepresentations of commercial sex as glamorous or easy fail to show the grim realities of many. As Helen Atkins from the Poppy Project in London puts it, “for most women involved in prostitution, the reality is a cycle of violence and coercion, perpetuated by poverty and inequality.”

I agree that there are problems here, especially in terms of coercion and violence. The standards by which many brothels are run are indeed appalling, and we would not tolerate such standards in any other form of workplace. Surely, therefore, it makes sense to decriminalise sex work and bring it under the auspices of employment law that already covers every other legal industry. My concern is not so much for those who, in your words, have made a “fully informed career choice” but with those who face the difficulties and conditions that the Poppy Project highlights. You may be aware that during the Ipswich serial killer murders (in which the victims were all prostitutes), Channel 4 News conducted interviews with several street sexworkers (as well as the head of the ECP) and only one woman interviewed was in favour of the Swedish model – even the women who work in the appalling situations highlighted by the types of research done by the Poppy Project appear to support full decriminalisation.

You cite the case in Sweden as an example of a success for the “criminalise demand” model, but this is not the way that Swedish sex workers view it themselves. One prominent campaigner named Isabella Lund who is herself a Swedish sex worker, has written extensively about the problems that are found. Elsewhere, videos can be found by other Swedish sex workers discussing the ways in which the Swedish prostitution laws have failed to make them safer. What is more, when you discuss the fact that there are now fewer trafficked sex slaves in Sweden, other research points out that the total number of women being trafficked out of Eastern Europe and other sources, is still the same. The women just end up elsewhere.

We are in agreement that sex trafficking is an appalling crime and must be brought to an end if possible. But the only way that can be done realistically is to target the organised criminal gangs who perpetrate these crimes. As you discussed in your email, consent is a sticky issue and it is certain that women who have been trafficked and forced into sexual slavery in this country are not consenting adults. To me, it makes sense that the full rape law should be brought into play here. This is similar to what the Labour Party proposed to do by introducing a specific law along the lines of the Finnish Model, except that the Labour Party version made it a strict liability (rather than “reasonable belief”), which many involved in sex workers’ rights advocacy perceived as a way to scare clients away from buying the services of any sex worker. Obviously, it would be much better if a client who believed that a brothel or sex work establishment was employing coerced or trafficked women, would automatically report this to the police (and not commit rape by engaging in sexual contact with any of them). Under the Swedish Model, it is hard to see how this would be achieved.

You say that “I for one would like to imagine an alternative world in which prostitution, the buying and selling of human beings, has no place.” Due to my involvement with sex workers’ rights advocacy, I know that this definition of prostitution as “buying and selling of human beings” is considered hugely and deeply offensive to many in sex work. Sex workers provide a service, in the same way that any other craftsperson or professional does. While the consent of someone in sex work due to poverty or drug addiction can be debated, she is still providing a service in exchange for money. It is only when we look at the world of trafficking that the buying and selling of bodies can truly be said to happen. That type of trade is just as obscene as it was in the 18th Century but while Africans sold into slavery in the Americas had no rights as human beings in their new country, women arriving in Britain today are recognised as human, and can be protected by a) giving them amnesty to stay (so that the threat of deportation cannot be used by abusers to silence them) and b) giving them the same protections as workers in other industries. We can only do part b) if we put sex work on a par with other work in the eyes of the law.

Thank you again for taking the time to reply to me, and my apologies for the length of my response. Because I have your ear as a constituency voter, I feel it is my responsibility as an ally to the sex workers’ rights campaign to bring the views of those groups to your attention as clearly as I can.

Sadly, the reply that came today was not what I hoped for. It comes not from Ms Lucas herself, but from her “constituency coordinator and researcher”, and more or less restates the same position as before:

Caroline would agree that social attitudes towards sex and sexuality still vary enormously and that legislation should seek to challenge inequality and discrimination. Hence, her belief that buying sex should be criminalised rather than simply accepted as something that will happen in society. Similarly, removing the stigma attached to sex workers can be addressed by focusing responsibility upon those who buy sex and decriminalising sex work itself rather than legalising the entire industry and thus condoning a practice rooted in social inequality and injustice.

It is critical to listen to the voices of sex workers and Caroline welcomes the efforts made by ECP and others to ensure such voices are heard. She is also very conscious that the most vulnerable sex workers often do not have access to such organisations and that research by eg the Poppy Project and Object actually paints a very different story with regards to views on decriminalisation. She is keen, therefore, to take a range of views on board and is particularly concerned to address one of the main arguments put by current and former sex workers in favour of decriminalisation – that of safety. Caroline agrees that this must be paramount and argues that the best approach is providing support and exit strategies for sex workers, within a policy framework that is designed to promote equality and human rights rather than one which legitimises commercial sexual exploitation. Tackling trafficking must also be high on the agenda otherwise, as you point out, there is always a risk that vulnerable individuals are prostituted in other countries. Caroline’s work in the European Parliament, and that of her Green colleague Jean Lambert, has indeed highlighted the urgent need for trafficked individuals not to face by deportation.

Clearly there is significant common ground between your views and those that Caroline holds. The difference seems to be about how to achieve particular ends. As debate on this in the Green Party unfolds, please be assured that Caroline is very keen to listen to and learn from a range of views and appreciates the time you have taken in writing to her.

I feel a strong disconnect going on in the opening argument: “social attitudes towards sex and sexuality still vary enormously and that legislation should seek to challenge inequality and discrimination.” I cannot, by itself, make that lead to “buying sex should be criminalised rather than simply accepted as something that will happen in society.” You need some other assumption about the nature of “buying sex” to make it relevant.

Is anyone else aware of the research Ms Lucas’ researcher claims to have been done into the views of “the most vulnerable sex workers” on the Swedish model or other versions of sex work legislation? The closest hits I can find with Google are related to the Big Brothel project, and I haven’t seen anything about the attitudes of sex workers specifically towards the various models. In fact, the only directly-related “research” I could recall seeing was the Channel 4 news special where they just asked street sex workers their opinions.

I don’t have it in me to argue the case any further, but I have emailed back asking the researcher for links or publication details for the research.

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2 comments on “Correspondence with Green Party leader Caroline Lucas part 2

  1. Pingback: Where Does The Green Party Stand on Sexual Freedom? - Sex & Censorship

  2. Pingback: The Green Party policy on Prostitution and the Sex Industry… | Pervlens Media

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This entry was posted on 5 October, 2009 by in Uncategorized.
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