Can the European Parliament call a halt to prostitution as we know it?

Today a report has been voted through by MEPs propounding the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. Now it will go to a full European Parliament vote next month. Mary Honeyball, MEP and writer Joan Smith explain all

Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2014

Will MEPs vote to end the age-old practice of men paying to use women’s bodies for sex? A ground-breaking report has today been accepted by one of the Parliament’s more influential bodies. Just a few hours ago, the committee on women’s rights and gender equality voted through a report arguing that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. This means it will go to a full Parliament vote in Feburary.

The report is couched in the formal language used by legislators, but what it is proposing is a massive cultural change. For centuries, supporters of prostitution have argued that it’s the oldest profession and has to be tolerated, if not legalised. We believe that this is patently untrue – selling sex isn’t a profession and agriculture came first – but it has been an effective part of the propaganda of the commercial sex trade. Now we’re seeing it challenged across Europe, as one country after another comes to the conclusion that allowing the sale of women’s bodies isn’t compatible with modern notions of equality between the sexes.

In December, we were delighted to see French MPs vote to outlaw paying for sex, and Ireland is now thinking about following suit. The French vote has to be ratified by the Senate but three European countries – Sweden, Norway and Iceland – have already made buying sex a criminal offence while decriminalising women who sell it. Legislators in those countries have learned from what’s happened in Germany, which legalised prostitution in 2002; the country now has so many women in the commercial sex trade that it’s been called ‘Europe’s biggest brothel’.

According to a documentary shown on German TV last year, more than one million men pay for sex in the country every single day. Since the law was relaxed, the number of women selling sex in Germany is believed to have risen to around 400,000, and two-thirds of them are foreign. It’s becoming clear that the German experiment has failed, producing the opposite effect of what was intended; there’s been a huge expansion in the commercial sex trade and no reduction in the crime associated with it. On the contrary, a third of German prosecutors say that legalising prostitution has made it harder for them to go after pimps and traffickers.

There are similar misgivings about what has happened in the Netherlands, where a relaxation of the law has been linked to a big rise in trafficking; the country is now listed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as one of the top destinations for victims of sex trafficking. Indeed the report argues that legalising prostitution actually encourages trafficking in women and girls, as the legal trade acts as a cover for pimps who offer cheaper sex with trafficked women and girls.

Supporters of the commercial sex trade furiously contest the idea that there’s a link between ‘voluntary’ prostitution and sex trafficking. But a study published last year looked at 116 countries and found that states where prostitution is legal tend to experience higher levels of trafficking, and that legalisation appears to ‘boost the market for this fast-growing global criminal industry’. The notion of a link is logical, because legalising prostitution reduces stigma, encouraging demand from men who might otherwise think twice about paying for sex.

At the same time, selling your body is such a horrible way of life that there will never be enough women to meet demand. The report highlights the involvement of organised crime, pointing out that it is ‘a major player’ wherever procuring is legal. Denmark, which decriminalised prostitution in 1999, has four times as many trafficking victims as Sweden, where buying sex became a criminal offence in the same year.

For us, as feminists and passionate believers in equality, the true nature of prostitution is exposed by the gender imbalance at its heart. The vast majority of people who sell sex are women and girls, and almost all of those who buy it are men. If it’s just another job, why aren’t millions of men and boys rushing to do it? Why isn’t the ring road in Madrid or Milan packed by young men in hot pants, waving down cars to offer sex?

If selling your body were a free choice, the current situation would make no sense, but of course it isn’t. Study after study shows that most girls who go into prostitution have been abused in childhood, and are often victims of domestic violence, incest and paedophilia. They also show that more than half of prostituted women have been raped, while more than two-thirds display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In books, films and popular culture, prostitution is routinely glamourised. Popular accounts of prostitution focus on a tiny minority who insist they’ve chosen the lifestyle and find it empowering, and ‘sex workers’ respond with vicious personal attacks when we point out that they aren’t typical. But Catherine Deneuve volunteering to work in an upmarket brothel in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour is a far cry from the lives of the young women murdered by Steve Wright in Ipswich.

Verbal and physical abuse isn’t confined to street prostitution, with one academic study concluding that women who work indoors still face ‘physical, economic and sexual violence from their clients, including serious assaults’. That’s not surprising, given that research on men who pay for sex show that they tend to have a ‘degrading image’ of women.

Most women working as prostitutes would like to stop but find it difficult to get out because of drug dependency, lack of other ways of making a living and threats from pimps. If you accept the harm it does, the notion of ‘regulating’ prostitution, which became popular in Europe after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, reveals itself in its true guise: regulating the exploitation of women. Laws are meant to protect vulnerable people, not ensure that they are damaged in slightly pleasanter circumstances. And that’s why there’s been a move away from the failed legalisation experiment to one which tackles demand, instead of women who are victims of poverty, violence and coercion

Under the ‘Swedish model’ of dealing with prostitution, the person breaking the law isn’t the person selling sex but the client. It’s a dramatic re-appraisal of the burden of harm, which traditionally assumed that men were the ones who needed to be protected from disease and ‘corruption’; in the 19th century, British MPs actually passed laws allowing women suspected of working as prostitutes in garrison towns to be forcibly examined for sexually transmitted diseases. In the 21st century, buying women’s bodies is rightly being seen as one of the ways in which men exploit their greater economic and social power.

Equality is at the heart of this argument. If you accept that all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity, it’s impossible to support a trade which treats women’s bodies as disposable. That’s why we’re thrilled that the MEPs on the European Parliament’s women’s committee have accepted this report on today, and support the extension of the ‘Swedish model’ across Europe.

If the vote is passed in February, the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights, will become the formal European Parliament position. It won’t have any legal impact on the UK but it will put pressure on the member states to reassess their prostitution policies. Prostitution is a symptom of deep-seated misogyny, and totally incompatible with the principles enshrined in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.

Mary Honeyball is MEP for London since 2000, and Labour spokesperson for women in Europe. She sits on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee and is the author of the report approved today regarding prostitution

Joan Smith is a novelist, columnist and the author of Misogynies. Her latest book is The Public Woman. She is co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, although she writes in a personal capacity

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