Should the UK make buying sex illegal?

The Guardian,Wednesday 23 April 2014

Caroline Spelman is brave. The Conservative MP and former cabinet minister has called on the UK to consider adopting the Nordic model of dealing with prostitution, which criminalises the purchase of sex while removing penalties from those who sell it. Spelman is right to call for a debate in this country: the British government cannot sit out on the crucially important discussion about this new approach to prostitution.

Sweden led the way a decade and a half ago, and Norway and Iceland followed suit. France is in the process of changing its legislation and the law is under review in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Canada and Finland. Earlier this year, the European parliament voted by a large majority in favour of the Nordic model, following a report from the committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. The resolution is non-binding, but puts pressure on members to review their own laws.

Selling women is hugely profitable. As Spelman is no doubt finding out, supporters of the commercial sex industry hate advocates of the Nordic model a great deal more than punters who abuse women. In the end, it doesn’t matter much because we are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime shift in the way people think about allowing men to pay to use women’s bodies.

One of the reasons for this is a paradox. In western countries, it has never been easier to get sex outside marriage. If prostitution really were about nothing more than meeting the supposed needs of unmarried men, it would have died out years ago. The opposite has happened, especially in countries where legislators have decided to decriminalise prostitution. Germany has so many women working in the commercial sex trade that The Economist recently described it as a “giant Teutonic brothel”. The magazine estimates that about 400,000 women in Germany are sex workers, providing sex to 1 million men every day.

Even in 21st-century Europe, men have more economic and social power than women. The imbalance at the heart of prostitution makes a mockery of modern notions of gender equality, encouraging boys to grow up with the idea that women occupy a subordinate role. No one forces men to abuse prostituted women; if the trade is just about sex, it is hard to explain why studies consistently show such high levels of physical and verbal abuse.

I suspect there is an inverse relationship between a vocal minority of women who wax lyrical about the joys of sex work, and the silent majority who hate every minute of it. We should listen more to survivors. Laws are meant to protect vulnerable people, not ensure that they are damaged in slightly more pleasant circumstances.

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