Britain’s crazy prostitution laws

The UK’s array of prostitution laws only make things worse for sex workers.

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Society seems to have a confused and ambivalent relationship with prostitutes. On the one hand, some argue that prostitution is the last vestige of employment for women who have been entirely subjugated beneath the will of a patriarchal society. For these people, mostly contemporary feminists, prostitutes are a ‘symptom’ of some deep patriarchal disease; they’re women who have placed themselves at the mercy of the sexual marketplace because they have no other option.

On the other hand, prostitution is celebrated as a trendy new sexuality, a symbol of feminine empowerment. At a time when being intimate is variously seen as uncool, dangerous, or emotionally ‘too much’, the fact that people sell sex like they would sell a television is seen as a funky and positive approach to modern sexual interactions. The popularity of TV dramas like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Billie Piper plays a high-class prostitute getting into all sorts of scrapes in the process of prostituting herself, shows that many are happy to embrace prostitution as part of a new era of contemporary sexuality.

Of course, prostitution attracts both the ambitious and the desperate alike. But in England, the law which currently governs prostitution, resting on the idea that all prostitutes are vulnerable ‘sex workers’ in need of the state’s protection, is entirely harmful, and dangerously misrepresents a complex reality.

Prostitution itself is not illegal. However, the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 introduced an offence of ‘controlling’ prostitution. What does ‘controlling’ mean? According to the Court of Appeal it does not require the exercise of force or compulsion. In fact, a woman can be ‘controlled’ in prostitution even if she is ‘exercising free will’ when she chooses to prostitute herself.

In short, the offence punishes anyone who exerts any degree of ‘control’ whatsoever over a prostitute, even if that prostitute is choosing with absolute freedom to prostitute themselves. How is it that English law has moved to punish those who exercise even nominal ‘control’ over a person’s activities, without punishing the activity itself?

What is not obvious on the face of the legislation is that this offence of controlling prostitution was introduced as part of a broader programme of legislation designed to tackle human trafficking. Over recent years, governments have sought to portray prostitution as a significant component of human trafficking. As a result, the 2003 act introduced separate offences for ‘controlling’ and ‘soliciting prostitution for gain’ and ‘trafficking’. The offence for soliciting prostitution for gain can, unusually, be committed ‘anywhere in the world’. This provision reflected the government’s idea of prostitutes in England as foreigners lured into prostitution abroad, before being ‘trafficked’ to the UK and ‘controlled’ while prostituting themselves here.

Of course, most prostitutes in the UK are not the victims of human trafficking; they choose to sell sex and do so freely. But the law against controlling prostitution means that they are effectively forced to work alone and do so in a completely unregulated environment. While the government may be labouring under the illusion that those who ‘control’ prostitutes are cane-wielding, pimp-daddy gangsters, or nasty foreign terrorists earning millions from human trafficking, those prosecuted for ‘controlling’ prostitutes are more likely to be those simply helping them to make a safe living.

Prostitution is not liberating, but nor is it a symbol of absolute oppression. It is definitely not a funky new form of sexuality. For those who choose to do it, it is simply a reality. By indulging mawkish fantasies about the vulnerability of prostitutes, our laws make life harder for those it purports to protect by precluding the possibility of establishing informal networks of self-regulation and protection in the world of prostitution. We should take prostitutes seriously enough to allow them to get on with it however they choose. The law, at the moment, is only making things worse.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics