The European parliament last month backed a Labour motion to make selling sex legal but buying it a criminal offence.
Some women’s rights campaigners hail the vote as a victory that will make prostitution safer by reducing the amount of business conducted on the streets.
They say that following the “Nordic model” of prostitution law—so-called because it has been implemented in Sweden, Norway and Iceland—will also make it easier for women to leave the trade.
But there’s no evidence for this, or the claim that women working as prostitutes are automatically safer if they no longer work on the streets.
The Swedish government made buying sex a criminal offence in 1999.
A 2010 review of the law claimed that it led to a 50 percent drop in the number of women working as street prostitutes.
But it also admitted, “It is difficult to determine whether changes in prostitution are as a result of the ban or of other measures or circumstances”.
A subsequent report into prostitution law in England and Wales claims that the 2010 Swedish review “found that the law has not driven prostitution underground”.
Yet the review did not make that claim.
Sweden’s government doesn’t know what happened to the women who were previously on the street.
It can’t confirm whether fewer men are buying sex because it doesn’t have the figures for how many men bought sex before the law change.
It can’t say if fewer women are involved in prostitution in general because it hasn’t kept the data.
That’s why in 2007 the Swedish government said it could not “give any unambiguous answer” to the question of whether prostitution had fallen.
Elizabeth Bernstein conducted research with women working as prostitutes in Sweden in 2007.
The women she interviewed reported that prostitution had moved underground and that those who had worked on the streets were instead finding clients on the internet.
Sweden’s government agrees that more people are now selling sex on the internet.
Other research has found that for men buying sex “the ban has not changed anything”.
Sweden’s National Bureau of Investigation estimates that in 2009 there were around 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and the surrounding area.
Most were judged to be offering sex for sale. By 2011-12 that estimate had reached 250.
The Swedish government claims to be acting in the interests of women. Yet as in Britain, women are not allowed to work together by setting up a brothel. This ban makes them less safe.
Prostitutes in Sweden say criminalising clients has increased the stigma attached to them.
And research shows that police harassment of prostitutes has increased—women can be forced to appear in court cases against clients, even if they refused to testify.
The Nordic model, rather than making it safer for women working as prostitutes, has only pushed the trade from the streets.
'Every prostitute I've met has been raped by a client'
Criminalising prostitutes or men who buy sex makes women less safe.
But decriminalising prostitution won’t transform it into a safe, attractive job choice for women.
A parliamentary inquiry into prostitution in England and Wales released its report this month. It cited poverty, experience of abuse and addiction problems as reasons for women entering prostitution.
Even people who defend prostitution admit that it is dangerous for women.
Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes told the inquiry that, “There’s an epidemic of violence against sex workers”.
She added that a “significant number” of women wanted to leave prostitution.
Ruth Jacobs, who has worked as a prostitute, also gave evidence to the inquiry.
She said, “I’ve met over a hundred women in prostitution, and I haven’t met one that hasn’t been raped by a client, and most of us have been raped more than once.”
Helena Evans, who has also worked as a prostitute, described the experience as “that horrific side of my life”.
Rebecca Perry from Safe Exit, Toynbee Hall, told the panel, “We’ve never met a woman who has consciously made a decision” to work as a prostitute.
In Britain the sale and purchase of sex is legal. But people can face charges for taking part in related activities such as soliciting or keeping brothels.
The parliamentary report recommends removing soliciting offences because they target women.
But it recommends using anti-social behaviour (Asbo) legislation against women instead—which could see them thrown in jail if they breach them.
Prostitution isn't a priority for the government
Organisations helping women in prostitution are in crisis as cuts bite.
Rebecca Perry from Safe Exit, Toynbee Hall, told the panel, “We’re going to be closing in the next month because of lack of funding.
The report concludes, “Prostitution isn’t a priority because, by and large, government sends no signal that it is a priority”.
And, criminalisation of prostitution makes migrant women working in the sex industry particularly vulnerable.
Fear of being prosecuted combined with the threat of deportation deters migrant women from reporting crimes or abuse to the authorities.
Canada takes a step forward
Canada’s Supreme Court struck out laws relating to prostitution last year. Justice McLachlin wrote that the laws, which make it illegal to keep a brothel, imposed “dangerous conditions on prostitution”.
“They prevent people engaged in a risky—but legal—activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks,” she added.
Repeal the laws that stigmatise
The United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law has called for countries to repeal laws relating to buying and selling sex.
Decriminalisation makes it easier for women to access health services and advice centres without fear of prosecution or stigma.
It also allows women and men to report crimes, such as rape, assault or trafficking, without fear of prosecution or harassment.