Socialist Worker

Debating prostitution

Recent government announcements have merits, but are still avoiding measures which are proven to work, writes Dr Teela Sanders

Issue No. 1985

 (Illustration: Tim Sanders)

(Illustration: Tim Sanders)


Beyond the tired and familiar “zero tolerance” rhetoric spouted by Blair’s ministers as a solution to deter any type of behaviour that is “less than ordinary”, there are some important positive changes to prostitution management in the strategy announced recently.

The strategy provides renewed measures to prevent children at risk of being abused through sexual exploitation, and introduces more protective work to respond to those already exploited in prostitution.

Trafficking is high on the agenda through a proactive policing approach and further research to truly assess the scale of the problem.

The gender biased and stigmatising term “common prostitute” will be repealed and there is much talk of “ensuring justice” for women who are victims of crime in their experiences of selling sex.

The most significant change is the repeal of the law that prevents women working together in small numbers, which has traditionally been in major contradiction to safety advice.

This is a welcome change and will enable women to legally work together in twos or threes.

The relaxing of this law suggests something more fundamental—that after 18 months of consultation the government have finally understood or admitted that the indoor and the street markets are very different scenarios and should be approached entirely separately.

Yet these positives are shadowed by problematic, unworkable and unrealistic “solutions” to manage street prostitution.

Influenced by the Swedish model that has made it illegal for men to buy sex, the government is obsessed with removing prostitution from the streets. The objective to “disrupt the sex markets” means that the men as well as the women will be made scapegoats.

Arresting men who kerb crawl, naming and shaming tactics and removing driving licences are promoted as worthy solutions to reduce the demand side of prostitution.

This is a major failing of the strategy as all men who buy sex are demonised as essentially doing something immoral and a nuisance to society.

Sporadic kerb crawling crackdowns may frighten a few men and send out “don’t go there” messages, but this short term frenzy results only in displacement to other areas.

More to the point, scaring off punters and a high police presence produces more danger for women who are selling sex as it produces a climate of fear and encourages women to take more risks in an already precarious environment.

Sensible management solutions come from Europe—namely Cologne and Utrecht—that have successfully implemented toleration zones that protect the sex worker, client and the community.

These zones have had a very high success rate in reducing violence against women and there have been no murders in the zones.

This can be compared to the high incidence of violence experienced by British street sex workers, resulting in a homicide rate that is 12 times higher than for women who are not sex workers.

The zones enable health and drug support services to be present as well as having negotiations monitored by police. Managed zones are a working example of ensuring justice for women and facilitating prostitution in a safe, non-stigmatising and protective environment.

In Liverpool, after a large consultation with the community and sex workers, there was overwhelming support for piloting a managed zone, but senior police officials and a staunch refusal to change the law stopped this innovation.

Informally, some police forces operate zones of non-harassment in Britain where women are allowed to work free from arrest at certain hours.

These examples demonstrate that there are workable solutions that appease residents, enable women to work safely and place the police at the centre of managing prostitution rather than criminalising women who are already vulnerable and marginalised.

Refusing to pilot Liverpool’s managed zone and strongly stating in the strategy that the aim is to eradicate street prostitution is heard with a heavy heart by those who work on the ground with sex workers.

The many outreach projects that work tirelessly to provide support to sex workers are probably relying on the fact that, for all the hardline talk of zero tolerance and arrests, there is no extra money available.

No additional resources for the police means no intense police activities that will put women at more risk. Instead the women will be able to seek out alternative options – when they are ready – through outreach projects and not the courts.

Dr Teela Sanders is lecturer in the sociology of crime and deviance at the University of Leeds. She is the author of Sex Work: A Risky Business


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Sat 28 Jan 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1985
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