Politicians are, understandably, reluctant to talk about sex.
But my experience, as the chair of the cross-party group of MPs and Peers charged with looking at prostitution, is that this nervousness poorly serves those who work in the sex trade. Prostitution is rarely on the agenda. The last major cross party report was in 1996. The last major political intervention was a review of the law in 2004. Meanwhile, views on prostitution in this country are deeply polarised. For some, it is simply a matter of private choices. For others, the harm it inflicts on individuals and communities requires the state to take action.
Published last week, ‘Shifting the Burden’ examines the present legal settlement and makes recommendations to better tackle demand and protect those at greatest risk of exploitation. It is the result of a year long inquiry, led by the group I chair, which took more than 400 submissions of evidence.
We took compelling testimony from the women who sell sex, and the men who buy it; from the agencies we ask to police it, and the services that pick up the pieces. Our conclusion is stark: because lawmakers send no clear signals about the nature of prostitution, the most visible – women who sell sex – are targeted, while men who create the demand often walk away, without taking responsibility for the damage they do.
Alarming submissions highlighted the number of women who were survivors of child sexual exploitation; care leavers; or who entered the trade at an age where they could not consent. For most women in on-street work, drug and alcohol abuse are a fact of life. All this is a world away from the myth of the ‘happy hooker’ promoted on television and in film.
In our report we show that legislation is complicated and confusing, and loopholes allow men to escape prosecution for abusing girls as young as 13, and women trafficked into the country to be repeatedly raped. We show that policing and enforcement is unevenly prioritised and resourced across the country, with a few exceptions only made possible through extraordinary political leadership at a local level. At its worst this can trap women in cycles of abuse and prevent them from exiting prostitution. We examine why girls at risk of entry are not effectively diverted and women who wish to exit are unable to, often as a direct result of the law’s stigmatising effect; and look at how notions of ‘choice’ are deeply problematic with regard to the sex trade. And we demonstrate the effect prostitution has on wider cultural attitudes with regard to gender equality and how demand might be tackled by making it less acceptable to choose to buy sex.
In short, we recommend a shift in the burden of criminality from those who are the most marginalised and vulnerable – to those that create the demand in the first place.
Prostitution is a complex issue, but that does not make it intractable. We hope that this report contributes toward making the case for stronger political leadership that will begin to address the deep harm it can cause.
Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.