International consensus via the European Union is the only solution to the horrors of the sex trade across the continent – writes Mary Honeyball MEP
Prostitution is an outrage, which takes place on a global scale. Like many of the international challenges we now face, the sex industry transcends jurisdictions and spills across borders. As recently as September a police raid on an Ilford brothel revealed a house of Asian women, brought to the United Kingdom and made to work against their will.
Trafficking and sex tourism mean that, at both the supply and demand ends, unilateral solutions are no longer enough. We need cross-border consensus if we are to achieve anything. The European Union must set the direction of travel. Globalised crime networks and legal disparities between countries mean that, for example, Romanian prostitutes can now be transported en masse to London; or that British men can go on sex ‘holidays’ to Amsterdam. These problems will only be solved by a pan-European approach.
At present, policies vary hugely from one country to another. In Britain, we have blanket criminalisation. Prostitution is effectively illegal for both women providing services and men using them. This does not address the core problem and sometimes perpetuates it; prostitutes are convicted, criminalised and deprived of a route out – and therefore return to the streets. As a result, the UK system creates a subterranean economy. This is demeaning at best and dangerous at worst.
Holland and Germany’s hands off approaches are no better. The Netherlands has become the top European destination for trafficking since decriminalisation and Germany has seen steep increases in prostitution levels. The Mayor of Amsterdam has admitted it is ‘impossible’ to create a ‘safe zone not open for abuse by organised crime’. And international women’s charity Equality Now say Holland’s system is ‘a failed experiment’ which has ‘empowered buyers, pimps and traffickers’.
Moreover, neither the British system nor the Dutch Model acknowledges the inequality that takes place when a man pays a woman for sex. Despite the fact that 96 per cent of sex trafficking victims are female – and that 89 per cent of prostitutes say they would escape the industry if they could – both systems effectively collude with the idea that women choose to sell their bodies.
Later this year, I will be reporting to my colleagues on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee on how we can address prostitution across the continent. I favour the Nordic Model, which permits selling sex but criminalises buying it.
The approach was introduced in Sweden in 1999. It has halved street prostitution there and caused a marked reduction in trafficking. There is evidence, too, of a knock-on effect for social attitudes, with Swedish men now three times as likely to oppose paying for sex. Experts who have seen it up close say it has also increased trust between police and prostitutes.
The Nordic Model represents the ideal compromise – a middle way, which is neither overly judgemental of women forced into the sex trade nor laissez-faire when it comes to dealing with the men who exploit them. Unlike the alternatives, it makes a distinction between buyers of sellers of sex. It is the only solution, which brings real gender parity.
I have already drafted my report and will discuss it with the committee in December 2013. We will then vote on it in January 2014, with the aim of taking it to the plenary stage in February. If my proposals are voted through then it will add to pressure on domestic governments to adopt more nuanced policies towards tackling the sex trade, so that we can move beyond the blanket ‘prohibitive versus permissive’ binary.
Norway and Iceland – two countries with world-class gender equality records – both adopted the Nordic Model some time ago. It now looks as though France, Northern Ireland and Ireland, all of whom have draft bills as various levels of development, will follow suit. Even Germany has begun to concede that legalisation is failing with authorities there admitting it has made prosecuting traffickers and pimps ‘more difficult’.
My hope is that, if the European Parliament as a whole approves the Nordic Model when we vote on it next year then we can build on this momentum and see an overall shift of the centre of gravity across Europe. Member states will not be bound to implement the Nordic Model if they do not want to. But as other countries adopt it – and it receives EU approval – they will be more likely to examine whether their own systems are working.
For me this illustrates what the union does best. In spite of what The Daily Express would have people believe, we are not a clunky regulator but a means of building international consensus and learning from each other so as to overcome global challenges. As we move into a European election year, this message – collective endorsement not centralised enforcement – must be the one that resonates.
Mary Honeyball is a British Labour Party MEP for London and sits on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee