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Tackling prostitution and sex trafficking through EU policies

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

  1. This is what demand looks like in a wealthy country like the UK. Imagine what these men do to women and girls in South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia. Time to put men’s choices under the spotlight and treat prostitution as male violence.

    Comment by Mary Beth on November 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm
  2. Look up The Invisible Men Project on prostitution which show extracts from punter reviews. That is what prostitution is.

    Comment by Mary Beth on November 13, 2013 at 5:29 pm
  3. The Nordic model wisely advocated by MEP Mary Honeyball is the long-needed breakthrough that sees prostitution for what it is – a human rights violation of global proportions. Laws based on this model not only criminalise the purchase of prostituted acts, but also acknowledge the state’s obligation to provide a range of rehabilitative services to those who have been used in prostitution. The ultimate goal of Nordic model laws is to eliminate the market for prostitution by, in effect, eliminating the purchasers whose demand fuels the market for throwaway people, mainly women, to abuse.

    Honeyball only errs in calling the Nordic model an “ideal compromise”. It is in fact a great step foreword in promoting public understanding of the realities of prostitution and strengthening public resolve to conclusively reject this oldest violation of women’s human right to dignity and freedom from violence and subordination by men.

    Comment by Twiss Butler on November 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm
  4. I do not see how a consensual arrangement between two people can be seen as a human rights violation. If anything it is an unwarranted interference with the right to privacy. The only circumstance that the state should intervene is if there is lack of consent and in the rare cases of sex trafficking there are already laws to deal with this.

    If the people advocating this backward step were really interested in the safety of sex workers they should talk to the sex workers and work with them to combat violence and exploitation. This is just an old-fashioned disdain for sex outside of marriage.

    Using misleading statistics from Sweden is unworthy. Street prostitution is dropping everywhere, mostly because of the internet. Offering a safe alternative is the best way to deal with this. There is no evidence that it is safer for sex workers in Sweden. In fact, it is more dangerous as sex workers have to act in a much more clandestine manner in order to protect their clients from the police. It also means that they are less likely to contact the police when they have problems.

    It is about time we had politicians who supported practical solutions to problems rather than passing judgemental and moralising laws, which do nothing but make politicians feel good and make life more dangerous for the people they pretend to be protecting.

    Comment by Keith Underhill on December 1, 2013 at 3:58 pm
  5. As a man who has paid money to spend time with sex workers I disagree with the conclusions reached. Some statistics suggest that around 10 per cent of men will visit a sex worker at some stage in their lives. This legislation, if enacted, therefore seeks to criminalise around one-tenth of the male population. Clearly there is abuse which occurs within prostitution but my experience is that most men seek the company of sex workers in a perfectly respectful manner. In my experience it is normally the sex worker who lays down the ground rules and will be very clear on what they will and will not permit.

    I do feel that there are several issues being mixed up in this report:
    1. The morality of paying someone for sexual services (in fact how is this defined? which activities would be included) – the report writers should be open as to whether they really object to any sale of sexual services from a moral view.
    2. The problem of trafficking – this is already illegal
    3. The problem of assault by clients – this is already illegal and requires strengthening the rights of sex workers to report problems and the seriousness with which the police respond to such reports.

    I fully support that sex workers require more protection, and that street workers are particularly vulnerable, but this could be delivered effectively through de-criminalisation and licensing. The aim of the MEP I heard today on the radio (who I think was Mary Honeyball) seems to be to ‘reduce prostitution’ regardless of what is actually taking place. Indeed the opening sentence on this website ‘Prostitution is an outrage…’ seems to give the moral position of the writer away. Given the aim of making criminals out of men who wish to pay for sex, I doubt many men will feel brave enough to write on this website but I do hope more will although I doubt it will influence the report writers opinions.

    Comment by G Jones (PhD) on January 23, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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