Monday, 21 September 2009

Dealing with the Whores of London

International Union of Sex WorkersImage via Wikipedia

It’s the oldest game in the world and plenty of women are on it. From the drug addicted working women of London’s back streets to expensive West End escorts. Most disturbing of all are those unfortunates who have been ensnared by the people trafficking racket of the sex trade. It can be described as the very embodiment of capitalism yet it is regarded as a criminal activity, forcing its workers to operate behind closed doors. A spokesperson from the Poppy project, a North London organisation that provides accommodation and support for trafficked women, elaborates, “It has been said that we are never more than six feet away from a rat in London. Apparently, something similar applies to brothels.”

Despite the brothels themselves being discreet, the filthy underbelly of London’s sordid sex trade can hardly be said to be unseen. A number of popular magazines, newspapers and websites allow prostitutes to advertise their services. But this kind of advertising may disappear with the arrival of newly proposed government legislation.

The proposals being brought before parliament are part of government plans to increase criminalisation of the sex industry in the hope of deterring trafficking and targeting exploitation. The legislation is based on the research of a supposedly feminist organisation, The Poppy Project. However the legislation has divided the feminist community. Whilst some support the new legislation other groups, such as The International Union of Sex Workers, believe the new Bill will drive the industry further underground making it easier to hide trafficked women and get away with violence against prostitutes. In some circumstances the law will overrule a woman’s legal right to consent to sex.

Is feminism a battle for sexual equality, a counter balance to patriarchal hegemony and a defence of women’s human rights and freedom to choose? Or is feminism more conservative? Perhaps based on a fearful resentment of men, depicting them as cruel predators from whom weak and vulnerable women need to be protected.

The research carried out by the Poppy Project is of questionable intellectual value and yet it is on this research that the legislation has been based. The research already fits in with the government’s agenda but they have not consulted the actual workers of the sex industry on what measures should or should not be taken. People trafficking can take place with or without prostitution, the bodies of the cockle pickers of Morecambe bay are testament to this fact. But this year the government are seeking to criminalise the buying of sex from a person who has been trafficked – whether the trick knew it or not.

This ill-advised legislation may have disastrous consequences. The clampdown on newspaper advertising and phone box cards cuts off working women from their clientèle and makes it more likely that they will take to the streets or seek management. In either case they will be more vulnerable to exploitation.

Things will be much worse if the Olympic Games stimulate the sex trade in London. It was recently reported that prostitution boomed during a papal visit to Australia. The influx of lonely/horny tourists and labourers increases the demand for sex workers. But will they be supplied by people trafficking? Data from examinations of major sporting events, including the Athens Olympics and the World Cup in Germany, shows a relatively minor increase in cases of trafficking - 88 in Athens, 5 in Germany.

The abolitionist measures may create more problems than they solve, but the IUSW’s calls to relax the laws relating to prostitution could be seen as an invitation for people traffickers to step up to the mark. Whether or not a more relaxed approach would ultimately have more positive effects can only be proven by research, but many agree that the government should consult those who are involved in the industry and acquire reliable and impartial research before forcing through ill-conceived and questionable legislation.

No government in any part of the world has ever been successful in eliminating prostitution. The most we can hope for is that the whores working London’s brothels are doing so by choice and that legislation is not enforced to criminalise them but to protect them from the real criminals.

Published: State of Play, 2009

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