Violence against sex workers: will Smith’s plans really make a difference?

I must admit that up until now I hadn’t made a very good job of following the developments and arguments surrounding Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s prostitution bill, due to be read for the second time in parliament on Monday 12th January. My initial reaction to the announcement that punters will be prosecuted if they pay for sex with someone who is being controlled for another’s gain (ie if they have a pimp or have been trafficked) whether or not they were aware of this fact at the time was essentially “quite right too”. I’ve always argued that – as things currently stand at least – any man who visits a prostitute is potentially a rapist as he cannot be certain whether or not she has freely consented to sex, and therefore any man who actually gives a shit should avoid doing so. I of course accept that some women – and men – freely choose sex work, and can make good money out of it, but it is the women who are forced into prostitution through poverty, drug addiction, abuse and trafficking (our inhumane immigration laws doing very little to help this) that must be prioritised when it comes to policy and the law. At a glance, criminalising the men who could potentially inflict violence and abuse, while ensuring that the women who sell sex remain free from prosecution therefore makes sense. This approach also tackles the demand for sexual services, which fuels the trade in the first place.

However, while Smith’s proposals may support the above line of thinking, in practice they may pose very real risks for some sex workers. As blogger Caroline points out in a number of posts related to the legislation, similar models in Sweden and Scotland have lead to prostitution being pushed underground as women are forced to conduct business alone and in secret in order to avoid punters being arrested. This in turn can lead to increased violence against sex workers. It’s all very well to say that these women would be better off without the punters, but as long as they have the need to work in this way – for whatever reason – many will continue to do so, and in the short term at least it seems to me that any new laws should make what they do as safe as possible, while providing support and viable alternatives for those who wish to get out of the trade. Caroline highlights some of the many terrible cases of violence committed against sex workers in 2008; whether or not we consider prostitution to be violence in and of itself, society’s most urgent priority should lie with putting an end to these rapes and murders.

Of course, if we’re talking about women who are being held against their will and forced to work as prostitutes, then “making their work as safe as possible” becomes a nonsense, and prosecuting those who contribute to their abuse, as Smith suggests, seems entirely just to me. I’ve seen countless complaints that poor innocent men who didn’t realise the frail Eastern European girl in the bed was anything but an eager and willing business woman will end up with a criminal record under Smith’s proposals, and to be honest I really couldn’t give a toss. No one needs to have sex so badly that it becomes OK to potentially inflict harm on others. As things currently stand, guys who don’t give a damn about the women they have sex with have no reason not to have sex with them; the new laws mean that if they give a damn about their own lives (which I assume they do) they may well think twice about visiting a prostitute. A good thing, yes, but will it stop the kind of violence described above? Will the new laws protect women who are not victims of trafficking, who are not being held against their will? I’m not so sure.

It seems to me that Smith’s proposals fail to take into account the wide range of circumstances under which individuals engage in – or are forced to engage in – prostitution. As a result, they may provide a form of help to some at the expense of others. So while I applaud her determination to change men’s attitudes towards prostitution and to prosecute those who are willing to risk inflicting harm upon others for the sake of an orgasm, I worry that she isn’t doing enough, and that what she is doing could well make things worse for some sex workers.