I originally published this on the Tea and Toast website at http://www.teaandtoast.ie/?p=109.
In London, police are aggressively trying to “clean up” the streets ahead of the Olympics by increasing brothel raids and taking more sex workers into custody.
Keeping a brothel is illegal under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956, and it seems police are stepping up their attempts to enforce this law in the belief that a large number of women and girls will be trafficked into London ahead of the games. A brothel owner in the US, Denis Hof, proprietor of the “Moonlight Bunny Ranch” has said that he expected “1,000 girls to be trafficked in by South East Asian, Albanian and African gangs, violent gangs involved in crime and drugs,” based on what he claims to have seen at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Teresa Jowell, Minister for the Olympics in the Labour government, commented “Major sporting events can be a magnet for the global sex and trafficking industry; this is wholly unacceptable. I am determined that traffickers will not exploit London 2012.” She has recently retracted that statement, admitting “intelligence suggests we are unlikely to see large-scale trafficking.”
I used to be in favour of legalising brothels, but I no longer am. While sex trafficking and prostitution are not necessarily the same thing, they are so intertwined that it is hard to target one without the other, and I believe that a decent society protects victims of trafficking first, and argues about “civil liberties” second.
Amsterdam is the poster-child for legalised brothels, but when you look closely, the pin-up is not so attractive after all. Women in legal brothels do get free, regular health checks, but all a decade of these has shown is that regulating brothels does not seem to have decreased the incidence of HIV or other STI’s. Trafficking increased following legalisation and underage girls are still pimped out against their will a decade on.
But I think the heavy-handed tactics in London prior to the Olympics are disastrous. Prostitution is a high risk industry. Sex workers should not feel that they have to fear the police, and certainly should not be criminalised. Last year, a violent gang carried out a series of robberies on brothels at knife-point, and even after sex workers had been assaulted and one woman had been raped, the women felt they could not go to the police as they would be threatened with arrest.
Taking women off the streets is not the same as investigating and dealing with the problems that drove them onto the streets in the first place, and is certainly not sustainable. This is a quick-fix for the Tory party – a way of putting the problem out of sight while the world’s eyes are on us, and when the last of the Olympians go, we can quietly forget about it.
Sex workers are vulnerable. They need protection and assistance, not harassment and arrests. Stepping up border controls and criminalising the purchase, but not the sale of sex, would be a better way for the British police to mitigate trafficking into the UK.
In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy, but not to sell, sex. In five years, trafficking fell 41% and the price of sex fell – a sign that demand was dropping and profitability of exploitation was plummeting. Sexual slavery and human trafficking will continue for as long as they are profitable, but taking more sex workers off the streets and closing brothels alone will do little other than to increase the number of girls trafficked into the UK to replace them – and increase the vulnerability of already vulnerable women.