The UK is now one step closer to making it a criminal offence to pay for sex – but not to sell it. The introduction of a Sex Buyer Law would fundamentally change the nation's approach to the "oldest profession", by shifting the burden of criminality from prostitutes to the men paying for sex – an approach often referred to as the "Nordic model" after Norway and Sweden, which were the first countries to pass such a law.
A report commissioned by MPs has set out how the proposed new law could be introduced. It has been handed to the Home Affairs Committee, which launched an inquiry in January into the way the law treats prostitution.
Such a law would help shift attitudes to men's behaviour to which we currently turn a "blind eye". Research tells us that more than one in 10 British men have paid for sex – that's almost double the figure for 1990. UK men buying sex abroad will also be liable to prosecution if the Sex Buyer Law is implemented. Prison sentences of up to 12 months and fines of up to £1,000 would apply.
There are good reasons to change the current laws: for one thing, they are confusing. Although it is legal to buy and sell sex in the UK, a number of related activities – for example, brothel keeping, soliciting and kerb-crawling – are illegal.
The rules have not been made clear to the women who sell sex, the men who purchase it, the courts and criminal justice system, the police or local authorities. The result is an estimated 80,000 people (mostly women) who sell sex carry the burden of criminality, on top of the daily risks of violence and coercion.
Why not decriminalise?
But while it's clear that reform is needed, this approach is rejected by a number of well-established organisations such as the Green Party and Amnesty International, as well as individuals, including some academics.
Broadly speaking, the argument goes that prostitution is inevitable and some people (overwhelmingly men) will always seek out and pay for sex, so the best option is to decriminalise the selling and buying of sex entirely. According to this view, selling sex is no different to selling any other form of wage labour and can even be empowering for women.
Supporters of decriminalisation believe that it prevents the harm caused by imposing arbitrary legal sanctions on sellers or buyers, and can help improve conditions for sex workers by making the industry easier to regulate and enabling them to unionise. At first glance, this view seems aligned with tolerance, sexual freedom and women's agency. So why aren't policymakers considering total decriminalisation?
Shifting the burden
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Sex Trade conducted a thorough review of the current laws in the UK. The result was its 2014 report, Shifting The Burden. The APPG collected "compelling evidence" that "entry into prostitution is rarely the result of an empowered choice".
Members of the group were "unconvinced by claims to a right by men to access sex on demand; and equally by those who claim that such a legal settlement would drive 'prostitution underground' with detrimental effects". They believe the Sex Buyer Law "sends out a signal about what is, and is not acceptable" when it comes to the way our society views and treats women.
Ultimately, the report found that prostitution is harmful. Specifically, it can be understood as a form of violence against women and girls – and has serious implications for gender equality. Evidence suggests that most women find sex work more traumatising than empowering: indeed, 68% of women in prostitution experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But by shifting the burden of criminality from the prostitute to the "john", the Nordic model can change attitudes about the acceptability of purchasing sex, leading to a reduction in demand.
A good example
This approach was first adopted by Sweden in 1999. Other nations followed suit, including Norway, France, Canada, and, most recently, Northern Ireland. Evidence indicates that the Swedish approach has successfully shrunk the size of the Swedish sex industry, increased the social stigma against the purchase of sex, countered the growth of organised crime and human trafficking, and set up effective programmes to help women exit prostitution.
In my opinion, prostitution is not an inevitable consequence of men's biological "need" for sex, rather it is a product of cultural norms that have historically attributed men with a right to women's bodies. While an emphasis on "consent" and "women's agency" may soothe the conscience, it also points to deep hypocrisy in our culture.
After the Cologne debacle on New Year's Eve, for example, we Europeans were quick to castigate Muslim men. But, nearby, migrant and other deprived women were being pimped for bargain basement prices in the industrial brothels that have sprung up in Germany since decriminalisation in 2002. Decriminalisation has effectively been a charter for pimps and traffickers and the abuse of women's humanity.
So, if we're going to move closer to protecting women's human rights in the 21st century, I wholly support the Nordic model. There are areas of the UK that have already adopted the principle of penalising the user – and now the APPG's independent inquiry has set out how the Sex Buyer Law can be effectively implemented nationally, it's time UK civil society got behind its proposals and welcomed its implementation.