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Trafficking and slavery: Europe policing sexual morality

Jonathan Lindsell, 13 December 2013

Sex work has always been a complicated topic in politics and law. The issues are more complex now than ever due to the intersecting scourges of trafficking and modern slavery. Britain is bound by the 2011 Anti-Trafficking Directive which insists governments reduce demand for exploitation and abuse.

France has just passed, and Ireland is considering, the ‘Nordic Model’ of sex work regulation which outright criminalises those who purchase sex. Women’s relative safety in Norway and Sweden, and lower gender-based migrant exploitation, have led a coalition of MEPs and women’s groups (e.g. Equality Now) fronted by Mary Honeyball MEP to pressure Britain to follow Scandinavia’s example.

This is a dangerous path, which wields a one-size-fits-all solution against an intersectional problem. Gendered violence is sex work. What works in Sweden cannot easily be transposed to other countries piecemeal, without recognition of Sweden’s different criminal justice system, gender relations and sex education. The Nordic approach clashes with Germany and the Netherlands, which permit sex work and aim to support gender relations through regulation.

Britain’s police chief on prostitution, ACC Chris Armitt, warned the move: ‘…would be very unhelpful…Instead of street prostitutes operating in quiet areas…they might have to operate in dark, unsafe areas…It would be virtually unenforceable.’ Dr Teresa Whitaker of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland echoed this fear: ‘Those women who do get coerced or tricked need proper services and compassion, but the women choosing this work need human rights. The dangers are that this gets driven underground.’ Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes pointed out, ‘Criminalising clients will not stop prostitutes….All it will do is make it more difficult for women to protect themselves and stigmatise sex workers even further.

Sex work, trafficking and gender violence have significant overlap but aren’t identical. The latter two are already illegal; crossover is an enforcement issue. Sex workers are afraid to report crimes, either through risk of deportation, lack of language ability or fear of stigmatisation. Liverpool police’s ‘Merseyside model’ is unique in recording all violence against sex workers as hate crimes, an initiative that’s receiving growing support.

I have written before on Britain’s Border Authority inadequacies: ‘not fit for purpose’. If UKBA cannot stop illegal migrants or count legal migrants in and out, then it’s certainly unable to detect and stop trafficking at the most important point: entry, before exploitation has begun. Typically, women from Eastern EU (or further) are promised British jobs and transported here, then forced into sex work to repay their journey’s cost. Theresa May’s much-trumpeted Modern Slavery Bill ignores this gendered element to trafficking, and makes no provisions for support.

Last week Britain’s Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, argued the growth of EU power to define member state law is extremely worrying. This is all the more so in complicated, moral issues. To legislate here would ignore the views of the women involved, and Britain’s circumstances. Far more effective in tackling trafficking would be to beef up UKBA, train police to protect sex workers, and increase British children’s sexual education.


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