“It’s not work, it’s exploitation: why we should never legalise prostitution”

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, amidst the Home Affairs Select Committee's ongoing debate whether to recommend a Sex Buyer Law, activist and author, Kat Banyard, argues that fully legalising prostitution is a terrible idea for the safety of women - putting power back into the buyers' hands.

“If they don't enjoy it that kind of comes across and it's not a great experience. They should at least pretend to like it... it's better customer service.”

This was a man coolly explaining to me over the phone what he expects of women he pays for sex. He described having sex with women who in his words were “clearly not enjoying it” as “poor value for money”.

His feeling of entitlement to receive “a good service” (as another caller put it) - and his total disregard for their obvious suffering - was a recurring theme among the sex buyers I've spoken to. Presenting themselves as ordinary consumers, paying for sex was deemed as legitimate as, say, buying a cappuccino or taking their clothes to the dry-cleaners. And right now there is a battle being waged over whether the law agrees with them.  

Let's be clear: the prostitution trade exists because of them - the sex buyers. Because there is currently a minority of men willing and wanting to pay for sex. Despite being frequently sidelined in debates about the sex trade, the bottom line is that without their demand there would be no ‘supply’. And that demand has grown. During the 1990s the number of UK men who pay for sex nearly doubled, and today the proportion of men who have paid for sex stands at one in ten.

So how should the government respond?

“It should be fully legalised”, one sex buyer tells me. His view - that prostitution should be treated as a legitimate business, with pimping and brothel-keeping made legal - is an increasingly popular one. Accept it, regulate it, attempt to make it ‘safe’; so the argument goes. There would be obvious benefits for my caller: if completely decriminalised, he wouldn't risk arrest for kerb-crawling. And his claim that he is a consumer, rather than exploiter, would be legitimised.

But there's more.

If the law really did treat people who sell sex as ‘workers’, and hence those who pay for it as ‘consumers’, he would acquire rights. Sex buyers wouldn't just feel entitled to “a good service” (even if the woman they were paying was “clearly not enjoying it”), they would be entitled to it by law.

If prostitution was recognised as service work, the relevant law would require that it “be supplied with reasonable care and skill. In the event of a breach, the payer may be relieved of the obligation to pay, and may also sue for damages including loss of enjoyment... The case might be that the customer did not obtain relief or the prostitute did not perform satisfactorily,” barristers Philip Kolvin QC and Clare Parry tell me. Another legal offshoot would be that a woman employed by a brothel “could be dismissed for gross misconduct for refusal to have sex with a particular person or for not turning up for work”.

In practice, countries like Germany and New Zealand, which have legalised or ‘fully decriminalised’ the prostitution trade, thankfully haven't pursued the ‘sex work’ rhetoric to all its abhorrent, logical endpoints. (In principle women in prostitution have the right to refuse a sex buyer and not be fired, for instance.) The consequences have, nonetheless, been dire.

An official review of New Zealand's licensed brothel system found that in the 12 months prior to questioning, 38% of people in managed brothels “Felt they had to accept a client when they didn't want to” and 3% had been raped by a sex buyer. Additionally, the review noted that the majority of the people involved in prostitution interviewed “felt that the [Prostitution Reform Act] could do little about violence that occurred”.

Germany's decision in 2001 to legalise prostitution has seen it dubbed “the bordello of Europe”. Newly established multi-storey ‘mega-brothels’ have helped boost the trade's annual worth to an estimated 16 billion euros. And despite the official rationale for legalisation being the promotion of women's safety, the government's assessment of what actually transpired concluded in 2008 there was “no firm evidence that more light has been shed into the shady world of prostitution” and “no viable indications that the Prostitution Act has reduced crime”.

Legalising or ‘fully decriminalising’ the entire prostitution trade has repeatedly been shown to fail on its own terms of stopping harms attendant to prostitution - like pimping and trafficking. Quite the contrary, in fact. Studies have shown that countries where prostitution is completely legal experience significantly higher rates of trafficking.

I asked one sex buyer what, if anything, would deter him from paying for sex. He replied, “If it was illegal. If I believed that she was there as a prisoner. Let me see, what else? If she was hideous. I suppose that's it.”

Brutal and degrading as his answer was, it highlights the decision-making involved in paying for sex. Sex buyers are not responding to ‘uncontrollable urges’. Their demand is not inevitable.

Research reveals that the men most likely to be sex buyers are young professionals with high numbers of sexual partners, and that the thread that runs through their decision-making is a sense of entitlement. Their sense of entitlement to pay to sexually access women's bodies - to treat them as sexual objects.

Crystal, a woman who used to be in prostitution, told me, “Prostitution is all about power – a man’s power over a woman’s body. He pays her to have access to her mouth, vagina, breasts and anus. Healthy sexual encounters...are about mutuality. There is no mutuality in prostitution. As soon as money parts hands, the john feels entitled.”

So, what should the government do?

There is an alternative to sanctioning sex buyers’ entitlement. It's called the Nordic Model or ‘Sex Buyer Law’. It is a legal approach that refuses to accept sex buyers’ claims that they are merely ‘consumers’, and instead recognises that what they are doing is sexual exploitation. The Sex Buyer Law criminalises paying for sex but decriminalises selling sex, providing support and exiting services for women exploited through prostitution. It has been shown to reduce demand, change public attitudes, and make countries more hostile places for traffickers. Three of the four countries (Sweden, Norway and Iceland) with the top ratings for gender equality worldwide have adopted it.

Right now, parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee is deciding whether to recommend a Sex Buyer Law. Will our country finally start challenging sex buyers’ entitlement to exploit?

Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality by Kat Banyard is out now. You can buy it here.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.