Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton.
Sex buyers: they are a key reason that women are lured into Britain to be brutally exploited in the sex trade. They are a key reason that sexual slavery is worth at least £130 million here annually. And they are a key reason why in 2016 we must continue our fight against human trafficking – by criminalising paying for sex.
Most men do not pay for sex. Many would recognise the ‘transaction’ for what it is: sexual exploitation. Sex buyers are a critical link in the human trafficking chain. It is they who hand over the money which lines the pockets of very many traffickers. Without their demand, there would be no need for a continuous ‘supply’ of women to be abused in brothels and flats in Britain. To end this sexual slavery, and to cut off the sex traffickers’ chief source of income, we have to end this demand.
Right now, paying for sex in this country is legal. As Alan Caton, the former Detective Superintendent of Suffolk Constabulary, says: “Sex buyers feel the current law gives them licence to exploit vulnerable women – and they are right.” We have to remove that ‘licence to exploit’. The legality of paying for sex is a crucial factor in whether a country is an appealing destination for sex traffickers. An analysis of up to 150 countries found that reported human trafficking inflows were bigger in countries where prostitution is legal. Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany which have legalised prostitution now face the challenge of continued exploitation and high rates of trafficking. A retired police detective from Germany described that country as a “centre for the sexual exploitation of young women from Eastern Europe, as well as a sphere of activity for organised crime groups from around the world.”
That is why Britain needs a Sex Buyer Law – a three-pronged legal framework which criminalises paying for sex, decriminalises selling sex, and supports those exploited through the sex trade to exit. As Peter MacKay, Canada’s former Justice Minister, explained when Stephen Harper’s government introduced this approach in 2014, those who are paid for sex are decriminalised there “not because it authorizes or allows selling it, but rather because it treats sellers as victims of sexual exploitation, victims who need assistance in leaving prostitution and not punishment for the exploitation they’ve endured”. Such a law here in the UK would send out a strong message – backed by legislative sanctions – that to exploit a person by trafficking them for sex is totally unacceptable, and that those who do so will face consequences.
Sweden was the first country to adopt the Sex Buyer Law in 1999. Under that law, by which it is an offence to buy sex, there have been approximately 3,000 convictions. The message has gone out loud and clear that there is no point trafficking people to Sweden to sell sex. Conversations between traffickers have been intercepted, in which they have said “Don’t bother sex trafficking to Sweden.” And an official evaluation of its impact noted in 2010, “according to the National Criminal Police, it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers considering establishing themselves in Sweden.” Norway followed suit by adopting the Sex Buyer Law in 2009. Again, an assessment of the law’s impact commissioned by the Norwegian Government concluded, “A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers. The profit from human trafficking is also reduced due to these factors. The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.”
The nation to most recently adopt the Sex Buyer Law was Northern Ireland. Proposed by Lord Morrow in his Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill (Northern Ireland), it entered into force in June 2015. At a Parliamentary event I chaired to mark its introduction, I had the privilege of listening to the powerful testimony of prostitution survivor Mia de Faoite, who had testified before Northern Ireland’s Committee for Justice during their deliberations on the legislation. She told us: “prostitution is the systematic stripping of one’s human dignity, and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it.” Mia spent six years in prostitution on the streets of Dublin. The Sex Buyer Law, she said, “is about the protection of human dignity” and “the protection of freedom”.
As a member of the Modern Slavery Bill Committee in 2014, it was clear to me that to end sexual slavery we must end the demand driving it. That requires adopting the Sex Buyer Law. While the Modern Slavery Bill did not offer the legislative vehicle for this reform, it is crucial that we now move quickly to provide one. As I said in Parliament when speaking on that committee: “the majority of people who sell themselves for sex are incredibly vulnerable and subject to real exploitation. They are often homeless, living in care and suffering from debt, substance abuse or violence. They have often experienced some form of coercion either through trafficking or from a partner, pimp, or relative.”viii In adopting this ground-breaking reform, we will bust a business model for pimps – and stop Britain being a lucrative destination for sex traffickers.
I welcome the Home Affairs Select Committee’s current inquiry into prostitution laws. I hope that MPs of all parties will support the proposed Sex Buyer Law, and take this opportunity to stand up for vulnerable women from across the UK and, indeed, the world.