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By Joan Smith

In the past couple of years the horrors of sex trafficking have been graphically exposed. It is now known that criminal gangs, usually from eastern Europe, offer innocuous-sounding jobs in restaurants and bars to young women who discover too late that their real destination is a brothel or massage parlour in the UK.

Modern Form of Slavery
Everyone agrees that this modern form of slavery is evil and there are loud demands for a crackdown on traffickers, such as the Albanian gang that was sentenced to a total of 63 years in prison at Southwark Crown Court just before Christmas.

How has sex trafficking become the third most profitable illegal trade in the world, after arms and drugs? Who, to put it bluntly, are these young women being forced to have sex with each day?

Men the lost clue
The answer certainly isn’t foreign men. It is time to confront the fact that, in flats and massage parlours up and down the country, British men are paying money to be “serviced” by foreign women who live in terror of beatings and other punishments.

In a laddish culture where women are commodities to be paraded in magazines such as Loaded and Nuts, paying for sex has lost virtually all its stigma; female celebrities collude in the notion that pole dancing is just a bit of fun, while visiting brothels has become the natural end to a blokes’ night out or a stag weekend. So acceptable has using prostitutes become that punters post boastful “reviews” of women on websites.

Sex as an industry
More British men are buying sex; In other words, it isn’t weird loners who are driving this modern slave trade, but ordinary menfathers, husbands, sons and brothers. And the effect of their behaviour is showing up not just in the sheer number of people employed in the sex trade in this country – 80,000, according to the police – but in an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases.

In spite of all this, the old blame-the-woman mentality ensures that when trafficked women are rescued they still tend to be treated as illegal immigrants rather than victims of crime. According to Amnesty International, they are more likely to find themselves on a plane than in a refuge where their injuries can be treated; this country has just one such refuge, part-funded by the Home Office, while Italy has 200. Nor has the British government signed a ground-breaking Council of Europe anti-trafficking convention that would give victims rights for the first time.

Happy hooker is a myth
Voices are frequently raised to suggest that women and girls know what they are doing when they start selling sex, that they choose this way of life and find themselves better off than they were. Such claims ignore virtually all the facts, which have nothing to do with gilt-and-velvet Parisian brothels or the “happy hooker” stereotype of the 1960s.

The Poppy Project, which runs the refuge for trafficked women, has found that there are 730 flats, massage parlours and saunas selling sex in London alone; excluding Westminster, each London borough has, on average, 19 sites to buy sex, with between four and eight women per site. Four-fifths of the women are foreign, mainly from eastern Europe and south-east< span dir="rtl"> Asia. British police carried out 343 operations against traffickers in the 12 months to last March, arresting ۱,۴۵۶ people and seizing £۴.۵m in assets. In effect, the sex trade has been industrialised, with trafficked women expected toservice” as many as 40 clients a day. The competition from brothels using captive women has pushed down prices on the streets, which means women are often expected to provide unsafe forms of sex to get by.

Sex and drug
Research published in 2001 showed that almost two-thirds of prostitutes in three cities said their main reason for selling sex was to fund a drug habit, and the Home Office estimates that 95 per cent of street prostitutes use heroin or crack cocaine. Most prostitutes in Britain come from poor backgrounds, more than two-thirds enter the sex trade before the age of 18, and half have suffered sex abuse at home before being taken up by pimps. None of this supports the arguments of those who claim that prostitutes and trafficked women are making a free choice or that the answer to both problems is regulation – legalising some or all aspects of the sex trade.

Booming trade
Far from containing it, legalisation would allow thousands more women and girls to be drawn into prostitution without any demonstrable decrease in violence or involvement of criminal gangs. The European countries that have experienced the biggest increases in numbers are those where there are elements of legalisation, namely Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy; in the Australian state of Victoria, often cited by campaigners for legalisation, the number of prostitutes is said to have doubled between 1994 and 2002. (Australia and the Netherlands also have the world’s highest number of sex tourists per capita, supporting the proposition that legalisation normalises the act of buying sex.) There is evidence, too, that legalisation acts as apull factorfor traffickers; in 2003 Amsterdam city council decided to close down its street tolerance zone, the mayor declaring that “it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organised crime“.

Men again: the missing link
What is becoming clear is that men who use brothels, massage parlours and street prostitutes are the missing link, invisible in most discussions of the sex trade. This has led to a bizarre anomaly: men who supply girls and women for sex are liable to receive lengthy prison sentences, but those who use them, and create the demand in the first place, go scot-free.

When sex is rape
This is happening up and down the country, even though it is clear in law that men who have sex with trafficked women are committing rape: women who have been threatened and beaten into working as prostitutes cannot give meaningful consent, as Harriet Harman argued in a landmark speech last year.

A Home Office minister, Paul Goggins, agreed with this proposition in a discussion with me on BBC Woman’s Hour last autumn, and a second minister, Tony McNulty, confirmed it in the House of Commons. With such clear ministerial support, the first rape prosecution of a prostitute’s “client” is long overdue.

A Swedish approach
Prostitution is sexual exploitation, one of the worst forms of women’s inequality, and a violation of any person’s human rights.” So wrote a group of survivors of prostitution and trafficking from five countries who launched a manifesto at the European Parliament last autumn.

Since ۱۹۹۹ this has been the official view of the Swedish government, which in that year removed penalties for selling sex and imposed them instead on men who buy it. Gunilla Ekberg, a special adviser at Sweden’s ministry of industry, employment and communications, explained the thinking behind the law: “In Sweden it is understood that any society that claims to defend principles of legal, political, economic and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities that can be bought, sold and sexually exploited by men.”

In the most radical approach ever adopted by any state, the Swedish government argues that “the legalisation of prostitution will inevitably normalise an extreme form of sexual discrimination and violence and strengthen male domination of all female human beings”. Men who seek to buy sex can be punished by a fine or up to six months in jail, while women (and men) who sell it have a right to assistance to escape from prostitution.
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