Prostitution Briefing Paper

by Mhairi McAlpine

Prostitution is a problem with many aspects. Amongst those affected by prostitution include the residents in areas where the trade is conducted; the intimate partners of those who use prostitutes but those most deeply affected are those who directly engage in the sale of sex.

The SSP is unequivocal in its condemnation of prostitution as a legitimate activity. We see it as sexual abuse perpetrated, primarily on the vulnerable, in exchange for payment. 95% of women working in street prostitution are addicted to Class A drugs, the average age of entry into prostitution in the UK is 14 and women engaged in prostitution are overwhelmingly likely to be survivors of child abuse.

The current strategy – where the act of prostitution is legal, however many of the aspects around it are illegal is simply not working. Cornton Vale regularly houses women who were unable to pay the fines associated with this activity, its twilight legal status means that physical violence within prostitution is endemic and with minimal recourse to formal justice procedures and the vulnerable nature of those engaged in the industry mean that they are easy targets for extremely violent men – as events in Ipswich and earlier this year in Glasgow have demonstrated.

These cases although at the extreme end of the violence experienced on a regular basis by women in prostitution, highlight the difficulties exiting the industry, even temporarily. In Ipswich, although a known serial killer was at large women continued to step into cars with unknown men, while in Glasgow, Gillian Gilchrist who lost part of an arm after a savage attack was back on the streets within weeks. In a five country study, 89% of those interviewed who were involved in the industry wanted to leave it immediately. The biggest barrier to this was the lack of a safe place to go. Prostitution in this cannot be seen as a choice that women make, but as a trap that they fall into and cannot escape from.

Various strategies have been suggested to try to make the industry less exploitative and safer. State operated brothels operate in Turkey, condemning women to have their sexuality and sexual health policed; legalisation has been tried in the Netherlands with a corresponding rise in illegal commercial sexual activity including a rise in child prostitution and sex trafficking, a phenomenon which is also seen in New South Wales which has completely decriminalised the industry meaning that women do not even have basic health and safety regulations to fall back on. All of these strategies fail ultimately because they conceive of prostitution as “work” rather than abuse in exchange for payment.

Sweden has taken another approach. It, like the SSP, recognises prostitution as abuse. It provides support for women seeking to escape the industry while fining men who pay women to perform sex acts. It has all but eradicated sex trafficking, the most insidious form of prostitution – leaving the traffickers to find softer targets with more profits to be made, while street prostitution is down by 80%. Critics of Sweden’s approach suggest that it has driven the industry underground – off the streets and into flats and small covertly run brothels, which to some extent is true. However. women now have nothing to fear coming forward to receive health or legal support, as all of the risks have now shifted to the users of prostitutes.

Informed by the experience of Sweden, the SSP strategy on prostitution is three pronged. It demands:

  • A repeal on all punitive measures against those who sell sexual services, in conjunction with legislation which would criminalise the purchasers of sexual services.
  • Specialist targeted support for those wishing exit prostitution.
  • A mass education programme aimed at users of the prostitution industry.

1. An English study found that 87% of those who prostitute on the street
were the victims of violence over the course of a year – 27% were raped,
and 43% suffered severe physical assault.