Paying for sex could be made a crime in England and Wales under a new proposal lodged by Hull MP and women’s rights campaigner Dame Diana Johnson.
The Hull North MP believes new laws need to be introduced to “bust the business of sex trafficking” in the UK, which she argues is a ” high-value, low-risk” destination for sex traffickers.
It is currently legal to pay for sex in England, Wales and Scotland, although a number of related activities such as kerb-crawling, soliciting in a public place and owning or managing a brothel are against the law.
But Ms Johnson wants to go further with a bill that she brought before parliament.
If passed, Ms Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill would criminalise paying for sex and enabling or profiting from the sexual exploitation of others but would decriminalise those who sell sex while also providing them with support services.
Ms Johnson’s bill has the support of other high-profile MPs including Dame Margaret Hodge, Harriet Harman, Stella Creasy and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion.
However, some women’s groups have spoken against the bill, arguing that it could undermine sex workers’ safety and drive the trade underground.
Speaking the House of Commons on Wednesday, Ms Johnson said: “This is a bill to bust the business model of sex trafficking.
“Our law is failing on two critical fronts: first, it fails to discourage the very thing that drives trafficking for sexual exploitation – demand; and second, it allows ruthless individuals to facilitate and profit from sexual exploitation.
“What does that mean in practice?
“It means that the minority of men in England and Wales who pay for sex do so with impunity, fuelling a brutal sex trafficking trade and causing untold harm to victims.
“And it means profit-making pimping websites operate free from criminal sanction, helping sex traffickers to quickly and easily advertise their victims to sex buyers across the country – and reaping enormous profits from doing so.”
Ms Johnson said two new measures were needed to “stop vulnerable women being raped and abused for profit”.
They are curbing the demand for sex trafficking by criminalising paying for sex, and stopping “pimping” websites and other third parties from profiting from sex trafficking by making it an offence to profit from the prostitution of another person.
The MP also said victims of sexual exploitation should not be prosecuted for soliciting.
“That offence should be removed from the statute book, and instead we must establish a well-resourced, comprehensive network of support and exiting services for people who are, or have been, sexually exploited,” she said.
Earlier this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on commercial sexual exploitation, found evidence pointing to sexual exploitation on an “industrial scale” of Romanian women by men in the UK.
Over a two-year period, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, and found 421 women – 86 per cent of whom were from Romania, while Northumbria police visited 81 brothels over two years, and of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75 per cent were Romanian.
Separately, in October this year, three Romanian men appeared in Hull Magistrates’ Court after they were arrested and charged with human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Ms Johnson addressed concerns that the new bill – which would mean England and Wales would adopt the so-called “Nordic” model in countries including France, Norway, Sweden and Iceland – would drive the trade underground and threaten sex workers’ safety.
“There are some who don’t want to reduce demand for sexual exploitation, and myths and misinformation are spread about efforts to achieve this,” she said.
“So let me be absolutely clear: sexual exploitation is not a solution to poverty.
“Our continued tolerance of this harmful trade puts vulnerable women and girls at ongoing risk from traffickers and pimps who seek to profit from it.
“And suggestions that criminalising paying for sex will only serve to drive sexual exploitation ‘underground’ fundamentally misunderstand the nature of this trade. Sex buyers need to locate women to sexually exploit. And if sex buyers can find the women, then so can the police and support services.”
Ms Johnson read out testimonies from victims of sex trafficking, including one who said: “To begin with [the offenders] were my friends but, as soon as we came to England, they started to physically abuse me.
“He beat me many times because I was not earning him enough money. … Even though the clients did not physically abuse me I felt abused because I was forced to have sex with them even when I did not want to do so.
“Sometimes that was painful. After a while, I felt disgusted by what I was doing and I wanted to stop but [he] wanted more money and he forced me to continue. I was scared because he kept threatening me that he was going to hurt my mother.”
One man who paid £100 to have sex with a woman, wrote a review in which he said: “This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’.
“She’s Polish, and her English is not good… I was reminded of the Smiths’ song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’… All the while she seemed completely disinterested and mechanical… I finally decided to f*** her, in mish. …All the while, she kept her face turned to one side.”
Diane Martin CBE, a survivor of sex trafficking and prostitution, said: “I strongly welcome Dame Diana’s Sexual Exploitation Bill.
“I was exploited through supposed ‘high class’ prostitution and then trafficked overseas. Since escaping my traffickers, I have spent over two decades supporting women to exit prostitution and deal with the ongoing trauma they are left with.
“The UK needs to criminalise paying for sex because it is the demand that fuels the exploitation that is the sex industry. Without demand from sex buyers, there would be no supply of vulnerable women and girls to be exploited in prostitution.
“I want to be part of a society that rejects the idea that people are for sale, commodities to be bought and sold by men who believe that this is their right and entitlement. I want it to be near impossible for organised crime, pimps and punters to operate here and, if they do, to face the consequences.”
But in a statement, the English Collective of Prostitutes said criminalising sex work would make life “harder and more dangerous for women”.
“This week, like every week since the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the ECP and other organisations have been giving out emergency payments and food vouchers to sex workers worried how they are going to make ends meet and get through Christmas,” it said.
“If women MPs want to help women exit prostitution they should be supporting this lifesaving work, targeting benefit sanctions and demanding money for mothers, not proposing legislation that further criminalises sex work which will inevitably drive it further underground, making it harder and more dangerous for women.”
Speaking against the bill, West Ham MP Lyn Brown said: “The Nordic model is not about tackling trafficking, or exploitation directly. It criminalises the buying of sex and it can also criminalise many of the means by which sex workers market their work. I believe that it is counterproductive and I believe it will put women at greater risk.
“When all clients are frightened of being arrested, and therefore, all clients are insistent that meetings happen in darker corners, where the dangers for women are greater, sex workers can’t refuse those risks. They can no longer distinguish between clients who are a threat, and those who are not.”
She cited a sex worker, Louise from Doncaster, who said: “The police don’t protect us. And the biggest problem I face is the laws.
“Some women have been dragged under the control of pimps, but criminalising everyone doesn’t help that. We are boxed in by poverty. Criminalising clients will take away our income when people around the country are living on the edge, and women are expected to fill the gap.”
Ms Johnson’s sexual exploitation bill will have its second reading on January 29.