International Women’s Day this Saturday comes on the heels of a big few months in the battle to end the ‘oldest profession’. France, Ireland and Northern Ireland have made moves towards changing their prostitution laws in the last year. All three are looking to shift towards the Swedish model, whereby it is the buyer (invariably the man) who is criminalised, with the sale of sex made legal.
Moreover, Germany has appeared for the first time to be willing to re-evaluate legalisation, and the British parliament, which has traditionally had a muddled position, has shown signs of going Swedish. An all-party group on the subject, chaired by Gavin Shuker MP, concluded that current laws ‘prioritise the gratification of punters at the expense of often-vulnerable women and girls’. The current law fails to address the problem of demand, and as a result it sustains the status quo.
The process has been helped along by my own report, recommending the Swedish model, which was passed by the European parliament in February. With countries as far away as Canada weighing up the merits of the Swedish model, it appears a genuine international shift is taking place. At long last governments are taking sustainable and ambitious steps.
For me this process is essential in the effort to bring about a world where women have a genuinely fair crack. With the sex trade overwhelmingly populated by women, the existence of prostitution is an affront to the battle for gender parity. It is a totemic issue; a persistent and uneasy monument of the economic and physical dominance of women by men. As a delegation of nearly 80 academics wrote in an open letter to members of the European parliaments last month:
The prostitution system is a reminder of continuing inequalities between women and men: the gender pay gap; the sexualisation of female bodies in popular culture; the histories of violence and abuse in both childhood and adulthood that underpin many women’s entry into the sex industry.
The alternative to the Swedish model is blanket decriminalisation. This has a degree of support – including from some sex workers’ groups – as a means of regulating the sex industry better. Advocates say it would prevent prostitution being ‘driven underground’ and therefore make it safer.
This claim is undermined somewhat by the case of Germany, perhaps the most controversial example of decriminalisation. Since legalisation there in 2001 there has been an explosion in prostitution levels. So-called ‘super brothels’ now operate on the country’s borders and there are reportedly around 400,000 sex workers (compared to less than 50,000 in neighbouring France). Just 44 of these have registered for benefits, suggesting the supposed ‘regulation’ of the industry is something of a myth. The effect has been simply to ingrain prostitution and normalise the inequalities which sustain it.
I hope that by International Women’s Day 2015 the number of countries to have ‘gone Swedish’ will have increased, and we will be approaching the point of critical mass where the Swedish model can become accepted as the norm. To protect women everywhere we must go beyond sticking plaster solutions and look to root causes.
Mary Honeyball is a member of the European parliament for London. She sits on the women’s rights and gender equality committee of the European parliament and tweets @maryhoneyball
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.