Britain Cracks Down on Prostitution ; as Many as 1 in 10 British Men Now Use Prostitutes. A Controversial New Law Targets Customers

By Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Britain Cracks Down on Prostitution ; as Many as 1 in 10 British Men Now Use Prostitutes. A Controversial New Law Targets Customers


Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Lola has been a London call girl for 15 years, but it hasn't gotten any easier. OK, so the police don't bother her much because she's pretty discreet. But clients are getting more demanding, and she says the law is even worse.

Britain has one of the toughest approaches toward prostitution in Europe - a slate of more than 30 separate offenses on a statute book unreformed for more than 50 years.

Recently there were signs that this would change, as the government considered plans to license prostitutes and tolerate "managed areas" in which women like Lola could work more safely. But earlier this month it abruptly changed course, ditching plans to help sex workers and deciding instead to target those who buy sex off the street.

While some see this tough new approach as sheltering women from the increased demand that would follow legalization of the practice, others argue it endangers prostitutes. The government has, however, made a vague promise to turn a blind eye to "mini-brothels" of two or three women working discreetly together.

"This is a crackdown against street prostitution," says Ana Lopez of the International Union of Sex Workers. She says this form of prohibition merely drives the industry into the shadows where dark, violent things happen. She points to more tolerant attitudes in countries like Portugal, where she says a liberal decriminalized approach means women are better protected.

"State intervention just helps to establish discrimination and stereotyping of sex workers as victims," Lopez says. "Society should be mature enough to make these choices without the state intervening."

But Julie Bindel, a women's rights activist who advised the government on its new strategy, says far from making women safer, decriminalizing prostitution would encourage higher demand, increase sex tourism and trafficking in women, and make life easier for pimps and traffickers. She says that countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which have decriminalized, are now wondering if they have done the right thing, as the industry grows.

Swedish-style: women aren't commodities

Instead, Britain is following an example set by Scandinavian countries, which have aimed their crackdowns on "curb-crawlers" - men who troll the sidewalks in cars, looking for prostitutes. In Sweden, says Ms. Bindel, it's already paying dividends, with 80 percent of adults supporting the measure. "Children in Sweden are now growing up recognizing it is not acceptable and we shouldn't see women as commodities," she says.

British prostitution laws haven't been reviewed since the immediate postwar era, even though attitudes and behavior have undergone a sweeping transformation.

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