The news that police should not raid brothels and instead should do more to support those in prostitution has prompted controversy. The law on prostitution in this country is not always very clear. For example, it is illegal to own or run a brothel. It is illegal to kerb crawl or solicit in public. But it is not illegal to sell sex.
We at CARE support measures to reduce demand for prostitution because the evidence tells us the majority of women engaged in selling sex have experienced exploitation or abuse and are vulnerable in some other way. Research has shown abuse in the home, homelessness, and living in care, debt and substance abuse are common experiences for those entering prostitution.
But here is the real point: many, many people involved this industry are not there because of choice.
Rather, a vicious combination of economic pressure, social pressure, desperation and even human trafficking mean they face an intolerable and difficult life. While some organisations act as if all prostitutes are professionals who have made a lifestyle choice, this is simply not true. Worse, it disguises the terrifying reality that many are forced to live lives of utter hopelessness, depending on the cash generated by selling their bodies. Where is the dignity in that? We are all image bearers of God, but sadly and tragically, some are forced to sell themselves to make a living.
Here's what we need: much better support for people who want to exit prostitution.
Send a compassionate message to those who desperately want to leave prostitution that we will help them to do so
We need a redesigned law that criminalises the buyer and shifts the burden onto those who go out trying to buy sex. Prostitution is a dangerous activity. People who work the streets need protection. We must criminalise the buyer as a means of supporting the majority of people who are trapped in a lifestyle they have not chosen.
Some argue that it is fine for two consenting adults to have consensual sex. If one is paying, that is up to them. We ‘moralisers’ should simply keep quiet. But the problem here is the imbalance between the buyer and the seller. In a minority of instances, the seller might be making a free choice to do so. But in the majority of cases, they are selling their bodies because they feel they have no other choice. Or because they are being made to.
The recently launched Home Affairs Committee inquiry into prostitution law offers a great chance for politicians to re-examine how we approach prostitution laws here in the UK. Reform is undoubtedly needed and we are concerned to see adequate support and help for those who want to escape, who wish they could escape, but who face great challenges in doing so.
Criminalise the buyer, not the seller. Send a compassionate message to those who desperately want to leave prostitution that we will help them to do so. Recognise how dangerous it is and take action. Support and do not condemn.
Jesus spoke to prostitutes with great compassion, pointing them to new life found in him. So let’s use that as our template. No doubt the intentions behind the new guidance are to protect people vulnerable to crime, but ruling out police intervention in brothels will remove the protection that many need so desperately. We need to end demand, not facilitate it.
Nola Leach is CEO of CARE (Christian Action Research and Education)