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To Legalise or Not To Legalise?

Julie Bindel photo
Julie BindelLondon
To Legalise or Not To Legalise?
Exposing the harsh realities of legalised prostitution, Julie Bindel argues that legalisation has not improved the conditions of women in prostitution

The Secret Service’s 2012 prostitution scandal was widely reported as one of ‘men behaving badly’. Nine agents, in Columbia for a visit by President Obama, had spent the evening drinking at a notorious red light area comprised of strip joints and brothels. It was discovered that the agents each took prostitutes to their hotel rooms.

The reporting of this scandal masked something sinister. The twenty prostituted women involved in the incident - all locals of Cartagena, Columbia - may well have been sex trafficked by criminal gangs.

According to Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), a human rights organisation seeking to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation, many women in the brothels of Cartagena are bought and sold by brutal pimps.

Displaced as a result of the Colombian conflict, these women are often used by men who come to Cartagena on official business. CATW has evidence that Cartagena has also become a paradise for male tourists seeking sex with children.

There can be little doubt that the agents made a choice to pick up prostitutes in the red light zone because the sex market in Cartagena is legal, highly visible and readily available, “Prostitution in Colombia is legal as long as it is done in designated ‘tolerance zones”, says Rachel Moran, author of Paid For: My Journey Through Drugs and Prostitution. “Which shows that such a regime does not filter out abuse and organised crime from the sex industry, but rather invites it in.”

But this shameful episode may well, in the not-so-distant future, become a criminal one. Recently three countries have announced that paying for sex will soon be criminalised, in the name of gender equality. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Canada have all voted for demand for sexual services to be made a criminal offence, rather than criminalising those unfortunate enough to end up selling it.

The approach is known as the “Nordic Model,” initially established by Sweden in 1999 and later adopted by Norway and Iceland.

Ireland and France are considering introducing similar legislation, and both the European Union and the Council of Europe are recommending that other countries follow suit.

Why are so many countries looking favourably at the Nordic Model? 

Why are so many countries looking favourably at the Nordic Model? Until fairly recently, the propaganda from countries and states that legalised prostitution - such as Germany, the Netherlands, some states of Australia, and Nevada, U.S., was deemed persuasive enough to convince a number of governments to seriously consider it an option. The Supreme Court of Canada last year found the criminalisation of any aspect of the sex trade ‘unconstitutional’ and asked legislators to rewrite the laws. After a fierce battle between feminists, moralists, liberals and prostitutes, lawmakers decided to criminalise the Johns rather than legitimise the pimps.

Marie Merklinger is a member of the NGO Space International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), which is leading the sex trade abolitionist movement. Membership primarily consists of survivors of prostitution and well-placed allies. This is no organisation for those who wish to promote the oft-cited mantra that prostitution is the oldest profession, good for society. Its primary aim, according founder of Space International, Moran, is to eradicate what she calls ‘The Oldest Oppression’. “We want to end this vile trade in human misery and to do that we have to hit where it hurts. We need to go after the Johns.”

The European sex industry is being shaped by a huge influx of desperate, vulnerable women coming to the EU from eastern Europe, Africa and south-east Asia.  Most will have been trafficked by criminal gangs or individuals promising a better life and the chance to earn money. Once across the border, they are auctioned and sold on. By now, they owe a vast amount of money to the trafficker for their journey, and will be made to work off debts by servicing up to 40 customers a day, seven days a week. Their debts can never be cleared because they have to pay half of their earnings to the brothel owner and the rest to the trafficker. They are told if they go to the police, they will be arrested and their families back home will be punished. Trafficking, and a sharp rise in heroin and crack abuse among prostitutes, means the women are increasingly desperate, resulting in customers getting whatever they want.

The debate on prostitution is polarised. Prostitution is legal in few countries, but street soliciting, brothel owning and pimping criminalise the trade. There are advocates of total legalisation of brothels and designated areas for street prostitution - and those who believe the only way forward is to come down hard on the customers and pimps, and assist women out of the industry. Supporters of legalisation often cite Holland as a shining example.

In the UK, estimates earlier this year from the Office for National Statistics, that in 2009 illegal drugs and prostitution boosted the economy by £9.7 billion – equal to 0.7% of gross domestic product, a similar contribution as farming.

Supporters characterise prostitution as a legitimate career, contrasting it with poorly paid domestic or retail work. The prostitution debate invariably focuses on how best to ensure the physical security and safety of the women. It is the issue that shapes societal and governmental responses to the industry.

In the UK, estimates earlier this year from the Office for National Statistics, that in 2009 illegal drugs and prostitution boosted the economy by £9.7 billion – equal to 0.7% of gross domestic product, a similar contribution as farming.

“When sex work is an option for both boys and girls at Career Advice days at private schools, then we can talk about it as legitimate work,” says Denise Marshall, Chief Executive of Eaves for Women, a UK-based charity offering support to women trafficked into the UK. “But whilst the job training for prostitution is child sexual abuse and homelessness, and the occupational hazards HIV, unwanted pregnancy, and murder, then let’s keep calling it what it is - abuse.”

Space International is the first global campaign against the sex trade that is led by former prostitutes. Representing seven countries worldwide, and four states in the US, it is endorsed by former US President Jimmy Carter, and is being regularly consulted by government policy makers and human rights officials.

“We are speaking out because we are sick of the myth of the Pretty Woman version of prostitution,” says Jeanette Westbrook, a social worker from Kentucky, and also a member of Space. “For too long the happy hooker stereotype has dominated.”

But Space has detractors, and most are far richer and powerful. There is a battle in a number of countries around the world, and lives and money are at stake. “Governments are debating whether to legalise the sex industry and therefore legitimise it as a trade and a profession, but they are being lobbied by what feminist abolitionists call the ‘pro-prostitution movement’” says Janice Raymond, author of Not A Job, Not a Choice. “These people are simply a front.”

One pro-prostitution organisation that claims to speak for people in prostitution the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). This union is not the left wing, pro-worker organisation its founders intended, but a mouthpiece for pimps and sex buyers; open to sex industry bosses, manufacturers of sex toys, pornographers, and academics studying the industry.

The IUSW provided ‘evidence’ of how unionisation of sex workers had been effective. They excluded the negative example of Holland. Its government funded union, De Rode Draad, had only 100 members out of an estimated 25,000 women and men in prostitution. Most were ‘erotic dancers’ and only 5% registered for tax.

Sex workers' rights groups exist in many countries, and they are always better funded and resourced than abolitionist groups. Laws differ within states and countries, and policing is inconsistent, so the women are often targets of campaigns, rather than the sex buyers.

Nevada is the only US state where brothels are legal. Since the days it was populated by gold miners, prostitution has been accepted as another service industry there. I visited four legal brothels at the invitation of Dennis Hof, brothel owner, pimp, and star of the HBO series CatHouse. A quick Internet search of my name would have told Hof that I am an anti-sex trade campaigner, but he seemed to think by showing how legal brothels operate, he would change my mind.

Most of the people visiting Vegas, according to one survey, think all prostitution in the state is legal, when just 24 brothels in Nevada are legal. Allowed only in counties with populations of fewer than 400,000, the trailer-type compounds are in remote areas. The women often live in prison-like conditions, locked in or forbidden to leave. The lawful scene – which is widely publicised and promoted by the brothel owners through TV – encourages the illegal scene to flourish. As one pimp tells me: ”Tourism [to Vegas] is our bread and butter. Stag parties are very lucrative.” The women in the legal brothels are considered to be “private contractors” and must register as prostitutes. They are also legally required to be tested once a week for STDs, unlike their clients.

Talking to the women in these brothels, it was clear that far from being independent and entrepreneurial, as Hof stated, most came from abusive backgrounds; they had low self-esteem and no qualifications. The women saw customers in the rooms in which they lived, and I noticed a startling lack of any personal effects. “I can’t bear the idea of them touching my things, and knowing anything about who I really am,” Doreen told me, “I take their money and in return I put on an act for them. But inside I am crying.”

Another legalised regime is Holland, which legalised its sex market in 2000. The logic was to make things safer, and make it a job like any other. Once the women were liberated from the underworld, the criminals would drift away.

“I can’t bear the idea of them touching my things, and knowing anything about who I really am,” Doreen told me, “I take their money and in return I put on an act for them. But inside I am crying.”

Amsterdam is known as the sex mecca of Europe. But after 14 years of legalised window brothels, attracting customers from all over the world, politicians, police, citizens and prostitutes themselves are admitting that it is a failure. Contrary to government promises, trafficking into the Netherlands has massively increased, the street scene remains, and pimping and drug dealing is rife. Sex tourism deters regular tourists, and many citizens are increasingly unhappy with women being displayed in windows like carcasses.

Many of those controlling the scene and facilitating the trafficking of women are "loverboys", young Dutchmen of Moroccan, Turkish or Surinamese descent who look for vulnerable young Dutch women, pose as lovers, but eventually force their "girlfriends" into prostitution. They are kept under control both by force and psychological means, which means that on the rare occasion the police visit to ask whether they are in prostitution of their own free will, they lie.

Rather than afford better protection for the women, legalisation led to an increased market. The industry has not been contained but has spilt out all over Amsterdam, including on-street. Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who are too scared to complain.

Pimps are reclassified as businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is now called an ‘occupational hazard’. Sex tourism has grown faster in Amsterdam than the regular tourism: as the city became the brothel of Europe, women have been trafficked in from around the world to meet the demand. The pimps remained but became legit — violence was still prevalent but part of the job, and trafficking increased. Support for the women to leave prostitution became almost nonexistent. The murkiness of the job has not been washed away - a third of Amsterdam’s window brothels have been closed due to the involvement of organised criminals.

Last year I interviewed a pair of elderly twins who had each been involved in prostitution in Amsterdam for 50 years. Although legalisation is supposed to benefit those involved, the women told me, “There are few Dutch women and no sense of community these days. There is no point working and being taxed on it. That is why the girls are working from the internet and from home – you are less likely to be spotted by the taxman. The vultures came in 2000. Organised criminals. They thought, ahah, it is legalised. Now we are OK.”

As I walked around the city with the twins, male tourists stopped us, asking to pose for photographs with the twins. These women, both of whom had been abused into prostitution by violent men, were objects of amusement.

In 1999, Sweden criminalised those who pay for sex. When the law was passed there were around 2,500 prostitutes; now there are just 500, and Sweden is the least popular trafficking destination in Europe.

The law to curb demand, known as the Nordic Model, has been introduced in other countries, such as South Korea, Canada, Norway, UK and Northern Ireland. Where prostitution was widely tolerated as ‘the oldest profession’, in recent years a new wave of sex trade survivors, who are campaigning for abolition, is challenging orthodoxies and creating problems for the pimps, traffickers and Johns. France and Ireland are also looking at adopting the Swedish model.

Dozens of French celebrities, including actress Catherine Deneuve, have signed a petition against government plans to crack down on those who pay for sex.

"Without supporting or promoting prostitution, we reject the penalisation of those who prostitute themselves and those who seek their services," read the petition published in French media.

"We demand a real debate without ideological prejudice," added the text, signed by about 60 people.

The British website is described as, ‘The Online Community for Patrons and Providers of Adult Personal Services in the UK’. The website has existed since January 1999 and is dedicated to the publication of men’s field reports of encounters with female prostitutes.

Reading the reviews from sex buyers gives some insight into the way women in prostitution are viewed. Having interviewed several sex buyers for international research projects I can confirm that these views are not unusual.

“You get to choose, like a catalogue.”

Photo: Reuters

“Eastern European; Oriental; African; European. In mood for variety – sounds like a take-away” [laughs] there’s an element of a kid in the candy store isn’t there?”

“You can do a lot more with the Oriental girls like blow job without a condom, and you can cum in their mouths. But they are not as good looking as the white girls I view them as dirty.”

“I made a list in my mind, I told myself that I’ll be with different races e.g. Japanese, Indian, Chinese… Once I have been with them I tick them off the list. It’s like a shopping list.”

“You get to choose, like a catalogue.”

Women are advertised as if merchandise in a cut-price supermarket. For example:

“House special: £80 for 20 minutes with two girls”

“£150 per hour introductory deal - includes oral without, kissing and anal”

“Spend over £50 you’re allowed oral without condom”

“£150 for as many times as you can”

“£1000 quote for a party with four women plus £50 delivery”

Disability is used as a justification for men to buy sex. The website of the on-line campaign for ‘sexual freedom’, TLC Trust, (

“Everyone has the right to self gratification and if someone can’t touch themselves or reach orgasm, then it’s only fair that another lends them a hand. This person need not be you, but perhaps you could talk to people who live near the client, who could help on a regular basis,” according to the TLC website.

TLC Trust is campaigning for at least one wheelchair accessible brothel in every city ‘to meet the demand’, and that hospice wards should have provision for ‘visiting sex workers’

“It would be a sad injustice if service personnel such as soldiers badly wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were banned from the help they receive from sex workers.” Perhaps Johns should get a discount of they wear a Poppy to the brothel?

Marie Merklinger was married with children and found herself divorced and raising them alone in her mid 40s. Surviving on short term low paid contracts, and being desperate during a period of unemployment, she decided, rather than claim welfare, to advertise on an escort site.

“In Germany it is so easy to do this. It was my last option, but after I put my profile up it only took an hour for the first John to contact me. At first it felt quite exciting in a way.”

Merklinger lives in Stuttgart, home of Europe’s largest brothel. This is Paradise, built at a cost of more than 6m euros (£4.9m), and opened in 2008, boasts a restaurant, a cinema, a spa and 31 private rooms for the hundreds of male customers it attracts each day.

By treating prostitution as a job like any other, the idea was to prise women away from the pimps that dominate the sex trade. “That has failed,” says Merklinger, “All it has done is increase the scale of prostitution, and make the pimps respectable.”

Bridget Perrier, a Native Canadian abolitionist, was abused into the sex trade aged 12. After being raped by a family friend Perrier became difficult for her adoptive parents to deal with and was sent to a group home for Aboriginal youths with behavioural problems, where she was assaulted by a male carer. Perrier was abused into prostitution aged 12, when a man approached her in the street and asked Bridget to masturbate him for $200. “I hated it, but realised how easy it was to make money.”

Robert Pickton, the serial killer, murdered Perrier’s friend. In 1983, Rebecca Guno, a drug-addicted prostitute from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest district, disappeared. She was never seen again. More than 60 women, mainly in the sex trade and from the aboriginal community, vanished.

It was almost 20 years before police tracked down the man they believe to be responsible, and another three years for them to gather evidence. Robert Pickton, a pig farmer, was arrested in 2002 after police called at his farm looking for weapons on an entirely different matter. Friends and relatives of some of the disappeared had alerted police to the farm several times, hearing rumours about what happened there, but police showed little interest.

Last December, the Ontario Supreme Court in Canada struck down three provisions of its prostitution-related offences, including brothel-keeping and living on the earnings of prostitution. Three plaintiffs -- one, previously convicted for managing an escort service and another, aspiring to operate a brothel -- challenged the pimping and "bawdy house" laws, asserting that legalisation would alleviate the violence women face in prostitution.

The Court gave the Canadian Parliament 12 months to rewrite the laws deemed unconstitutional and in violation of the principles of "life, liberty and the security of the person.”

But now buying sex and pimping is criminalised, as is third-party advertising for sexual services. Prostituted people are decriminalised, and the purpose of the bill is to target the exploiters. It explicitly challenges men's right to buy sex and positions women in prostitution as victims, not criminals. There is money available for exiting prostitution, and post-exit support.

Many view feminists who challenge demand for prostitution as moralistic prudes and a threat to free speech and liberty.

Alice Klein at NOW Magazine writes, ‘While this whole city celebrates our beauty and our outrageousness, the government is busy unleashing a moral panic across the country designed to keep the shame machine working overtime.

‘If the bill becomes law, Johns will become the new "fags" - the people fed into the fear factory of career-ending public exposure and the criminal underground because of their personal sexual choices.’ But the libertarian view held by Klein and many others is under serious challenge by the abolitionists.

In 2009, Britain passed a law making it illegal to pay for services from a prostitute whom a third person has subjected to force, threats, coercion or deception to perform those services. Ignorance about about this exploitation is irrelevant.

In October this year Northern Ireland joined the growing number of countries prepared to tackle demand. A controversial clause to the human trafficking and exploitation bill, to criminalise the buying of sexual services, was voted in by a massive cross-party majority.

According to evaluation, the legislation in Sweden has been overwhelmingly positive for all (except the pimps, traffickers and sex buyers, of course). The law has halved street prostitution, while the number of men paying for sex declined from 12.7 per cent in 1996 to 7.6 per cent in 2008. The law also changed society’s opinion about buying sex: in 1996, 45 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men supported criminalising the buying of sex, but by 2008 numbers had grown to 79 and 60 per cent respectively.

The vast majority of academics in the UK and US currently favour legalisation over the Nordic Model

But the vast majority of academics in the UK and US currently favour legalisation over the Nordic Model, despite the overwhelming evidence of failure coming from the Netherlands, Germany and Nevada.

Most academic studies produced in the past few years conclude that little harm is caused to those involved in prostitution, despite the thousands of testimonies of survivors of the sex trade. Many of these academics are sex workers' rights lobbyists, and yet claim to be impartial.

There are countless articles, papers and comments from academics in which the Nordic model is heavily criticised and dismissed as a workable option. They argue that putting any focus on the buyer will automatically have a negative impact on women in prostitution, and would offer no benefits to the police and public. However, these studies, reports and claims have been written by individuals with strong political positions on prostitution. These same academics regularly accuse authors of research that reaches different conclusions from theirs of being biased.

There are a number of countries considering legalisation, despite the evidence of its failure. In November Lalitha Kumaramangalam of the National Commission for Women put a case before the same court in which she argued that a regulated industry could prevent the trafficking of women and children, and reduce the numbers prostitutes and sex buyers contracting HIV.

The pro-legalisation lobby fought hard to separate trafficking from other forms of prostitution.

Dr Melissa Farley, clinical psychologist and the founder and director of the San Francisco based organisation Prostitution Research and Education, has been researching the sex industry and prostitution for almost 30 years.

“There is no disagreement between abolitionists and sex trade promoters that women in prostitution should be decriminalised,” says Farley. “Once prostitution is understood for what it is: a stunningly dangerous activity for those in it, who are mentally and physically brutalised as part of the "job" then it seems that we should be naming it a human rights violation. In practice, prostitution usually means third-party control or pimping - which is what trafficking is. So yes, most of the time those in prostitution ARE victims of trafficking.”

A number of academics, such as Nicolas Mai in the UK, refer to trafficking as ‘migration for sex work’. The abolitionists say that the language used to describe aspects of the sex industry is crucial in how the general public view prostitution.

Simone Andrea is an Australian abolitionist, and a survivor of the sex trade. “Sex work does not describe the experiences of the vast majority of those in prostitution,” she says. “It includes pornographers, pimps, manufacturers of sex toys, brothel owners - anyone who makes money from prostitution. It dignifies an abusive trade.”

The Associated Press - the world’s largest news gathering organisation - asked for suggestions for the 2015 version of its stylebook, a writing style guide for journalists, which is updated every year. This year sex worker activists are urging the organisation to drop “prostitute” in favor of the preferred “sex worker.”

The abolitionists reacted, with organisations including Equality Now and CATW urging supporters to write to AP to reject the term, instead to replace with ‘prostituted persons’.

The sex workers’ rights lobbyists are now looking to New Zealand to save them. But all is not well with the regime there, despite the hype from the lobbyists. The government noted in its evaluation report in 2008 that decriminalised prostitution “cannot in itself prevent or address the causes of underage prostitution.” The National Council of Women of New Zealand, which originally supported decriminalisation, expressed concern that “we are still seeing girls as young as 13 and 14 on the streets selling their bodies,” and that men arrested for buying sex from minors are receiving light sentences under the law.”

President Obama ordered an internal investigation into the Cartanga scandal, shortly after the event, and David Nieland, head of the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office in Miami, was hired to lead the review.

Nieland quietly resigned after being spotted by law enforcers entering and leaving a building they had under surveillance as part of a prostitution investigation. A woman working there was later interviewed, and she identified Nieland from a photograph, confirming that he had paid her for sex. If the abolitionists get their way, and right now it looks like they might, men like Nieland could find themselves paying the price.

#prostitute, #sex trade, #human rights, #legalisation, #sex worker, #abuse


Jin Sherr

5 years ago

Thanx for sharing! I have nonthing against sew workers. Escort is such a job as manager. If you like what u do then who cares. I am a business man who travels a lot. It means that I will get lonely and crave a bit of female companionship. That’s why I often use < a href=" ">London escorts < /a>. It often keeps up my spirits and it service never upset me.

Gaye Dalton

5 years ago

What a peculiar article. I have never understood how anyone could attempt to claim that making it harder for sex workers to earn a living was of benefit to them. In the case of survival sex workers such legislation runs a huge risk of destroying them and their families completely. But there is more. Perhaps before I get into it I should state (as I already have on oath incidentally, there does not seem to be any other statement on oath in this entire debate, globally) that since 1993 I have received approximated 50 pounds in total for my sex work activism, 20 pounds of that came from a Nun involved with Ruhama in Ireland, the rest was an anonymous phone credit. I have paid all my own expenses and refused money from abolitionist orgs during that time. Curious again is the emphasis on the claims of Space International which was founded by triple convicted pimp Justine Reilly who has faded into shadows since this was revealed. More curious is the celebration of legislation in the North of Ireland that aims to drive sex workers to desperation then offer "rescue" by faith based organisations that frequently insist that active homosexuality (male or female) is a sin worth eternity in hell among many more mentally and emotionally abusive assertions Julie Bindel herself accused me (this is my real name) of being a "made up person" but when I offered to meet with her and bring her to my home she publicly agreed - then used every trick in the book to wriggle out of it. (I am happy to repeat that invitation) This kind of behaviour is typical of abolitionists. It should be obvious, they make a lot of claims, without consultation with sex workers, let alone mandate that, when traced back to source, do not substantiate anything. In real terms the Nordic Model offers no benefit at all, even to the wider society: When sex workers are treated as equal, autonomous adults and consulted about their lives a consistent very different picture emerges:,481166,en.pdf I have risked my life and my world to stand up to and expose the constant, cruel and dangerous lies of the abolitionist lobby, even though I personally hated sex work and did it because I had not other way I could survive. The obscenely weathly abolitionist orgs are still not offereing a way I could have survived to this day, just lies and abuse