Britain cracks down on prostitution

As many as 1 in 10 British men now use prostitutes. A controversial new law targets customers.

By , Correspondent of 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.

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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. The number of men using prostitutes is believed to have jumped in recent years to as many as 1 in 10. Trafficking of women, particularly from Eastern Europe, has increased sharply. The government now estimates that Britain now has around 80,000 sex workers, and while those who work the streets remain highly vulnerable, those who operate discreetly and independently say they can do so safely and with impunity.

Sophie, a prostitute who works in southwest London, says her clients are respectable and honest and that police are more likely to intervene on her behalf than to prosecute her. "They turn a blind eye," she says. It is live-and-let-live situations like this that have persuaded a majority of people that it may be time to change prostitution laws. A recent survey found that two-thirds of people were in favor of legalizing prostitution.

But Kaye Wellings, a professor of sexual and reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that tolerance should not be confused with approval. "Saying prostitution should be legalized is not the same thing as saying it is right," she says. "It may be just a reflection that legal constraints are often not a very good way of influencing behavior."

More liberal attitudes toward sex

Recent surveys show attitudes towards sexual behavior in general are changing in Britain, traditionally more conservative than its counterparts on the Continent. Professor Wellings, who has conducted studies into sexual attitudes, says people are far more accepting now of things like same-sex relationships and premarital sex.

And yet in the past two weeks, intense media attention has driven from office both a top member of Parliament and the national football coach, both of whom suffered lurid revelations about their sex lives.

Edward Garnier, a Conservative MP who covers the home affairs brief, says that when it comes to prostitution, the government has to take a stand, not because of any 19th-century morality, but because of the severe deprivation and social breakdown in which the industry is steeped.

"What individuals do behind their own front door is a matter for them as consenting adults and not a matter for government," he says. "In a sense, if you want to be a prostitute that's a matter for you - only so often it isn't. Young girls don't get up one day and say 'My ambition is to be a prostitute.' They are pushed into it, by drug dealers or pimps.

"Government has a responsibility here, not from a moral point of view, but because it has to deal with the underlying causes of why teenagers go into this."

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