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Why are women who have escaped prostitution still viewed as criminals?

In 1996, while helping organise a major conference on male violence against women and girls, I met Fiona Broadfoot. Fiona had recently stopped being involved with prostitution and ran a phone line offering support to women also wishing to escape the sex trade. She told me she had “dozens” of offences for street soliciting, and we spent many hours discussing how to change the law so that prostituted women and men would be no longer treated as criminals. A group of feminists, including Broadfoot, set up a re-education scheme for punters two years later in an attempt to put the onus on the perpetrators, and launched a campaign to decriminalise those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the sex trade.

Nineteen years on, Broadfoot is finally getting close to achieving her goal. Along with five other women in the UK, she is bringing a legal challenge against the government in an attempt to expunge all the criminal records from soliciting that arise from street prostitution.

The challenge has been a long time coming. Most women in the sex trade have backgrounds of neglect and violence and yet, despite decades of campaigning to change the law, women in street prostitution are still ending up in court in higher numbers than “kerb crawlers”.

A report launched in parliament today by the Nia Project, a London-based women’s support service, adds weight to the argument that criminalising prostituted women is an abhorrence as well as being counterproductive. Research I conducted in 2009 on women leaving prostitution found that almost half (49%) of the 114 we interviewed had criminal convictions. All the women considered their criminal record to be a significant barrier to exiting prostitution.

Criminalising the women results in being given fines by the court that they have no way of paying unless they go back on the streets. As one woman interviewed for the Nia report said: “What? And now I got to go out and sell my pussy for the government as my pimp, no way!”

The vast majority of women in prostitution are the victims, not the cause, of violence and abuse, and find themselves in constant danger of harm at the hands of pimps and punters. Countries that have implemented the “Nordic model” – based on a law first introduced in Sweden in 1999 that criminalises the demand for prostitution and decriminalises those selling sex – has two main goals: to curb the demand for prostitution and promote equality between women and men. The law is currently in place in Norway, Finland, Iceland, France, Ireland – and Northern Ireland, and feminists who wish to see an end to the sex trade, such as Broadfoot, are keen to see it implemented in the rest of the UK.

“Why should women be arrested for being abused,” asks Broadfoot. “The women in prostitution have no choice, but the punters that buy us have all the choice.”

Despite working for 21 years to assist women out of the sex trade, and training police officers and social workers in the realities of prostitution, Broadfoot is, in law, a criminal. She is not atypical. All the women involved in the legal challenge were coerced into prostitution as teenagers, and some have more than 100 convictions from their time in prostitution.

It is almost impossible for women to escape prostitution and find alternative ways to make money. Women with prostitution offences are often reluctant to apply for jobs in the first place, lest they be “outed” if subjected to an enhanced criminal record check. The stigma of prostitution remains firmly on the women, not the men who buy them. The jobs where such a check is mandatory are those involving vulnerable and young people. I have lost count of the number of formerly prostituted women who have told me they tried to volunteer or find work in a women’s refuge or youth project, only to be told they were “unsuitable” because they had soliciting offences.

I have also met a woman who was not allowed to enter the school gates with her young child because she was considered a “sex offender” due to her multiple criminal offences for street-based soliciting. “I saw one of my [previous] punters there one day,” she told me, “driving his kids in his fancy car and chatting to one of the teachers, all smiles.”

Despite the popular argument that decriminalising the entire sex trade – including brothel-owning and buying sex – would solve the problems faced by prostituted women, this approach has proved to be a disaster. Despite the proliferation of the idea of “empowered” and “happy” sex workers popularised through certain media and “sex workers’ rights” campaign groups, the fact remains that the sex trade is a brutal and sadistic world that exists for the profit and pleasure of the men who drive the demand.

The least any civilised society can do is stop treating women in prostitution as criminals, and turn the attention to the abusers and exploiters who profit from the sale of misery.

Julie Bindel is the author of The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, to be published in September 2017

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