A recent trafficking-ring bust highlights exactly why blanket decriminalisation of prostitution would be a disaster

In our previous blog post, we highlighted that a news story from local press in Lancashire –which inexplicably still has not been picked up by national press – has exposed a sex trafficking and prostitution ring operating across the north west of England. After a lengthy investigation earlier this year, eight people (seven men and one woman) have been charged with a combination of human trafficking, controlling prostitution, and brothel keeping.

The links between human trafficking and prostitution are a particularly contentious aspect of the debate surrounding the global sex trade, with many who advocate for the blanket decriminalisation of prostitution arguing that they are two distinct things, and should not be conflated. This argument is premised on the point that trafficking individuals either across borders or internally is indeed a human rights abuse, but it should not be confused with otherwise “consensual sex work”.

While this concession seems understandable in theory, it belies the true nature of prostitution in a globalised world. Of course, not every single individual within the sex trade has been trafficked, nor is every single individual who is trafficked necessarily trafficked for sexual exploitation. But this is a false distinction, and is not what sex-trade abolitionists mean when we argue that the links between trafficking and prostitution need to be recognised as fundamental.

A 2018 All-Party Parliamentary Report on organised crime groups behind “off-street” prostitution found that 85% of potential victims of sexual exploitation are non-UK nationals, or in other words, had been internationally trafficked into the UK to be sexually exploited. Of this 85%, the largest nationality demographic were Romanian women (39%), and as the recent prostitution-ring bust in Lancashire has shown, women of that nationality are still being exploited and trafficked into the UK. It would be extraordinarily cavalier to argue that the 85% of non-UK nationals happen to be here either of their own accord, or that it is entirely distinct from the fact that they happen to be sexually exploited.

Women are shipped across borders precisely because they can be sexually exploited for profit. These women are oftentimes already in positions of extreme vulnerability, such as being subjected to debt bondage or threats of violence against family members, which in turn is then used to coerce and force them into submission. This is coupled with the fact that at its heart, prostitution is the nexus of sexual exploitation and profit-making.

These vulnerable women represent profit-opportunities for pimps and traffickers, and sexual exploitation – in this context, prostitution – represents the most profitable form of exploitation available. As the costs associated with trafficking have decreased, it is becoming an increasingly attractive prospect for criminals who are prepared to consign women to a lifetime of slavery to line their pockets.

By introducing legislation that decriminalises all aspects of prostitution, including the brothel keeping and “management” of the women (in other words, pimping), this literally removes the sanctions against those who are profiting from this exploitation, thus facilitating it further. The pro-decriminalisation rebuttal that decriminalisation would combat these human rights abuses hinges on the assumption that it would be feasible to separate out victims of trafficking from non-trafficked individuals, but this is a risible suggestion.

The UK has had laws in place that prohibit the purchase of sex from somebody who has been ‘subject to force’ since 2009, and year-on-year prosecutions have decreased despite the prevalence of such criminal activity clearly not doing the same, as the Lancashire ring so clearly demonstrates. The solution to this is most certainly not to decriminalise those who profit from such exploitation, which would make it even more difficult to discern who has been trafficked. Quite the opposite: if the law were changed to criminalise those who purchase sexual access to these women – while decriminalising the women themselves – it would make it much easier to prevent the exploitation of these women in the first instance, as any attempt to purchase would be prima facie illegal. It wouldn’t depend on the highly improbable – and as evidence suggests – ridiculous that punters care enough about the women to report to the police those whom they think are being coerced or forced.

CEASE UK is calling on the Government to recognise the inherent and fundamental links between trafficking and the system of prostitution, and to provide exit opportunities for the women involved as soon as is possible. To ignore one is to misunderstand the other, and decriminalising the entire system of prostitution would act as a green-light for traffickers and pimps to exploit the most vulnerable in society with impunity. This cannot be allowed to happen.