Diana Johnson: To bust sex trafficking’s business model, we must criminalise paying for sex

Paying for sex is exploitation.

MPs from across the political spectrum have backed my Sexual Exploitation Bill – a bill that would bust the business model of sex trafficking. 

Why have I introduced it? Because the scale on which sex trafficking and sexual exploitation is taking place in the UK is abhorrent and intolerable.

An inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on commercial sexual exploitation, which I chair, took evidence from over half of all police forces in England and Wales. It found organised crime groups are sexually exploiting women on an industrial scale.

Victims are advertised on lucrative pimping websites, moved around networks of residential properties and hotel rooms, and sexually abused by paying punters who have ‘ordered’ the women off websites. 

Last year I chaired an international summit on this issue and heard from anti-trafficking organisations and agencies in Romania – a major source country of women who are abused in brothels across Britain.

The scale on which men in this country are paying to sexually exploit women from Romania is a national scandal. Over the course of two years, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women – 86% of whom were from Romania.

Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels over two years and of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75% were from Romania.

Similarly, the Police Foundation identified 65 brothels in Bristol over a two-year period over three quarters of which displayed at least one indicator of organised crime. The most commonly recorded nationality of women found in the brothels was Romanian. 

Laura Albu, President of the Romanian Women’s Lobby, summed up the message to UK participants at the summit: “The solution is simple: end demand in the UK. …The UK can end demand and prosecute buyers of sex and close this so-called market.”

Albu rightly identified that the ‘supply’ of vulnerable women by exploiters is driven by demand from the minority of men in the UK who pay for sex. Just 3.6% of men have paid for sex in the past five years but it is their money that lines the pockets of traffickers and drives this brutal trade.

There are some who choose to excuse or minimise the actions of men who pay for sex. So let me be clear: exchanging money, food, accommodation, employment, services or other goods in return for sex acts is sexual exploitation and abuse.

It is never acceptable. Men who order women off websites to perform sex acts on them are not ‘consumers’ legitimately availing ‘workers’ of their services. These men are perpetrating acts of sexual exploitation – and fuelling sex trafficking.

For the sake of the women they abuse, and the countless women and girls who are put at risk by their continued demand, we must hold them to account; just as we must hold perpetrators of any other form of violence against women accountable.   

My Sexual Exploitation Bill would reduce demand and hold perpetrators accountable by criminalising paying for sex, and it would offer vital support to victims of sexual exploitation by decriminalising ‘selling’ sex and providing exiting services.

By adopting this legislation, England and Wales would join countries such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Northern Ireland and Ireland, which have all implemented this demand reduction approach.

Crucially, my bill would also prevent traffickers advertising their victims on pimping websites – which are central to the contemporary business model of sex trafficking. 

Note: The other point of view….‘This proposed new law on sex work risks making the ‘hostile environment’ even worse’

Dame Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North

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