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Girl on street at night

Image: IvanPC / Flickr

Slag, skag-head, hooker, ho, trafficked, trapped, bullied, abused…

The visions created by the mention of prostitution – and the levels of compassion or contempt they illicit – can vary wildly from one person to the next.

While a sex worker may be a distant, unknown entity for most of the general public, the act of sex itself (hopefully) isn’t. As such, everybody has at least a vague opinion on the moral implications of selling sex for a living and is either ‘for’ or ‘against’ its legal status.

But either way, just how effective can an umbrella law be for an issue as complex as sex working?

This series of articles aims to take a more probing look at the topic of prostitution and the law, and present the myriad problems faced when trying to understand, infiltrate or indeed govern such an underground and exploitable industry.

So, legally, where does the UK stand when it comes to prostitution? Well, it kind of sits on the fence. The act of exchanging sex for money isn’t illegal, but ‘related activities’ are.

The law implies that the act of exchanging sex for money, without coercion, should not be a crime – individuals are free to decide for themselves who they have sex with, and for what reason. And by criminalising the ‘related activities’, there should be no problems of brothels cropping up next to family homes, abusive pimps exploiting vulnerable girls and so on. Which in itself, does hold some logic.

Unfortunately however, this stance isn’t working.

The shady world of sex workers is occasionally forced under the spotlight, such as during the Bradford killings of 2010. The case highlighted the major problem of the current laws – by criminalising brothels, sex workers are forced to operate alone – more vulnerable to theft, violence, or murder. During this time, David Cameron said that the decriminalisation of prostitution should be ‘looked at again’, but as the aftermath died down, so too did talks of any real change.

Trafficking is a major component of the prostitution world and is again difficult to accurately monitor. In Nick Davies’s 2009 report, he argued persuasively that trafficking statistics were being wildly exaggerated. Davies believed that, in convincing the general public that there were swathes of trafficked sex slaves hidden in Britain, ‘evangelical Christians [and] feminist campaigners’ were working to achieve their final goal - the total criminalisation of prostitution.

Is time for the UK to take a more definitive approach to prostitution? (rofltosh/Flickr)

Indeed, a scaremongering tactic looked to be in play during the run-up to London 2012. While some sources claimed London would be ‘flooded’ with prostitutes during the games, others decried this as little more than a thinly veiled attempt to justify the controversial ‘coordinated clean-up’ of the streets of London for the benefit of our overseas guests.

But just two weeks ago it was confirmed that trafficking to the UK is increasing. Figures may well have been hugely exaggerated by the media but it is nonetheless a very real problem that is gathering momentum. While wanting to criminalise the act of selling sex between two willing adults may well be the reserve of ‘evangelical Christians’, not all sex workers are willing. A total ban may be the most the most effective method of battling against an industry that often relies on exploitation and abuse.

In part 2, we will take a closer look at the argument ‘against’ a total ban, questioning who has the right to decide that buying and selling sex is wrong.