Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA
Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

I was recently reminded of a conversation I had with a guy in Barcelona when I was about 22. We were stood on the tenth floor balcony of some breeze-block dormitories looking at women on the street below in stilettos and mini skirts, selling their bodies.

As these women called out for punters, we had a brief discussion about prostitution. It went something like this…

Me: It’s awful that those women have to do that. And what type of a man would use a prostitute?
Him: Every bloke you know has been with a prostitute, trust me.
Me: /silence/

I walked away from that conversation sad that 1. he paid for sex 2. he thinks every other man does too. I was reassured by the knowledge that whilst his circle might condone the buying of women’s bodies – my circle doesn’t. But the issue is incredibly complex.

Some feminists say that sex work is a choice and that it should be legalised as this means better regulation (so less STDs), a decrease in crime (pimps, violence) and a safer environment for sex workers.

But firstly, the lexicon of ‘choice’ is blurred when it comes to financial desperation. And secondly, in the UK prostitution is legal – though pimping, brothels, trafficking, abuse, kerb-crawling and coercion are illegal – and are sex workers safe? Are we seeing a decline in brothels, pimps, trafficking, abuse? No.

Mariana Poper, a Romanian sex worker, was killed on the streets of east London on 29 October, by an abusive ‘customer’ (see Observer article here) and friends and campaigners believe the police are at least partly to blame, as their patrolling of the area has forced women to split up and work alone, rather than in a posse.

Yes, it’s more dangerous that she was working on her own – but if men weren’t programmed to believe that dehumanising a woman by using her body as a masturbation vessel was acceptable, there’d be no prostitution in the first place.

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Armitt, the national police lead on prostitution in England and Wales, disagrees. He says that: “We are not going to stop prostitution. It goes back to Roman times and goes on in every country in the world.”

So does slavery. But we worked out that slavery was degrading, abusive, abhorrent and evil and so although it was ‘the norm’ and seen as the right of the rich to own slave’s bodies – we abolished it. Prostitution is a form of slavery – it’s selling your body because you have no other choice.

Prostitution should be made illegal and stamped out in the same way that slavery has been. Although slavery still exists (trafficking is just one example) we have a general, universal knowledge that it is immoral, wrong and illegal. We should be speaking to men who use prostitutes in the same way that we spoke to the people who used slaves: telling them that what they’re doing is wrong.

Another unconvincing, depressing argument is that men need to pay for sex because otherwise their uncontrollable sexual urges will force them to rape. In a brilliantly written piece by Rachel Moran (see here), who has sold her body to earn a living, she says:

‘It is strange to me now to think that the ‘prostitution stops rape’ fallacy has ever had a chance to gain traction, when sexual violence is so much part of the prostitution life.’

Because, GUESS WHAT? Prostitution exists and women are still being raped: both sex workers and non sex workers.

And also GUESS WHAT? Men who use prostitutes are more likely to abuse their partners and other women.

In a survey with men who pay for sex, one punter told Julie Bindel, quoted in this article: “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to a prostitute instead.” Another put it like this: “A desperate man who wants sex so bad, he needs sex to be relieved. He might rape.”

So either Julie Bindel could be right: that all men are potential rapists or – and this is my theory: after using a woman’s body for sex, taking objectification to the most extreme level, men begin to devalue all women. Because women are all the same – sex worker, or not. So the line between rape and consensual sex becomes erased and whether they’re paying or not – some men think that a woman’s body is theirs to have sex with.

In the same Observer article about the tragic death of Mariana Poper, there are some stats. Here are a few of them:

■ One in 10 men has paid for sex in this country.

■ More than half of women in prostitution in the UK have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted. At least three-quarters have been physically assaulted, the Home Office has said.

■ Three-quarters of women involved in prostitution began as children.

■ 74% of women sex workers cited poverty as the primary motivator for entering prostitution.

■ Up to seven in 10 women in prostitution spent time in care, with almost half reporting sexual abuse within their families and 85% physical abuse

So sex workers aren’t protected by the law, or by the police. Those involved in sex work have often been forced into it either by poverty, abuse or being sold into it as children. And men who pay for sex aren’t relieved by the ‘exchange’ – as they’re winding up raping the women they’re paying.

Moran also says in this article: ‘I believe there is a conspiracy to turn women into readily accessible semen receptacles.’

And I believe she’s right. Enough of this shit about not being able to put an end to prostitution, just needing better regulation etc. If we want men to start seeing women as their equal – we need to stop them from buying women’s bodies and to criminalise them if they go out looking for it.

That’s the only way we’ll change the long-standing, worldwide view that women are objects to ejaculate into – and that if money’s handed over, you can be as violent as you like. Sex workers are people, not slaves – let’s help them into safe, fulfilling careers – and away from the dangers of prostitution.

The ‘Nordic model’ criminalises punters – making it illegal for men (or anyone) to pay for sex. There are concerns that if the UK doesn’t follow suit we’ll soon be encouraging sex tourism, as our laws are so lax.

In this Guardian article, Andrea Matolcsi of Equality Now says of prostitution and trafficking:

“It is difficult to see how we can tackle the demand for trafficked victims without tackling the demand for prostitutes. Certainly if we look to Germany and places where prostitution is legal it is hard to see how having mega-brothels and pimping will help reduce demand.”

But this is countered by Assistant Chief Constable Chris Armitt saying: “If there is sex happening between consenting adults, I am not sure why the police would want to get involved.”

Aren’t you, Chris? Then imagine your wife, or daughter, or sister being forced by horrendous circumstances (or trafficked) into prostitution and ask yourself this: is there ever really consent between a prostitute and a punter?

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