The social implications of prostitution are clear, but men, without whom prostitution would not exist, are invisible and erased from the equation.
It beggars belief that an offence which resulted in a £100 fine more than twenty years ago could still seriously harm a woman’s career.
Yet, many women who were coerced into prostitution below the age of 18, are still being forced to reveal past convictions when subject to a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) – a check that is routinely used when applying for employment or a voluntary position across a host of sectors working with children or vulnerable adults.
Women who have exited prostitution are still being criminalised at the same time as the men who bought them for sex are free from convictions and able to pursue their lives with impunity.
The tenacity and bravery of women like Fiona Broadfoot, who waived her right to anonymity, led to a successful legal challenge in March of this year to prevent their criminal records being revealed to potential employers. The two senior judges, Mr Justice Holroyde and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, ruled that it was illegal to force women to reveal past convictions.
To date, this has yet to be implemented and convictions for soliciting can still not be ‘filtered out’.
Current guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) maintains that for offences which are summary only, including soliciting, the Police retain the discretion ‘not to arrest or report to the CPS’. The CPS goes on to say ‘those who sell sex should not be routinely prosecuted as offenders.’ Loitering or Soliciting for Prostitution carries a fine not exceeding level two on the standard scale. This amounts to £500 (this was limited to £100 at level two between 1984 and 1992). If a woman has a previous conviction this increases to a fine not exceeding level three on the standard scale (£1,000).
Days ago, Leeds City Council were asked to review the Managed Approach scheme launched in 2015 where a small industrial zone in Holbeck saw prostitution effectively decriminalised between certain hours. In theory, it was meant to make women in prostitution safer. The decision makers obviously disregarded the fact that where there is prostitution, there also is male violence, showing that you cannot make prostitution safe for women. This was sadly borne out with the death of Daria Pionko who was murdered while working in the Managed Approach area just six months after its launch.
At a full council meeting on November 14, councillors agreed to have an independent review into the Managed Approach area.
The focus needs to shift to the men who are buying women; not to the clients or customers, but to the punters. Without fail, stories in the media about prostitution include a photo of a woman leaning into a car or against a street wall, short skirt and high heels. There is no nuance when it comes to the language used to describe the women in prostitution. Vice girls, sleazy streetwalkers, working girls, hookers. The men, without whom prostitution would not exist, are invisible and erased from the equation, acquitted for their crimes without a trial.
It’s another reason why men, when applying for a job, do not have to reveal they bought a woman for sex 20 odd years ago. No, just the woman they bought has to face that.
The Managed Approach in Holbeck shows that decriminalisation does not work. Because it cannot work. If a man has to pay a woman to have sex with him, he is conceding that she would not do so otherwise. It normalises and endorses women as commodities to be bought. That can never be acceptable.
The Nordic Model, also known as the Swedish or Abolitionist Law, decriminalises the prostituted women and supports their exit while making buying people for sex a criminal offence.
The Nordic Model approach works. It can never make prostitution safe but it does reduce the amount of prostitution taking place.
The fact women can soon prevent past convictions for soliciting from being disclosed to potential employers is obviously a positive step. But they should never have been criminalised in the first place. The independent review into the Managed Approach in Holbeck must take into the account the death of Daria Pionko and the ever-present threat of violence women working there face.
Because it’s women who are still paying the price in the labour market.
And they play this with the ultimate price: Their lives.
Emma Chesworth is a senior caseworker in Middlesborough, a qualified journalist, and a regular contributor on regional television, radio and the press on women’s issues.