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Consent, power, vulnerability and impunity

A woman is pictured walking along a street

On 25 July, 2019, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission released its report The Limits of Consent: Prostitution in the UK. The Commission provided a balanced look at the evidence regarding the impact of prostitution and related policies, and posed the important question as to whether sexual consent is something that can be purchased.

There was consensus within the broad range of stakeholders who provided evidence that external factors – primarily the need to survive – have a coercive impact on freedom of choice in the context of sexual consent. There was also agreement that prostitution is something that should ultimately be abolished. 

The law across the United Kingdom

The report highlights inconsistencies regarding the letter, spirit and enforcement of prostitution related legislation across the UK, leading to “unacceptable variance in police attitudes towards people in prostitution, and widespread confusion within the legal system, and among the public and policy makers”.

We reiterate and endorse the Commission’s recommendation that “the most effective way to safeguard sexual consent while reducing the market for prostitution to the greatest possible extent is to legislate to make paying for sexual services an offence”. We are particularly encouraged by the recommendations to repeal the offence of soliciting for sexual services, as well as measures to prevent the disclosure of historic soliciting convictions. 

The report also recognised the importance of exit services. We look forward to the Government reviewing, as recommended, how they can best strengthen and expand existing exit services, as well as publishing a national strategy for streamlining and resourcing this much needed support. We also believe it is the Government’s duty to ensure that their social and economic policies provide women and other vulnerable people with viable alternatives for survival.

Consent, sexual freedom and the need to survive

Equality Now believes that all women and girls should be able to live safe, fearless and free and to enjoy sexual freedom. 

Such freedom means the freedom from having to rely on sex for survival, especially sex that puts you at risk of violence or even death. It means the freedom to make welcome choices, free from exploitation and the coercion of poverty and other vulnerabilities. We also believe that women should be able to freely participate in consensual sexual relations in a way that enhances their pleasure and self esteem. This includes freedom from repressive and stereotyping norms about female sexuality. 

We agree with the  evidence in the report shows that sexual consent which is paid for is sexual consent that would not otherwise be freely given, as it is under conditions that can rarely be considered to be equal and free. 

Power and exploitation 

As this report demonstrates, just because someone is not obviously a victim of trafficking does not mean that their situation is not an exploitative one. 

Sexual exploitation is rooted in gender and other systematic inequalities, and men’s power to exploit. When men pay for sex, they are directly or indirectly taking advantage of the gender and structural discrimination, and economic inequality faced by women and other vulnerable people, for the sake of their own personal sexual gratification and entitlement. The report recognises the gendered nature of prostitution and sexual exploitation. 

The report provides a critical starting point from which to consider prostitution along a continuum of sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls. Prostitution does not exist in a vacuum. 

It is key that steps aimed at preventing and reducing sexual exploitation and supporting people to exit prostitution are included in the next Violence against Women and Girls strategy for 2020 onwards. This should also include a review of the vulnerabilities and inequalities that drive sexual exploitation, including when and how Government policies cause or perpetuate these vulnerabilities. 

Tackling vulnerability 

Equality Now believes that laws and policies need to address the intersecting vulnerabilities faced by women and girls, and marginalised genders and identities, including experiences of domestic and sexual abuse, poverty, addiction, disability, sexuality, race, immigration status and recourse to public funds. 

With increasing accounts of “sex for rent” adverts by landlords, and Universal Credit leaving women with scant options for survival, the Government must be held to account for its part in facilitating vulnerability to sexual exploitation, as well as preventing people in prostitution from being able to exit.

Efforts to end sexual exploitation within the UK must investigate how Government policies fail to support women out of prostitution and indeed fail to protect them from being vulnerable to exploitation in the first place. One means of achieving this is by ensuring budgeting as well as law and policy-making is considered through a gendered, anti-poverty lens from the start. 

We look forward to working with the Government and stakeholders across the sector to ensure that the Government proactively addresses these vulnerabilities as part of a comprehensive strategy to end sexual exploitation in the UK.