Workers Vanguard No. 929

30 January 2009



Down With Labour Government’s Crackdown on Prostitution!

(Women and Revolution pages)

The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 205 (Winter 2008-2009), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain.

In the biggest shake-up of Britain’s prostitution laws in 50 years, the Labour government is proposing draconian new legislation that would make it a criminal offence to pay for sex with someone who is “controlled for another person’s gain.” Anyone convicted would face a fine of up to £1000 and receive a criminal record. Not knowing whether a prostitute is “controlled” will be no excuse: according to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, “This new criminal offence of paying for sex with someone who is trafficked or pimped will apply even if the buyer claims he did not know the woman was being controlled for gain” (Independent, 19 November 2008). If it is deemed that the client did know, he additionally may face charges of rape, which carry a potential life sentence. This attempt to crack down on prostitution is part of a broader drive by the Labour government to increase the repressive powers of the state and to regiment society. The new measures would give police additional powers to crack down on kerb-crawling [soliciting from a car] and to raid and close down brothels, arresting prostitutes, many of whom are immigrants.

The Spartacist League/Britain unambiguously opposes these measures, which if implemented would mark a significant shift towards outlawing prostitution altogether by penalising customers. The act of performing sex for money, or of paying for sex, is not a crime, either on the part of the prostitute or the client! Currently in Britain, neither prostitution nor paying for sex is illegal, but “soliciting,” advertising in a phone booth, kerb-crawling and brothel-keeping are. We are for the decriminalisation of prostitution which we Marxists regard as a “crime without a victim,” like drug use, gambling, pornography, homosexual sex and “statutory rape”—activities that are generally illegal or heavily regulated under capitalist law. The government is deliberately conflating horrific crimes against prostitutes such as debt bondage, sexual assault, beatings and other kinds of coercion with the fundamentally consensual act between a prostitute and her client to exchange money for sex. For us the guiding principle for sexual relations is that of effective consent, meaning mutual agreement and understanding, as opposed to coercion. We believe that as long as those who take part agree to do so at the time, no one, least of all the state, has the right to tell them they can’t do it.

Labour’s proposed legislation is being cynically marketed under the guise of “protecting women from exploitation.” According to the Guardian, Minister for Women Harriet Harman (who has previously called for outlawing prostitution altogether) has described the flow of women brought into Britain by human traffickers as “a modern slave trade” while claiming that “to protect women we must stop men buying sex from the victims of human trafficking” (19 November 2008). For starters, the notion of this Labour government “protecting women” is obscene, coming from the very government responsible for the imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan which have resulted in untold brutality against women and children. At home Labour is proposing legislation which would slash benefits for single mothers even further as part of its attacks on the working class and poor.

What Harman describes as a “modern slave trade” is largely debt bondage, where a worker is forced to pay off a large debt to smugglers and gangmasters to be taken across the border and to be able to work. Most of these workers toil in the agricultural, food processing, cleaning, health care, catering and construction sectors. The British economy is highly reliant on this low-paid, “flexible” immigrant labour, both legal and illegal. The government’s racist anti-immigration laws make it virtually impossible to get into Britain, and compel illegal workers to live and work in the most horrific conditions. Such conditions resulted in the deaths of 23 Chinese workers picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in February 2004.

Debt bondage, rape, sexual assault and beatings are real crimes. However, we oppose this attempt by the state to amalgamate “trafficking” and “sex slavery” with prostitution and to label all exchanges of money for sex as potential slavery. Prostitution more often than not is degrading and exploitative, but criminalisation simply forces the prostitute into a lumpen milieu where access to social services is difficult and where she or he is more vulnerable to organised crime and violence by pimps. As Marxists we warn that any intervention by the capitalist state will necessarily intensify the misery for all involved and serve as a pretext for unleashing the cops and courts in a multiple attack on immigrants, women and sex. In fact, immigrant women “rescued” by police during “anti-trafficking” raids are routinely deported. The Spartacist League calls for full citizenship rights for all immigrants! No deportations! As we wrote in “Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Sex: U.S./UN Crusade Against ‘Sex Trafficking’”:

“The ‘sex slavery’ crusade is a cynical and dangerous business because it both legitimizes government persecution of immigrants and invokes state authority to intervene as moral arbiter in our most intimate affairs. It bolsters the anti-sex witchhunt as a whole and deflects attention from the real violence perpetrated every day against women and children under this class system.”

Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 58, Spring 2004

Niki Adams, speaking for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), has aptly described the government’s claim that most prostitutes are trafficked as “completely fabricated” (Guardian, 19 November 2008) while the ECP issued a statement opposing the new legislation saying this would lead to “more Anti-Social Behaviour Orders landing more of us in prison; more deportations under the guise of cracking down on trafficking; higher prison sentences for women working from premises” ( In keeping with the contempt for the “lower” classes that oozes from the top ranks of New Labour, the new legislation targets the poorer, more vulnerable and often immigrant prostitutes likely to be working on the street or in brothels, not the escort services provided by highly paid “call girls.”

Harriet Harman has even enlisted the Women’s Institute (WI)—that embodiment of middle-class “Middle England”—to scour the local papers for “suspicious” ads. The traditional role of the WI is summed up in the phrase “jam and Jerusalem,” meaning a woman’s place is in the kitchen and referencing the patriotic hymn “Jerusalem,” extolling England’s “green and pleasant land.” Presumably Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith would prefer the WI stick to its traditional activities rather than its more recent claim to fame, posing naked for pictures in charity calendars as depicted in the movie Calendar Girls.

Labour’s crackdown on prostitution is part of a moral crusade targeting sexual activity that strays outside of conservative and religious “family values,” such as “underage” sex, homosexuality and other “sins” including “binge drinking.” Labour’s “feminist” anti-sex warriors such as Harriet Harman stand in the long tradition of morality police brilliantly chronicled in Peter Fryer’s 1963 book Mrs. Grundy, Studies in English Prudery. An example was the 18th-century “Societies for the Reformation of Manners” which were “responsible for prosecuting no fewer than 101,683 persons in the London area alone, mostly for sabbath-breaking, swearing, drunkenness, lewdness, brothel-keeping, and sodomy.”

The status of prostitutes in society is related to the status of women more generally, itself a measure of a society’s advancement. Thus the conditions faced by the prostitute vary greatly with time, place and class. The family is the central instrument for the subjugation of women under capitalism. Its historical function is to transmit private property to “legitimate” heirs through inheritance, although that function has little relevance to working-class people who generally have little to pass on. It serves to instil obedience to bourgeois codes of morality and to impose on the working class the burden of raising the next generation of wage slaves. As we wrote in “U.S./UN Crusade Against ‘Sex Trafficking’”:

It is the institution of the family that brings money into sexual relations. Whether it’s renting a prostitute by the hour or a wife by the lifetime, the family and the oppression of women are founded on private property, and the religious codes of morality and capitalist law are all that distinguish the wife from the prostitute in this fundamental sense….

“Under socialism, the family will be replaced by communal childcare and housework, enabling women to participate fully in economic, social and political life…. Birth control and abortions will be free and on demand, with free, quality health care for all. Sex will be free from the snooping of preachy busybodies and corrupt cops. The liberation of the prostitute can’t be separated from the liberation of women as a whole, and prostitution will die only as the institution of the family is replaced.”

The Spartacist League seeks to build a revolutionary party of the working class to uproot this decaying capitalist system and replace it with planned collectivised economies on an international scale, laying the material basis for the liberation of humanity. For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!