Dani Garavelli: Missing the trick

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IT'S a fine vision, isn't it? A world where poor and drug-addicted women aren't bought and sold for sex; a world where prostitution has been eradicated.

This is the kind of Utopia Jim Coleman, the depute leader of Glasgow City Council, wants for Scotland. And, like all good missionaries, he isn't just preaching about it, he's out there trying to make it a reality. Last week, he launched End Prostitution Now – a campaign to make the buying of sex in any circumstance illegal.

While kerb-crawling was, in fact, outlawed in 2007, Coleman wants to see more offenders prosecuted, with tougher penalties for the convicted. And he wants the law to be extended to the buying of sexual services in brothels and massage parlours.

On an ideological level it is hard to argue with the End Prostitution Now campaign, which has the support of Strathclyde Police. Whatever the apologists for the sex industry might pretend, the vast majority of prostitutes are not willing participants in a commercial transaction but vulnerable young women for whom prostitution is a survival strategy rather than a choice. The move to place the burden of guilt on the client is also theoretically sound. Why shouldn't those who exploit the desperate be made to pay the penalty?

Yet deep down we all know that what Coleman wants is not achievable. Wherever there is demand and money to be made there will be supply. Be it alcohol, drugs or abortion, cracking down on a lucrative trade merely drives it underground.

Supporters of Coleman's cause say this is nonsense: they point out that slavery was a lucrative trade and has been abolished. But that is a false analogy, because, once slavery was made illegal and the law enforced, there was no motive for the victims to collude in it (whereas, with prostitution, the money that changes hands may be enough to secure a girl's next fix and therefore her complicity). Slavery, in any case, does still exist even in the UK, with immigrants trafficked by gangmasters into forced labour. Furthermore, the idea that making it illegal to buy something will somehow cut off demand flies in the face of experience, particularly in Glasgow, with its entrenched heroin problem.

Far from ending prostitution, changing the law may force sex workers out of sight of the authorities, thus placing them in greater danger. If they have to conduct their business by mobile phone or the internet and work from their own flats it will be even more difficult to protect them. Sex workers have told Coleman this; harm reduction campaigners have told Coleman this. But he doesn't want to listen because he has placed his faith in the Swedish experience.

So often has the depute leader held up the Nordic country – which outlawed the buying of sex in 1999 – as a template for all European countries that its success in tackling prostitution has taken on the aura of established fact. In reality, the effect changing the law has had in Sweden – which in any case had a relatively small sex industry – is far from clear. The government's claims that there has been a 50 per cent decrease in the number of prostitutes and a 75 per cent decrease in the men who have bought sex in that time are fiercely disputed by those who claim it is now impossible to keep track of the problem.

Admittedly the move does seem to have had an impact on human trafficking; making it illegal to buy sex makes Sweden a less attractive proposition for those dealing in prostitutes. And it has taken it off the streets: Stockholm's red light district is tiny compared to those of most European capitals.

But those who work with prostitutes in Sweden say 90 per cent of its sex industry is now mobile, making it more difficult to regulate. And that far from changing their attitudes towards buying sex, Swedish men are now travelling to Denmark, where more brothels have opened up to cater for the rise in demand.

Ironically – given that the Swedish initiative was driven by its commitment to women's rights and that selling sex there is legal – there is little in the way of support, such as the handing out of condoms, for those women still plying their trade in the country. It is almost as if – by recognising their human rights – the government feels it has done as much as it needs to do to protect its prostitutes.

So if banning the buying of sex won't help, what will? Well, in Scotland, while Glasgow was busy trying to eradicate prostitution, Edinburgh decided to take the harm reduction route. During the 20 years the city operated an unofficial tolerance zone in Leith there was a decrease in the number of attacks on prostitutes, in the number of under-age street workers and in prostitution-related HIV transmission rates. Police were able to limit the number of girls working at any one time and outreach workers could provide health advice.

Edinburgh was also the first local authority effectively to decriminalise brothels by licensing "saunas" and turning a blind eye to what went on inside in them. It took this stance because it believed prostitutes working outdoors were twice as likely to suffer violent attacks than those working indoors – and by and large it worked.

Campaigners say changing the law on kerb-crawling has driven prostitutes from their traditional haunts to less safe areas of the city – there were 100 attacks on prostitutes in the capital last year compared to 11 in 2001. Cracking down on the buying of sex in brothels is likely to have the same negative impact. No, sanctioning a trade that deals in human misery is not ideal. But surely it's better than driving the problem underground and then pretending that it no longer exists.