Buying Sex

‘Seems like everybody’s got a price –
I wonder how they sleep at night,
When the sale comes first
And the truth comes second’
(‘Price Tag’, Jessie J)

It’s very late when I’m writing this: I’ve just got back from visiting some friends in central London, which isn’t particularly unusual. But perhaps less usual is that they work as prostitutes, so I’ve spent a few hours going around Westminster trying to catch a few moments to chat with them in between their clients.

This is as part of a project called Tamar, which does outreach to sex workers in London. Tamar offers various kinds of physical and practical support with things like medical appointments, legal advice, one-to-one English lessons, and providing help with alternative work/resettlement if women want to leave the sex industry but can’t. The part of the team I’m on does regular visits to brothels, massage parlours and flats where sex is bought and sold. It’s often quite a long and hard evening, going between the flats and hearing about some of the horrible abuse which the women suffer.

It’s natural to see only the parts of London that we want to – an amazing blend of cultures, galleries and exhibitions, vibrant colours and food markets. In the daytime, I work as a researcher in Parliament, which could not be a more outrageously ostentatious setting.

But a lot goes on beneath shiny surfaces. There are staggering amounts of homelessness, social isolation and debt. And Westminster is the number 1 hotspot for sex work in the whole of the UK. What’s more, an estimated *half* of the women selling sex in London have been trafficked into the industry.[1] Human trafficking involves recruiting or transporting people into a situation of exploitation through the use of violence, deception or coercion. It’s commonly perpetuated by huge criminal networks which operate across the globe, often targeting vulnerable women from lower income countries, and shipping them to fuel sex-on-demand in the West.

Tens of thousands of women in central London are being forced to have sex as slaves, right on the doorstep of Parliament. How do we even begin to think about that?

I’m certainly not an expert. Nevertheless, having seen a bit more of what the sex industry looks like, there are three common misconceptions I’d like to comment on briefly.

#1 Prostitution is a choice

I still remember watching Pretty Woman a few years ago, and thinking prostitution didn’t seem that bad. (If you haven’t seen the film, beautiful Julia Roberts captures the heart of a rich business man who hires her for sex, leading to an iconic Roy Orbison song, a weird sex scene on a piano and an excellent happily ever after.)

The reality of sex work is very different. As noted above, many of those working in brothels have been trafficked into the industry. But even in cases where trafficking hasn’t taken place, prostitution is usually the choice for those with the fewest choices left.

Government research reveals that homelessness, living in care, debt and substance abuse, are all common experiences prior to entering prostitution.[2] Many women are drawn into prostitution at a young age, often under 18 years old, through grooming, or family circumstances.[3] Indeed, many sex workers have experienced abuse as children, with Home Office data showing 45% report experience of sexual abuse and 85% physical abuse during their childhood. Numerous studies have also found between 50% and 95% of women in street prostitution are addicted to Class A drugs.

This doesn’t look like a landscape for much free choice. A minority of women can truthfully say they have chosen prostitution, but for the huge majority the experience is marked by a distinct lack of control.

And when considering the day-to-day reality for many prostitutes, the lack of autonomy becomes even more pronounced. Money for sex is rarely paid to the prostitute directly, and pimps typically pocket the profit. Many of those working as prostitutes do not have the language or terminology to articulate what has happened to them. Moreover, prostitutes are regularly raped and assaulted, asked to do horribly degrading acts and forced to take hard drugs along with the buyer. The 2016 parliamentary report on prostitution refers to “near pandemic levels of violence experienced by women in prostitution”, and the NPCC’s National Policing Sex Work Guidance notes that “the murder of sex workers continues to take place at an alarming rate”.

There is such depth of suffering here that it feels overwhelming to me – and I don’t have to live this reality, day in and day out.

When I was out visiting massage parlours a couple of months ago, the man on the front desk looked me up and down slowly. ‘I like her body’, he said to my friend. ‘What’s she called? Bring her back soon.’

It felt horrible to be looked at like that, even with the power to leave. How different to be told: ‘I like her body. What’s she called? Bring her in for me’ and watch a £20 note handed over in return. I had the choice to walk away but so many women do not.

#2 Pornography is innocent

What I have seen of sex trafficking also directly informs the way I think about the porn industry.

The two are tightly entwined in various ways: sex trafficking victims are often forced to watch porn to ‘break them in’ shortly after abduction. Those working as prostitutes are routinely abused when forced to act out violent porn scenes which viewers have watched at home. Addiction to pornography also makes a viewer far more likely to purchase sex, in turn driving up the demand for human trafficking to recruit women.

But perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that much of internet porn is taken of sex trafficking victims, and it is very hard to tell what is consensual. Some research indicates that almost half of sex trafficking victims had pornography made of them while they were being held as slaves.[4]  One female survivor, whose captor slept on top of her at night so she wouldn’t escape, and listened to her phone calls with a gun pointed at her head, was forced to appear in a video that was included in the Sinclair Intimacy Institute’s list of “sex positive productions”![5] “Every time someone watches that film,” she said, “they are watching me being raped.”

Moreover, any pornography involving underage actors – which is one of the most popular and fastest growing types of porn – is actually classed as modern slavery.[6]

So watching porn actively funds a global sex industry that enslaves and trafficks victims across the planet. In all honesty, I regard porn as a form of prostitution, with a thin glass layer between the sex buyer and the seller.

And I don’t say that with self-righteousness or judgement, because there are plenty of areas in my own life where I put myself first and constantly need to re-evaluate my choices. But there is such a cost to vulnerable women and children in the sex industry that I think porn needs to be talked about for what it is.

#3 There’s nothing I can do about it

This is perhaps the most debilitating misconception of all. The moment we consider ourselves powerless, we shrug off our responsibility to act. Just briefly, here are three ways that you can respond to injustice in the sex industry:

  • Get involved with a charity delivering frontline help, like Tamar. You might consider volunteering your time (if you are in London, have a look at, / Other charities often ask for volunteer support with general skills or administration (e.g. Or perhaps you could partner with a charity financially instead – that’s what Treated Right does in funding three charities to respond to human trafficking through prevention, intervention and victim care. One of our charities is Beyond the Streets, which has a particular focus on helping sex workers who feel trapped in the industry.
  • Learn how to identify the signs of sex trafficking, and be alert when you’re in a place you might encounter it. ( If you are training to be a GP, lawyer, social services worker or police man/woman, then your profession puts you in a really important position to identify victims and act to intervene. But the rest of us have every likelihood of passing a trafficking victim in an airport, in a hotel, or on a street corner. You can report any suspicions to a first responder by calling the Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121 700) who can pass them onto the National Referral Mechanism in turn.
  • Get informed and involved politically. The key bits of legislation at the moment are the independent review of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act and Lord McColl’s Victim Support Bill. Stay in the loop with what’s happening in Parliament so that you can write to your MP to urge them to attend key debates and publicise response work local to your constituency, or ask them to write to the Home Secretary on your behalf to lobby for specific measures.

If you’ve never really thought about prostitution before, I hope this has offered a tiny window into what goes on – though it runs a lot deeper and uglier than the things I’ve touched on here. (Do feel free to contact me if you want to talk more, or think about how you might get involved.)

There’s a lot about London that I love, but I don’t view it in quite the same way as I used to. Now the many ‘massage parlour’ signs stand out to me where I never noticed them before. I walk through areas where I know the women who work in flats to pay off debts they can’t control, and I feel so heavy with sadness.

This is a city of amazing beauty and diversity, but it’s also one where poverty turns sex into a resource to be bought off those who are denied basic choice and their fundamental human rights. So many women are not free to be the beautiful, glorious, creative and strong people that they are.

Yes, sex sells. But the sale comes first and the truth comes second.

Written by Katherine Ladd

[1] Tamar: Hidden Voices of London, 4 October 2018, All Souls Curch

[2] Shifting the Burden Inquiry to assess the operation of the current legal settlement on prostitution in England and Wales

[3] Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution, Home Office

[4] Thorn, “A Report On The Use Of Technology To Recruit, Groom, And Sell Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Victim (2015). Retrieved From Https://Www.Wearethorn.Org/Wp-Content/Uploads/2015/02/Survivor_Survey_r5.Pdf

[5]  Catharine A. MacKinnon, Are Women Human? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007


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