What the development of prostitution policy tells us about how gender is understood in Britain

Dr Natasha Mulvihill, lecturer in Criminology at the School for Policy Studies and member of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, explains how gender power relations were implicated in how “responsibility” and “exploitation” in relation to sex purchase were defined during the parliamentary debates of the Policing and Crime Bill.

How policy is made matters. How gender power relations – how gender is understood and organised in society – are implicated in the way policy is translated from first to final draft also matters. The journey of the proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in England and Wales is an apposite case study for how a certain version of policy becomes authoritative while others are discarded.

Prostitution is a practice patterned by gender. Research in England and Wales and internationally shows that it is disproportionately men who pay for sex from women (and from men and children). This pattern is consistent with prevailing gender power relations, which, broadly speaking, have privileged masculine interests. Accordingly, English prostitution policy has traditionally focused on ‘managing women’ – from the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864–1869) through to the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders against street sex workers since the early 2000s. Concern for public decency has also brought visible buyers – kerb-crawlers – in to the legal spotlight.

Among other factors, recent international obligations in relation to the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation has shifted the political discourse to focus on ‘demand’ – on the sex buyer. These developments made it possible for Gordon Brown’s Labour Government to introduce Clause 13 of the Policing and Crime Bill (2008), a proposal to part-criminalise sex purchase in England and Wales. I use the term ‘part-criminalise’ because the clause made buying sex an offence in certain circumstances, rather than representing an outright ban.

This initial proposal in December 2008 went through multiple iterations, emerging as Section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009. My analysis of Hansard records reveals that around 25% of the time spent discussing the Bill was focused on this single clause. Moreover, the scope of the clause was narrowed over time from criminalising the purchase of sex from individuals ‘controlled for gain’ to individuals subject to ‘force, threats or deception’ by a third party.

A detailed analysis of the relevant parliamentary papers and records reveals that central to the discussion were contested definitions of ‘responsibility’ and ‘exploitation’. But we need to understand these contested definitions as evidence of gender and power in action.

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The above text draws on the author’s published work in the Journal of Public Policy. The article was first published on 23 August in British Politics and Policy, a blog by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

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