WHY ACTION IS
Urgent action is needed to bust the business model of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.
To bust the business model, we need legislation that combats demand from sex buyers, holds pimps and other exploiters to account, and supports - rather than sanctions - victims of sexual exploitation.
1) Paying for sex is sexual exploitation and abuse
Giving or offering someone money - or accommodation, goods or services – in return for them performing sex acts is sexual exploitation and abuse.
Commercial sexual exploitation is highly gendered. The majority of people exploited through the sex trade are women and girls, while the overwhelming majority of people who pay to sexually exploit them are men. It is a form of violence against women.
At present, however, the minority of men who sexually exploit women by paying for sex do so with impunity - and the law fails to deter the demand from sex buyers that drives sex trafficking.
"Very pretty and young girl. ...If you want to try a fresh, young (says she is 18) and pretty girl is ok, but maybe as she just started to work, is quite passive, scarcely kiss without tongue, doesn't want to be kissed on the neck or ears, can't do a decent blowjob and really rides badly on you, … She really can't speak a wor[d] of english (is Romanian) so even [girlfriend experience] is a zero."
- Online 'review' by a sex buyer. Amount paid: £70
2) Reducing sex trafficking requires reducing demand for it
The huge profits made by sex trafficking gangs come from the men who pay for victims to perform sex acts. Without their demand - and without their money - there would be no supply of women and girls through sex trafficking.
The men who provide demand for the prostitution trade are the same men that provide the demand driving the trafficking of women into that trade. There is not a specific demand for trafficking victims. Therefore, reducing demand for sex trafficking requires reducing demand for sexual exploitation in general.
“trafficked persons are located within existing sex industries ... there is no separate or specific market for trafficked persons”.
- Study on the gender dimension of trafficking in human beings,
European Commission, 2016
The greater the level of demand, the greater the scale of sex trafficking. Countries with legalised prostitution regimes experience significantly greater levels of trafficking. Reducing overall demand from sex buyers, and thereby reducing the size of the market, is crucial to reducing the scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
“After a while the beatings became routine. Even though the clients did not physically abuse me I felt abused because I was forced to have sex with them even when I did not want to do so. Sometimes that was painful.
“I felt disgusted by what I was doing and I wanted to stop but [he] wanted more money and forced me to continue. I was scared because he kept threatening me that he was going to hurt my mother.”
- The words of a woman trafficked from Romania and sexually exploited by men in the UK.
3) The UK has international legal obligations to reduce demand for sexual exploitation
The UK has multiple international obligations to reduce demand for sexual exploitation:
United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (‘Palermo Protocol’) - Article 9.5 stipulates: “States Parties shall adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measures, including through bilateral and multilateral cooperation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.”
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) - Article 6 stipulates: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”
CEDAW’s General recommendation No. 38 (2020) on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration states: “Sexual exploitation persists due to the failure of States parties to effectively discourage the demand that fosters exploitation and leads to trafficking. Persistent norms and stereotypes regarding male domination and the need to assert male control or power, enforce patriarchal gender roles and male sexual entitlement, coercion and control, which drive the demand for the sexual exploitation of women and girls.”
Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings - Article 6 states: “To discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking, each Party shall adopt or strengthen legislative, administrative, educational, social, cultural or other measures”.
4) Sexual exploitation is preventable – not inevitable
Demand for sexual exploitation is context dependent, not inevitable and unchanging. Levels of demand vary over time and place. For instance, surveys of 11,000 adults conducted in 1990 and 2000 found that the number of men in the UK who pay women for sex almost doubled from one in 20 to nearly one in 10 men.
Demand for sexual exploitation is preventable because men who pay to sexually exploit women are not helplessly reacting to uncontrollable 'urges'. They are engaged in an active decision-making process to pay for someone to perform sex acts on them, and that decision-making process is influenced by a range of factors; in particular, the risk of criminal sanction.
"Our girls can be bought for nothing and sold on your market. Your market is paying well for these ‘goods’. ... The solution is simple: end demand in the UK.
"The UK can end demand and prosecute buyers of sex and close this so-called market.”
- Laura Albu, President of the Romanian Women’s Lobby
5) Victims should be supported, not sanctioned
Individuals who are sexually exploited should be supported, not sanctioned by the state for their own exploitation. Currently, however, victims of sexual exploitation in England, Wales and Scotland can face criminal sanction for soliciting in a public place. Having a criminal record for soliciting can be a significant barrier to seeking help, exiting and healing from sexual exploitation.
Women exploited through the sex trade can face many other barriers to exiting and rebuilding their lives. These can include both practical and psychological barriers – including housing, the effects of trauma, addiction, and coercion by third parties. It is therefore crucial that victims of sexual exploitation receive comprehensive support services, not sanctions for soliciting.
6) Pimping websites facilitate and incentivise sex trafficking
Highly lucrative pimping websites currently operate free from criminal sanction in England, Wales and Scotland. Sex trafficking gangs use these websites to advertise their victims to sex buyers.
An inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation found that pimping websites are a major enabler of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking - making it quick and easy for traffickers and pimps to connect with sex buyers online.
"Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites concentrate and centralise demand from sex buyers across Scotland. This ready-made, instantly accessible, open online marketplace incentivises sex trafficking. The websites substantially lower the practical, financial and technical threshold for individual exploiters and organised crime groups to engage in this highly lucrative crime."
- Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2021
Combatting sex trafficking requires preventing individuals and companies, including pimping websites, enabling and profiting from the prostitution of others.
7) Demand for sexual exploitation is a barrier to women’s equality
Commercial sexual exploitation is highly gendered and a form of violence against women.
Commercial sexual exploitation is underpinned by historically unequal power relations between women and men. Most people exploited through the sex trade are women and girls, while the overwhelming majority of people who pay to sexually exploit them are men. The psychological and physical harms resulting from sexual exploitation can be severe, wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Combatting demand from men who exploit women by paying for sex is necessary for preventing abuse and promoting equality between women and men.
“Sexual exploitation persists due to the failure of States parties to effectively discourage the demand that fosters exploitation and leads to trafficking. Persistent norms and stereotypes regarding male domination and the need to assert male control or power, enforce patriarchal gender roles and male sexual entitlement, coercion and control, which drive the demand for the sexual exploitation of women and girls.”
- United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) General recommendation No. 38 (2020) on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration
For further information and full references read our report.