Julie Bindel: Shockingly low conviction rate for human traffickers reflects ‘institutional misogyny’ towards prostitution

A national campaigner against sexual exploitation says that “shocking” low prosecution figures for human trafficking reflects “institutional misogyny” among police, prosecutors and judges across the UK.

Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 10th June 2021, 9:38 am

Broadcaster and author Julie Bindel was commenting after JPI Media Investigations found just 4.4% of modern slavery offences in England and Wales – and 14% in Scotland – resulted in charges in the five years since groundbreaking ‘modern slavery’ legislation was passed across the UK in 2015. In NI it was found that only one trafficker was convicted for every 40 victims rescued in the same period.

Ms Bindel, whose 2017 book, ‘The Pimping of Prostitution’ set out 250 interviews with sex workers from around the world, said she was “shocked but not surprised” by the prosecution rates.

“These really are shocking figures” she said. “I am really grateful for the thorough work in uncovering these figures and I think we really need to have more of this type of journalism because we really have seen a move towards an ideological basis on much journalism around this issue.”

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The figures are “very disconcerting” in light of the level of all the effort expended by MPs, human rights groups and campaigners in pushing lawmakers to introduce stringent sanctions in the 2015 legislation, she said, adding, “ unless you have implementation the laws really are not worth the paper they are written on.”

For the legislation to have a real impact, she said, there must be “buy in” from police, prosecutors, the judiciary and - if a case ever gets to court - from juries too.

“And that means they have to understand what modern slavery is, what trafficking actually is as a process and how the victims of this crime suffer,” she said.

“The reason I think ‘slavery’ is not necessarily helpful language is not because I don’t think these people - particularly the women in prostituion - are victims of enslavement. They are. It is because when people see that word they think of people tied up and chained.”

The true nature of trafficking, Ms Bindel added, is obscured by “the pro-prostitution lobby - particularly in unversities - talking about ‘migration for sex work’”.

She continued: “I think we need to educate the general public about how every single person in prostitution - apart from the very odd exception who we shouldn’t be interested in because they are really atypical - is a victim of a crime, is exploited and doesn’t want to be there.

“There is institutional ambivalence but there is also institutional misogyny. If we are talking about women being trafficked into prostitution, how can you possibly attach the gravity that we should attach to that crime when we have the academics and the pro-prostitution lobbyists calling for decriminalisation of prostitution, drip feeding the general public - which includes the police and prosecutors and juries - this line that ‘sex work is work’.

“When people talk about women choosing to be involved in so called sex work what they are forgetting is that to make a proper choice you have to have other choices. This is a choice out of no choice.”

Governments need to look at the vulnerabilities that make certain groups of women more likely to be ensnared by traffickers and pimps, she said.

“Poverty is one of the drivers into prostitution but it is not the only one,” she added.

“I have spoken to middle class women coming from families where they are reasonably well off and have job opportunities and they just have the misfortune to meet a pimp.

“And the next thing, they are in a brothel and completely bound up in this horrendous life that they find it difficult to get out of.”

However Kate McGrew, a sex worker and director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland and co-convener of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers of Europe, strongly disagreed.

“The reality is that worldwide, sex work is an economic activity,” she said. “It is certainly a unique kind of work.

“Like Julie, we are concerned about individuals that do not want to be in sex work whatsoever, and so we suggest instead of futilely attempting to criminalise it out of existence, that we work together towards prevention with supports for single mothers, regularising undocumented migrants, viable alternatives for trans and disabled people, drug and domestic violence supports, and homeless supports.

“Meanwhile, we cannot throw under the bus the people who will still engage in sex work as their best, only, or desired option.

“It is not merely paternalistic to criminalise a means of survival based on a value judgement - it is endangering, especially for those who have less agency. Criminalisation strips individuals of choice and of negotiating power by leaving us with only a black market to navigate, where bad actors are poised to take advantage of our lack of options.

“Across all industries, there has been a long journey away from slavery and towards justice through the advancement of individual and property rights within codified systems of justice. At the heart of the argument against slavery is the core concept that our bodies are our property: that a human being cannot be bought because we, as individuals, are the sole owners of our own bodies.

“Access to the legal system enshrining the personal and property rights of the individual—where there exists a legal framework for making choices and defending claims about our own property—is the cornerstone of civil society.”

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