The road to prostitution
Rachel and Not Saussure have both waxed eloquent on the subject of decriminalising prostitution, and I thought I’d throw some fact and figures into the debate because it’s so much a children’s issue - and something ARCH has been very involved with in the past.
According to the Home Office consultation document, ‘Paying the Price’,
‘...as many as 70 per cent of those involved in prostitution started out as children or young teenagers’The overwhelming majority have experienced abuse, and have run away from home or local authority care. A Barnardo's project in Teesside, for instance, found that
‘the average age for women becoming abused through prostitution in Middlesbrough was between 12 and 13 years.’97% had run away, 86% had been physically abused – 77% of them sexually.
Home Office guidance quite rightly says that:
‘...children and young people must be treated primarily as victims of child abuse and offered support and protection.’So far so good, but it’s that weasel word ‘primarily’ that causes the problem. Because our age of criminal responsibility is 10, the Street Offences Act (s1) makes it an offence for anyone over the age of 10 to ‘loiter or solicit for the purpose of prostitution’.
Despite huge pressure, the government has resisted every attempt to amend the Act to remove under-18s. The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and many others have been fighting this particular battle for years, and ARCH has drafted amendments on two occasions – during the passage of both the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Children Act 2004 – to no avail.
There’s a fuller version of events in our archives and you may notice that it was Beverley Hughes, now the Minister for Children, who resisted our amendment tabled by Hilton Dawson MP in 2003, just after David Blunkett had wrongly assured parliament that the Sexual Offences Act would remove children 'from any criminal liability whatever'.
We had charitably assumed that David Blunkett made a simple error in his reply, but it became clear that this wasn’t the case. The following year, when the Home Office produced ‘Paying the Price’ it said:
'while greater emphasis is rightly placed on protection and support, we believe there are compelling arguments for retaining this offence in respect of those under 18 to underline the message that prostitution involving children and young people is wholly unacceptable.'I don't know whose arguments proved so 'compelling', because there was in fact a barrage of protest from those working with child prostitutes, but it had no effect. In January of this year, the Home Office's new prostitution strategy said:
'Guidance will remain firmly against the use of the criminal law in respect of children involved in prostitution save in the most exceptional circumstances – as a ‘last resort’ where services fail to engage with young people and they return repeatedly to the streets.'In other words, any child or young person involved in prostitution will be prosecuted if services fail to help them.
If I sound rather cool in reporting all this, it’s because, here at ARCH, we’ve already burned out with fury. It’s ridiculous to imagine that retaining child prostitution as a criminal offence can possibly encourage children to look for help. Rather, it gives anyone who is pimping a 13-year-old another stick to beat them with: “if you tell anyone, you’ll be prosecuted”. As for the Home Office logic of leaving children open to prosecution in order to express disapproval of child abuse, words fail us.
Instead of decriminalising children, the government’s prostitution strategy recommends using the children’s Information Sharing Index and related Common Assessment Framework to identify those ‘at risk’ (that maligned phrase again) of entering prostitution. What’s the point? Everyone already knows that abuse, being in care and running away are risk factors. It hardly needs a ‘well, duh’ assessment!
I’ll shut up now before I start using triple exclamation marks and frothing at the mouth… time to find my tablets and have a lie-down.