Almost abolitionism : the peculiarities of prostitution policy in England and Wales

Carline, Anna and Scoular, Jane; Ward, Eilis and Wylie, Gillian, eds. (2017) Almost abolitionism : the peculiarities of prostitution policy in England and Wales. In: Feminism, Prostitution and the State Abingdon. Routledge, Oxon, pp. 103-120. ISBN 9781138945401

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This chapter will explore the current UK approach to abolitionism by examining how a popular Northern European prostitution agenda has been translated into the English context. We argue that while neo-abolitionism has, over the last decade, had a noticeable impact on prostitution policy and practice in the UK, this has its own peculiarities. Whilst mimicking the abolitionist tone of Sweden, governments in mainland Britain have thus far stopped short of criminalising all purchases of sexual services and decriminalising the activities of those who sell sex - who are deemed to be ‘victims’. Rather, governments have opted to modify the existing liberal regime by creating bespoke measures which seek to combine increased punitive sanctions for some clients with efforts to promote the exiting of women by the imposition of enforced rehabilitation. This has led to what we term as almost abolitionism: which describes a fragmented process of problematisation, whereby prostitution is both a public nuisance and sexual offence. Consequently, while only some forms of sex purchasing are illegal, the activity as a whole is increasingly pathologised and sex workers, represented universally in policy discourse as women, oscillate between being constructed as both victim and offender. Sidestepping the liberal/illiberal arguments that tend to dominate in this field, this chapter will provide a critical analysis of these developments. While it is important to keep in mind the critical work on abolitionism elsewhere (as discussed in this collection as a whole), the account is not based on generalisation from neighbouring states. Rather, and drawing upon England and Wales as a case study, we explore the local drivers and local impact of the distinctive interventions. More specifically, we critically analyse to two key reforms introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which reflect how this abolitionism has taken hold in England and Wales: the strict liability offence of paying for the sexual services of a prostitute subject to exploitation (s14) and Engagement and Support Orders (hereafter ESOs) to facilitate exiting and ‘rehabilitate’ on-street sex workers (s17). In relation to the latter we explore the findings of an empirical project which explored the effects of a ‘compulsory rehabilitation’ policy. In conclusion, we argue that this almost abolitionism – whilst reflecting the rhetoric of radical feminism and gender equality – results in a fundamentally responsibilizing, punitive and coercive response to commercial sexual activity. This, in turn, eschews alternative feminist conceptualisations of prostitution as sex work and excludes any recognition of the complex causal factors of both prostitution and trafficking.