LONDON (Reuters) - Would the hundreds of men who paid to have sex with “Alicia” have cared if they knew she was being held captive by a trafficker who raped her and pimped her, and that she was infected with HIV?
“I don’t think they would have come back. If they really knew,” says the Rwandan woman, who was brought from Africa to a south London apartment and forced to have sex while her captor collected her earnings.
“But it’s not their concern at the end of the day: you’ve paid your money, and you got what you are paying for,” she told Reuters, asking that a pseudonym be used in place of her name for fear those who exploited her would track her down.
The rise of international sex trafficking is causing many countries to rethink their laws on prostitution and re-examine legal frameworks that for decades have treated the purchase of sex as a social nuisance or “victimless crime.”
Norway’s government proposed last week to fine or jail clients of prostitutes for up to six months in a bid to stamp out human trafficking, saying the rule would apply to its citizens in Norway and abroad.
British government research shows that during 2003 there were an estimated 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in Britain. The figures have risen at least threefold since 1998, according to Home Office figures.
The customers who paid for sex with Alicia broke no British law. Men can be prosecuted for “kerb crawling” for prostitutes, but paying for sex in a private apartment is not a crime. To prove rape, police would have to show that a customer knew Alicia was unwilling.
Fiona MacTaggart, a former government minister and member of parliament from the ruling Labour party, wants to change this.
“Men who pay for sex with a woman who has been trafficked are basically paying for rape,” said MacTaggart.
She is among a group of Labour MPs who would like to replace criminal penalties for street prostitutes with counseling programmes to get them out of the trade, and criminalize paying for sex.
Britain’s Home Office is studying laws in other countries as it carries out a short-term review to see what can be done to tackle the demand for prostitution.
The debate moved into high gear after the killing in late 2006 of five drug-addicted prostitutes around the town of Ipswich by a forklift truck driver, who was sentenced to life in prison in February.
MacTaggart’s proposals mark a radical shift from previous thinking. A few years ago, she was part of a Labour government that suggested it might move towards legalizing prostitution.
And despite losing an initial battle to get fines for street prostitution replaced with mandatory counseling in a draft law, MacTaggart says her war goes on.
“We don’t criminalize people who sell kidneys. We criminalize the buyer.”
Those who support efforts to penalize men for buying sex want to reduce prostitution by tackling demand rather than supply. If men knew more about the violence associated with the sex trade and faced more credible risk of punishment, they would be less tempted to pay for sex, the reasoning goes.
“In 15 years of interviewing prostitutes, I don’t think I have ever met one who didn’t at some point have a man’s hands around her throat or a knife pointed at her or was beaten or raped,” said Roger Matthews, criminology professor at London South Bank University and author of “Prostitution, Politics and Policy.”
Sweden set the trend in Europe by outlawing paying for sex in 1999. British Home Office officials have traveled to countries including Sweden to study the laws.
Across Europe, laws vary: In the Netherlands, famed for Amsterdam’s “red light” district, prostitution is legal and street prostitution is confined to managed zones, although the city wants to partially reverse full legalization introduced in 2000, because it has not achieved its aim of bringing the profession out of the shadows and protecting sex workers.
Denmark legalized prostitution in 1999; prostitution is legal in Germany on and off the street, but coercing prostitution is an offence. In France, like in Britain, prostitution is not illegal, but touting on a public highway and pimping are offences.
The trade thrives under a hotchpotch of restrictions that evolved over years: in Britain, brothels are illegal, but “saunas” and “massage parlors,” many of which are fronts for prostitution according to police, operate with licenses issued by local authorities.
British society has been tolerant of prostitution for so long it will take time to make men understand that the trade is harmful to women, Matthews said.
“The UK has a very long established tradition that paying for sex is OK, it’s a man’s right,” he said. But he said new research shows many men who visit prostitutes are not highly motivated, and could be dissuaded by penalties or education.
“They said it was like buying a curry at the grocery shop. The motivation is actually a lot lower than many people assume. They would buy sex if it was there -- if it’s not there, they would go do something else,” Matthews said.
“You could actually have this shift where people no longer think paying for sex is a legitimate activity.”
The fact that so many trafficked women are forced into prostitution has injected the debate with fresh urgency.
The United Nations says a revolution in affordable transport and instant communication has increased trafficking over the past decade, with the trade now worth an estimated $30 billion.
Some 85 percent of women found working in British brothels are estimated to be from outside Britain, a reversal from 10 years ago when 85 percent of them were British citizens.
There are women who argue that they deserve the right to sell sex, and that prosecuting their customers would only make the trade more dangerous.
Amanda Brooks, a Texan former call girl and author of “The Internet Escort’s Handbook,” is among these who oppose any attempts to criminalize her trade.
”I understand why feminists want to reduce demand. I‘m very sympathetic. I just think you need to be a little realistic. Even in the U.S. which has been heavily criminalizing both buying and selling sex, it’s still a thriving industry.
“There’s always going to be the demand. The question is how do you regulate it so it’s safest for everyone involved? I don’t think the best way is to criminalize consenting adults.”
There was no consent involved for Alicia. Free now after months of abuse, she is trying to come to terms with her experience.
“You always think: if I had been stronger, if I had talked out, if I had screamed to the outside world, maybe they would hear,” she says.
“My thoughts were I wanted to just kill myself. But now I‘m thinking it’s worth it to be alive.”