Earlier this month, Her Majesty the Queen gave official honours to two people who have done more than most to hide the egregious violence experienced by women and girls trapped in the sex trade. A woman in her position should understand the impact of her actions, but many remain ignorant on this issue, so allow me to explain.
In making Catherine Healy, a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective — a group that lobbied New Zealand to decriminalize pimping, brothel-ownership, and buying sex in 2003 — a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and making Julie Bates — a founding member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in New South Wales — an officer of the Order of Australia, the Queen gives a cloak of legitimacy to the brutally exploitative sex trade.
I have first-hand experience in prostitution and am now part of SPACE International, a global group of sex trade survivors. We know that when New Zealand and New South Wales in Australia decriminalized not only those selling sex, but also pimps, brothel-owners, and buyers, they threw all women in prostitution under the bus.
These are two of only a few countries or states wherein all aspects of the system of prostitution have been decriminalized. Women who have lived prostitution before and after the law changed say they went from fearing the police to fearing the pimps. Under the previous law it was illegal for women to be in prostitution in public places and they were frequently targeted by the police. After 2003, women were no longer criminalized for selling sex, but the power of pimps was drastically increased.
In fully decriminalizing the sex trade, prostitution came to be viewed as work — a job like any other. As a result, the many (mainly) women who find themselves stuck in the industry are given no support when trying to exit, while the men who buy sexual access to their bodies are given a sense of entitlement to do whatever they please.
Thirty years ago, when I was arrested in the UK for prostitution, the police knew who my pimp was but chose not to arrest him. I ended up with a criminal record while he went free. This is very typical of the way men are treated in a society where buying sex and being in prostitution is normalized and seen as harmless, while victims of the system of prostitution are left to deal with the repercussions.
Unless we acknowledge the massive power imbalance in the system of prostitution, we will never be able to support women who have no other choice but to sell sex and who so desperately want to leave the trade. The men who buy sex have absolute power and privilege over those who are sold, who have no desire whatsoever to be there and are merely doing everything they can to stay alive.
In saying that it is okay for men to buy sex, their desire to exploit is made more important than a woman’s basic safety and human right to be free from torture and slavery. It is a despicable slap in the face of women who deserve to live better lives than this, and who should be given support. The fact that even the Queen does not seem to understand this is something that I and other sex trade survivors cannot accept.
I would like the Honours Forfeiture Committee to recommend rescinding these honours, bestowed on women who helped conceal the violence which I and so many other women and girls have experienced in prostitution. It is pivotal that the Queen understand how horrific life in prostitution is, how the journey stays with you, and how difficult it is to really ever truly leave the trade and recover.
So many women I know are left with permanent trauma to overcome — both physical and psychological. It can take a lifetime to heal. I am lucky that I have support around me, but there are so many who do not and who are unable to speak out.
If we really do care about women’s lives and human rights, the only approach to stand behind is the Abolitionist Model (also known as the Nordic or Equality Model). First instituted by Sweden in 1999, the model — which decriminalizes those who sell sex and criminalizes pimps, sex buyers, and brothel owners, offering services and supports to those who wish to exit the industry — has since been adopted by many other countries, including Northern Ireland (a territory the Queen has jurisdiction over), as well as neighbouring France and the Republic of Ireland. The abolitionist model is supported by sex trade survivors and feminist activists around the world, as it is the only approach that is based on the principle of gender equality, and which recognizes the fact that the system of prostitution is harmful and needs to be eliminated.
As a sex trade survivor, I have sadly gotten used to having to constantly fight to live what should be a normal life after the horror I was forced to survive as a child. But I cannot continue to let women in such privileged positions ignore or fail to understand the excruciating circumstances that women and girls in prostitution continue to wake up to every single day.
I encourage Her Majesty to look more closely at this issue and the reality of the sex trade. She is in a position to take an important stand on women’s rights around the world, and has clearly been led astray.
Fiona Broadfoot is a sex trade survivor, a member of SPACE International and the founder of the Build A Girl Project, Bradford, United Kingdom.