Only 200 years ago you could go out and buy a slave. Legally. Wilberforce led the famous and, we often forget, unpopular battle against this ‘right’ of one man to own another; and today an MP proposing to reintroduce slavery would be labelled an evil lunatic by everyone.
Yet the fact remains that there are more slaves today than in the entire 350 year
history of the slave trade, an estimated 27 million worldwide. According to the
APPG for Human Trafficking, there are over 10,000 slaves in our own country, a
tenth of which are children. Earlier this year the nation stood horrified as Operation
Bullfinch uncovered a sex gang which had trafficked 50 girls, aged as young as
11, over eight years in leafy Oxfordshire. Slavery in Britain is not dead; but has reemerged
in a new form.
Today’s slavery is an illegal trafficking of men, women and children by organised
criminals. Individuals are tempted or forced away from their rural, impoverished
homes in places like Eastern Europe, with false promises of money and a future.
Studies have found that in countries like Thailand it is not even unusual for
desperate families to sell their own child to a trafficker. Britain is a major trafficking
destination. Upon arrival victims are ‘broken’: beaten, raped and terrorised until
they are physically, emotionally and spiritually scarred. Unless they escape, the
rest of their lives will be a living nightmare of drunken clients, violence, starvation
As the UK is a trafficking destination, it is our demand for trafficked people which
keeps the industry alive. The vast majority of those trafficked into the UK end up
selling their bodies for sex, an industry which employs 8000 women in London
alone, 80% of whom are foreigners. We cannot take trafficking seriously without
taking prostitution seriously; today’s abolitionism must challenge the sex industry.
To crack down on slavery, the Swedish government made the purchase, but not
sale, of sex illegal. This meant victims of violence or trafficking would not be
penalised for coming forward to the police. Since most buyers of sex do not wish
to break the law, demand fell by 50% and the industry has suffered severely.
Evidence shows that traffickers will not operate in Sweden today simply because
there is no market.
The Swedish government understands prostitution as a “major cause of violence
against women”, and therefore bans the purchase of sex on progressive, feminist
grounds. There is ongoing debate among feminists as to whether or not
prostitution is good for women; some women do find it empowering. But the
question is whether the risk of keeping women in slavery is a price worth paying to
protect those who feel empowered. It would be wrong to dismiss this tension: a
belief in the freedom to sell sex is, after all, the reason why prostitution is legal.
However, there is strong evidence that the harm to sex workers caused by the
industry is much greater, and more important, than debatable notions of
empowerment. Research has found that half of UK prostitutes were drawn into the
industry as groomed children, and a shocking 45% suffered sexual abuse during
childhood. According to Care, a Christian charity, it is “usually women’s lack of
choice that forces them to ‘choose’ prostitution.” Buying sex is not a human right,
but being free from slavery most certainly is.
Our prostitution law needs to be changed because of the reality of slavery today.
Of course such a reform will not solve everything - there is much more that needs
to be done to change society’s attitude towards women, promote economic
development in countries from which victims are trafficked, and crack down on
traffickers through operations like Bullfinch. Jobs and training must also be
provided for those who would be made redundant by such a law; we cannot take
away people’s source of income unless we have real alternatives for them.
Charities like Beyond the Streets do invaluable work to provide genuine
alternatives for women who have come off the streets. Similarly, any government
action would have to consider the after-effects for thousands employed in the sex
work. However, legal reform is most certainly needed, and Sweden’s progressive
laws offer a good model to follow.
Human trafficking should matter to the church. What motivated William Wilberforce
and the rest of the Clapham Sect was their Christianity. A Christianity which, they
believed, promised freedom; not just spiritual emancipation from guilt and sin, but
freedom for the here and now – “life and life to the full”. The belief that all people
are made in God’s image and loved in his sight is the same motivation for
numerous Christian NGOs like IJM, Care and Hope for Justice who are devote to
helping victims of trafficking today.
“The distinguishing sign of slavery,” said John Ruskin, “is to have a price, and to
be bought for it.” Prostitution puts a price on a woman’s body, and is the driving
factor behind the continued slavery of millions. If we are serious about the
wrongness of slavery, we need to get serious about prostitution; the fact is that the
two are inextricably linked. No one is defending slavery anymore; the opposition is
nothing like that which Wilberforce faced. The church must find its abolitionist's
David Lawrence is a student studying PPE, and is currently an intern at Theos.
Image by Benjamin Haydon available in the public domain