The U.K. government proposed new laws Wednesday that would make it a crime, potentially rape, to pay for sex with a woman who is trafficked or under the control of a pimp or drug dealer. There's one crucial detail, though: Ignorance of coercive circumstances would not be considered a valid defense. The measures are meant to instill fear into all johns and creates an ever-present risk of being convicted as a rapist for buying sex, even when the exchange appears to be consensual. This move is no surprise considering Britain's earlier ad campaign with the same message: "Walk in a punter. Walk out a rapist."
Under current laws in England and Wales, the purchase of sex is not criminalized, but brothels and activities associated with prostitution, including public solicitation and persistent kerb-crawling, are outlawed. Many opponents argue that the new measures effectively outlaw the purchase of sex altogether. After all, no matter how free-willed a sex worker may seem, can a john know beyond any doubt that she isn't trafficked, coerced, under a pimp's control or selling her body to pay her drug dealer? The new laws could also criminalize men who visit women who voluntarily work for a brothel owner.
As always, I have to return to the fact that criminalizing johns often puts prostitutes at greater risk -- they have less time to vet customers and negotiate safe sex, and are forced underground. An editorial in the Independent argues that these measures would have the same effect: "They will be tempted to ply their trade in more secluded areas, to travel further from their homes and colleagues. The effect will be to help push the trade ... out of the sight of the authorities." Cari Mitchell, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told CNN: "It's going to really make it more difficult for men to use the sex industry, and it's going to mean that women are going to have to take more risks in order to earn the same money."