Sexual Exploitation Bill: Speech by Dame Diana Johnson MP

First reading: Wednesday 9 December 2020

[Check against delivery]

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to criminalise paying for sex; to decriminalise selling sex; to create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation; to make associated provision about sexual exploitation online; to make provision for support services for victims of sexual exploitation; and for connected purposes.

This is a Bill to bust the business model of sex trafficking.

Today, the UK is a high value, low-risk destination for sex traffickers.


Because our law is failing on two critical fronts: first, it fails to discourage the very thing that drives trafficking for sexual exploitation – demand; and second, it allows ruthless individuals to facilitate and profit from sexual exploitation.

What does that mean in practice? It means that the minority of men in England and Wales who pay for sex do so with impunity, fuelling a brutal sex trafficking trade and causing untold harm to victims; and it means profit-making pimping websites operate free from criminal sanction, helping sex traffickers to quickly and easily advertise their victims to sex buyers across the country – and reaping enormous profits from doing so.

To end sex trafficking, we have to dismantle the business model – by combatting demand for sexual exploitation and stopping the ruthless individuals who facilitate it. This bill would do just that.

Right now, there is a sexual exploitation scandal playing out in towns and cities across the UK. An inquiry by the predecessor of the APPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, which I chair, found that the UK sex trade is dominated by organised crime, with sex trafficking taking place on an industrial scale. Vulnerable women are moved around networks of brothels and hotel rooms to be raped and abused by men who pay for sex.

The trauma and suffering inflicted on victims of this abhorrent trade is truly horrific. One woman who was trafficked by an organised crime group and abused by men in the UK recalls:

“To begin with [the offenders] were my friends but, as soon as we came to England, they started to physically abuse me. He beat me many times because I was not earning him enough money. … Even though the clients did not physically abuse me I felt abused because I was forced to have sex with them even when I did not want to do so. Sometimes that was painful. After a while, I felt disgusted by what I was doing and I wanted to stop but [he] wanted more money and he forced me to continue. I was scared because he kept threatening me that he was going to hurt my mother.”

Who are the women being subjected to this horrific abuse? Research by the APPG shows that it is predominantly vulnerable, non-UK national women being abused in brothels across Britain, and a significant proportion of them come from one particular country: Romania.

Over the period of two years, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women – 86% of whom were from Romania. Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels over two years, and of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75% were Romanian.

What motivates traffickers and pimps to inflict such grotesque levels of abuse?

The answer is simple: money.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is estimated to be the most profitable form of modern slavery there is. Take, for example, a British man who was convicted in 2017 for trafficking and sexually exploiting vulnerable women. He was reported to have made £1.6 million in a single year from his brothels.

Sex trafficking is profit-driven. The crucial question to ask, though, is where do those profits come from? The answer is sex buyers.  Only 3.6% of men in the UK have paid for sex in the past five years, but it is demand from this minority of men that drives the supply of vulnerable women into brothels in Britain. It is these men who commit the thousands upon thousands of rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against victims of trafficking every year in this country.

Here’s what one sex buyer wrote on a website dedicated to men’s reviews of women they have paid for sex:

“Very pretty and young girl. …If you want to try a fresh, young (says she is 18) and pretty girl is ok, but maybe as she just started to work, is quite passive, scarcely kiss without tongue, doesn’t want to be kissed on the neck or ears, can’t do a decent blowjob and really rides badly on you, … She really can’t speak a wor[d] of english (is Romanian) so even [girlfriend experience] is a zero.”

He paid £70 to do that.

Here’s another review by a sex buyer:

“This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’. …She’s Polish, and her English is not good… I was reminded of the Smiths’ song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’… All the while she seemed completely disinterested and mechanical… I finally decided to fuck her, in mish. …All the while, she kept her face turned to one side.”

That man paid £100 to do that to her.

Any would-be trafficker wanting to get their hands on sex buyers’ money also receives a very special helping hand in the UK – from pimping websites where they can advertise victims to sex buyers; websites which are currently completely legal.

The ‘advertiser’ simply fills out an online form and pays either to publish the advert or to boost its prominence on the website. Sex buyers, meanwhile, can browse the website for free – searching an online catalogue of women, with adverts displaying how much she will cost, what sex acts he can select, where she is based and when she is available. The sex buyer, remaining completely anonymous, simply calls the mobile number provided in the advert to ‘place his order’.

A few highly lucrative pimping websites dominate this online market, centralising and concentrating the UK’s customer base for traffickers. This ready-made, instantly accessible online space to connect with sex buyers across the country substantially lowers the bar of entry into the practice of profiting from sexual exploitation. It makes the whole business of sex trafficking easier, quicker, more efficient.

One police force reported to the APPG that a trafficker they caught had spent £25,000 advertising his victims on a pimping website. Alert to this man spending large sums of money placing prostitution adverts, the website company in question responded not by calling the police, but by giving the man his own account manager.

Sex trafficking is too easy and too profitable in this country. To stop vulnerable women being raped and abused for profit, we must dismantle the business model of this horrific trade. That will require two key measures:

One: prevent the demand driving sex trafficking by criminalising paying for sex.

Two: stop website companies and other third-parties aiding and profiting from this appalling crime by making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person.

We must also stop the appalling practice of victims of sexual exploitation being punished for abuse committed against them by being prosecuted for soliciting. That offence should be removed from the statute books, and instead we must establish a well-resourced, comprehensive network of support and exiting services for people who are, or have been, sexually exploited.

These measures would shift the burden of criminality off women who are exploited in the sex trade and place it where it belongs: on those who perpetrate and profit from this abuse.

This demand reduction approach is already in place in countries including France, Sweden, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Iceland and Norway. And it works.

An official evaluation of Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act reported: “According to the Swedish Police, it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers who are considering establishing themselves in Sweden.”                     

As Dr Monica O’Connor of the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme states: “simply allowing the prostitution industry to grow, increases the flow of trafficked people to that jurisdiction; conversely, addressing demand and reducing the size of the market for prostitution-related activities is an effective anti-trafficking measure”.

It’s why the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol stipulates: “State Parties shall adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures … to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.”

There are some who don’t want to reduce demand for sexual exploitation, and myths and misinformation are spread about efforts to achieve this. So let me be absolute clear: sexual exploitation is not a solution to poverty. Our continued tolerance of this harmful trade puts vulnerable women and girls at ongoing risk from traffickers and pimps who seek to profit from it. And suggestions that criminalising paying for sex will only serve to drive sexual exploitation ‘underground’ fundamentally misunderstand the nature of this trade. Sex buyers need to locate women to sexually exploit. And if sex buyers can find the women, then so can the police and support services. As an analysis published by the European Commission points out: “Sex markets are reliant, by definition, on buyers finding spaces and places where it is possible to pay for sex. In this sense, the underground argument has a logical fallacy at its heart since some level of visibility is required.”

The absolute necessity of deterring demand is why, at a recent international summit organised by UK Feminista to confront the rampant sexual exploitation of Romanian women by men in the UK, the President of the Romanian Women’s Lobby, Laura Albu, told me and all those gathered:

“The solution is simple: end demand in the UK. …The UK can end demand and prosecute buyers of sex and close this so-called market.”

We must heed her call.

We have the power to bust the business model of sex trafficking. That is what my bill would do and the Government would do well to adopt it.