For our May meeting we had Jean Johnson speak to us about her work campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution in the UK.
Jean has been a member of the WI for 35 years, and has been president of her local WI group as well as now being a member of the Hampshire Country Federation Committee.
Under existing UK law, prostitution is not illegal – however, soliciting, curb crawling, operating a brother and pimping are all illegal. While it is difficult to know exactly how many prostitutes there are in the UK, some figures suggest there could be as many as 100,000. Due to the nature of their work, prostitutes are often subject to violence against which they have no protection.
It was after the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, that Jean became convinced of the need to help protect working girls. The WI is a powerful campaigning force, and she knew she would need them on-board to help raise awareness of the issue.
While she was not always met with full support and understanding, Jean found support in another Hampshire WI lady, Shirley Landels, who seconded Jeans proposal and enabled them to put forward a resolution on improving working conditions for prostitutes to the Hampshire County Federation in 2007. Later that year, after discussion at the annual meeting, the Hampshire Federation voted to accept Jean’s resolution.
We urge local authorities to provide safe working conditions for working girls for the health and safety of the girls
The campaign generated a lot of media interest and was featured in national newspapers, including The Sun and The Telegraph. Jean found herself doing many radio interviews and was asked to do a television documentary.
The documentary, A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels was shown on Channel 4 and is still available on 4oD. The programme saw Jean, and her campaign partner Shirley Landels, take on a world tour of brothels to seek out the ‘best’ way of operating and ensuring the safety of prostitutes.
The ladies visited Amsterdam to see the red light district and infamous windows, a ‘bunny ranch’ in Nevada and owner-operated brothels in New Zealand, where prostitution has been completely decriminalised. While they saw some positives in Amsterdam and Nevada, including health checks, clean facilities and more power for the women to refuse clients, it seems that they were most impressed by the New Zealand system. In New Zealand they met ladies who operated and worked in their own brothels. They had employment contracts, could set their own working hours, had control over their own earnings and worked to look after one another, and all within the law.
Jean is a thoroughly engaging speaker and great fun to listen to, especially given the unusual nature of her anecdotes; from curb crawling in Southampton, sitting in a brothel window in Amsterdam and setting up a ‘mobile’ WI brothel in leafy Hampshire.
She is clearly very passionate about her campaign, despite some of the opposition she has faced even from within the ranks of the WI.
Prostitution is a sensitive issue and not one which many people are comfortable talking about. However, this is exactly the sort of attitude that Jean is hoping to change. “Stop pretending it doesn’t happen” she says. More than any changes to the law, she is hoping for a change in the way we think about prostitutes, sex and sex workers – the industry does exist and it is its underground nature that contributes to the dangers. Decriminalisation, as opposed to legalisation, would aim to increase the profile of sex workers to encourage greater support for their needs, particularly from the Police.
While there are many other issues that need to be addressed, including how we handle and support victims of rape and violent assault, Jeans campaign to raise awareness of prostitutes and their needs is definitely a positive step.
Jean’s talk was very much based on her own experiences in her investigations and campaigning, but there is more academic literature available on the subject. I hope to find some time soon to share some of these sources with those of you that are interested.
Many Thanks to Jean for speaking to us and for all of you who attended. We hope you found the evening interesting and thought-provoking. If you missed the evening, I really do encourage you to watch the Channel 4 programme.
Don’t forget, we are still planning on heading to the New Forest Show in July and our June meeting will be a cheese and wine evening, but is for members only. Do get in touch if you have any questions – either comment on the blog, our Facebook, our twitter or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org