Epiphany begins with the removal of the ivy tiaras from pictures and mirrors. Nativity scenes that took days to set up are tenderly packed in bubblewrap and laid in their wooden wine crates-Cos d’Estournel, Léoville Barton-and returned to the attic.
I like the long liturgical hiatus that begins in January and lasts until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but I miss the snow-falls that deepened the peace. Now the first sign of Epiphany are the rooks who arrive on Twelfth Night and nosedive over the fields until, all at once, they occupy the highest branches of the beech trees, covering the bare limbs like a blackout curtain.
Which seems right, because the secular meaning of epiphany is a sudden intuitive leap of understanding. I brood on this as I drive to collect Sam from a day’s shooting with his friend Jack. Sons of farmers, they became friends at their prep school overlooking the River Orwell. Jack’s family’s farm is a few miles beyond the school, and from their fields, you can see across the river to the docks of Felixstowe. I know this journey by heart, but today each signpost has a new and haunting ring: Nacton, Copdock, Levington, the rural landscape where the bodies of five women were found before Christmas.
For days, the names of these villages and the five dead women were repeated on every news bulletin. Now a silence covers the fields and, like Christmas, the frenzy is over. The opinion pages for the legalisation of prostitution, the revelations of country girls (if the 400-acre Chantry council estate can be called countryside) getting hooked on drugs and turning to prostitution, even the linguistic battle of ‘prostitutes’ versus ‘sex workers’ have all receded. And that is a tragedy as well because what we need now is a real epiphany.
Harriet Harman is not my usual soul sister, but I heard her on Radio 4 rejecting the idea of protecting women by legalising prostitution. She cited the Netherlands, once held as the great liberal success, now closing its ‘tolerance zones’ because the links between the legal sex trade and organised crime are rife. ‘Women are no safer and demand increases,’ she said, calling instead for ‘Sweden’s solution to prostitution’.
In 1999, Sweden passed legislation that criminalised the buying of sex and decriminalised the selling of sex, a law based on the fundamental belief that prostitution is a form of male violence against women and the exploiters/buyers need to be punished, and the victims/prostitutes need to be helped. The impact has been staggering.
Sweden’s law enforcement has found that the legislation has benefited it in dealing with all sex crimes, enabling it to virtually wipe out the organised-crime element that plagues other countries. The number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex is nil. In Britain today, estimates range between a harrowing 6,000 and 20,000 a year, the majority from Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans.
Perhaps a government that stops seeing prostitution from a male point of view and looks at it from a female one is a wistful epiphany: the Swedish parliament that passed the legislation was nearly 50% women. It’s no good saying that prostitution is the oldest profession. Slavery was an ancient institution, but a century ago it was abolished.
I don’t believe in the myth of the happy hooker, but I believe in the power of epiphany. I’d like to think that the legacy of the women who died in Suffolk would bring the Swedish solution to Britain.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 11 January, 2006.